Almost every day, Nadia Matar, 48, steers her battered white SUV along the hilly roads between Jerusalem and Gush Etzion to visit the soldiers stationed at Shdema.
The revival of the small former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) army base located on Israeli-controlled land is one of the concrete achievements of Nadia and Yehudit Katsover, 66, her co-chair in the activist Women in Green movement. But Shdema is just the tip of the iceberg in what the women hope to achieve in the larger battle to shift public opinion away from the two-state solution and to gain acceptance for the idea of declaring Israeli sovereignty over Judea, Samaria, and the Jordan Valley.
“It’s like a huge ship that has to turn around,” Nadia explains. “It’s slow and takes tremendous effort to steer it in the right direction.”
Most recently, Women in Green’s activists have garnered attention for their efforts to set up a new settlement in Gush Etzion called Givat Oz Ve’Gaon—a name that symbolically includes the first letters of the first names of the three murdered Jewish teens, Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach.
For the two European-born women with decades of Jewish activist experience between them, the current campaign is a commitment that consumes their lives.
Scrambling over the barricade at the entrance to Shdema to deliver snacks and a friendly word to the soldiers, Nadia admits that she’s functioning on three to four hours sleep per night.
Pointing out the strategic position of the small outpost, with the outskirts of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour almost within touching distance on one side and the Jewish communities of eastern Gush Etzion on the other, the mother of six (ages 11-25) describes how years of concerted effort, beginning in 2008, prevented Shdema from being taken over by illegal Arab building.
“It’s a small presence, but a big victory,” Nadia asserts about the IDF’s decision to maintain a presence at Shdema. Every Friday, Women in Green holds well-attended lectures and community activities in a remodeled community center at the site. “We realized we had to act to restore the Jewish presence to the area,” she says.
Establishing facts on the ground is a key pillar of Nadia and Yehudit’s activist philosophy. “Petitions don’t work: you have to be on the ground and then get political and public support,” Nadia emphasizes. “Just like at Beit Hadassah,” she adds.
Yehudit Katsover, Women in Green co-chair, cut her activist teeth at Beit Hadassah in Hebron in 1979 as one of a group of 13 women and 40 children (two of whom were Yehudit’s sons) from nearby Kiryat Arba who snuck through a back window of the abandoned building to re-establish a presence in the ancient Jewish city.
Recognizing that the women were not going to budge despite enduring the primitive conditions for almost a year—“the rats were bigger than cats; lots of people got sick,” Yehudit recalls—Menachem Begin’s government lifted the siege of the building in 1980 and agreed to repair and extend the structure and allow families to reunite and move in. That action paved the way for the modern resettlement of Hebron.
“We learned tactics there; how to deal with the prime minister, but most of all, from Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the leader of the return to Hebron, we learned to stay focused, to be tough and to concentrate on the goal,” Yehudit says.
Subsequently, Yehudit and her family moved to nearby Kiryat Arba, where she played many roles in the development of the community that is home to a diverse population of observant and secular Israelis—immigrants and native-born. As an ulpan teacher during the period of the major aliyah from the former Soviet Union, Yehudit says she saw the redemption in her classes filled with immigrants. “Part of what we taught was a love of the land,” she affirms.
Both Yehudit and Nadia are themselves immigrants to Israel. Nadia grew up in a non-religious family with a strong Jewish identity in Antwerp, Belgium, while Yehudit was born and raised in Transylvania to parents who survived the Holocaust. Nadia arrived in Israel alone as an 18-year-old in 1984 to attend a Jewish leadership program. In Europe, she had been a leader in the Yavneh Olami student movement. Yehudit immigrated to Israel with her parents as a 12-year-old in 1960, after her mother who survived Auschwitz, returned to Hungary after the war.
Today, both women work as volunteers heading up the Women in Green, which started out as a grassroots movement founded by Nadia’s mother-in-law, Ruth Matar, to protest the Oslo Accords in 1993. Nadia was a highly visible leader of many public protests, and moved her family to Shirat Hayam in Gush Katif prior to Israel’s 2005 unilateral pullout from Gaza.
Now known as Women in Green and the Forum for Sovereignty, Nadia and Yehudit are the public face of a movement that has graduated from street theater and loud protests to a sophisticated and focused effort to promote an alternative political vision.
A series of well-organized public Sovereignty Conferences as well as a serious political journal named Sovereignty have both featured influential Israelis and legal scholars. Writers and speakers have included former Israeli Ambassador to Canada Alan Baker, a prominent scholar of international law; Minister of Housing Uri Ariel; Middle East analyst Dr. Guy Bechor of the IDC Herzliya college; and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
“The more the people press for sovereignty, the more politicians will take action,” Nadia and Yehudit emphasize.
While political change requires long-term vision and steadfast commitment, Nadia and Yehudit and the Women in Green have not forgotten the day-to-day necessity to be watching out for the land itself.
Whether at Shdema or in Netzer, an area of Israeli state land in Gush Etzion where Arabs have been illegally working the fields and destroying trees planted by Jews, Nadia and Yehudit are on the front lines, calling up Israelis with tractors to come and help and organizing groups of local youths to replant, as well as pushing the authorities to formally take over the land.
“Five years ago, sovereignty wasn’t on the agenda,” Nadia says.
But today it’s an approach that’s widely debated, and respected Israeli leaders are considering its merits. For instance, Amos Yadlin—former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate—recently told JNS.org, “If an agreement [with the Palestinians] is unachievable, then moving independently to shape the borders of Israel is the better course. While it is not the [ideal] alternative, it is better than the status quo or a bad agreement.”
Yehudit says with a smile, “We’re optimistic: we’re looking ahead.”