Judith Newman
May 02, 1994 12:00 PM

The Landaus stay on in the unshakable belief that God wants them to

Like any woman leaving her house for work each day, Sorra Landau, 43, checks her purse to make sure she’s not forgetting anything: keys, small change, wallet—automatic pistol. “I used to carry a submachine gun,” says the mother of eight cheerfully. “But it got to be too heavy carrying an Uzi, a baby and a purse.”

She climbs into the family’s Citroën, which her husband, David, recently outfitted with a metal grille over the windshield as protection against rock throwers on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River, where the Landaus moved from New York City 17 years ago. In 1983, Sorra was hit by a stone as she sat on a bus nursing her infant son. Binyamin. Though bloodied and covered with broken glass, she wasn’t seriously injured, and the baby was unhurt. Still, she doesn’t want to be hit again—and the danger of that has risen sharply in recent months as militant obstructionists on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict use violence to undermine an embryonic peace accord.

To get to her job as a nurse in Jerusalem, Sorra has to drive nearly 25 miles through the West Bank from her home in Kiryat Arba, a pleasant middle-class settlement of 6,000 Jews that sprang up 23 years ago next to the largely Arab city of Hebron (pop. 100,000). The Landaus are among 120,000 Jews who have settled on the West Bank since it was captured by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967. Nearly a million Arabs also live there, resentful of Israel’s prolonged, often harsh, military occupation, worried that they will lose their land to Zionist settlers like the Landaus.

On this day Sorra is stopped by smoking tires strewn across the road, a sign that Palestinians may be lying in wait with stones—or worse, guns. Just two months ago, Sorra was driving in Hebron with her youngest child when gunfire from a passing car opened on an Israeli van ahead of her, killing a resident of Kiryat Arba and his son. A month later David Landau happened upon a friend who had just been shot and seriously wounded in his car.

Sorra grabs the walkie-talkie in her car and radios an Israeli army unit in Hebron. The dispatcher tells her to wait until other Jewish motorists arrive so they can drive past the burning tires together in a convoy. She does, and proceeds to her job at Shaarei Zedek Hospital without incident. “I arrive at work visibly shaken pretty much every day,” she says. “You have to have a very deep-rooted belief in what you’re doing.”

David and Sorra believe they have a religious duty to reclaim the West Bank for Jews, a credo less fervent Jews in Israel do not share. The Landaus, like other religious nationalists, argue that the Old Testament establishes the West Bank—biblical Judea and Samaria—as historically Jewish. “I’m not saying I’m enjoying every minute living in Kiryat Arba or that I always want to keep going,” Sorra says. “But I will keep on going because I have an obligation to do this. I believe I’m obliged to live in the land of Israel.”

When Sorra and David, also 43, first moved to Kiryat Arba (a biblical name for Hebron), there were only 250 other Jewish families—and few day-to-day conflicts with Arabs. “I didn’t yet have a car,” says David, “and I’d walk to Hebron without a gun. I’d explore all the alleys. Coming from New York, I was intrigued by the place.”

Then in 1987, Palestinians rebelled against continued Israeli occupation. They were losing land to the settlers and their already limited freedom to the military. Citing security reasons, the army began blowing up homes, seizing property, imposing curfews, restricting travel, limiting exports and denying due process of law. Since the Palestinians were forbidden weapons by the Israelis—though the settlers were not—they used rocks in their ongoing battle, which became known as the Intifada. Last year the warring parties took a major step toward ending the conflict. But the PLO-Israeli accord signed in Washington last September has stiffened positions on the West Bank as hard-liners on both sides resort to violence to undermine any chance of compromise.

On Feb. 25, a neighbor of the Landaus, Brooklyn-born Dr. Baruch Goldstein, shot down 29 Palestinians praying in the Tomb of the Patriarchs mosque in Hebron, setting off a cycle of violence that has so far left dozens of Israelis and Palestinians dead or wounded. “There will be no peace if settlers stay as they are now, with their arms,” says Anees Barghouti, director of the Palestine Affairs Center in Washington. “If they want to stay, we feel they should be able to—-after all, there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Israel. But they will have to abide by Palestinian law.”

Given the near-certainty of further bloodshed, Sorra occasionally wonders if what her family is doing is rational. “I sometimes ask, ‘what am I doing here?’ ” admits Sorra. The answer, she says, is rooted in her religious fervor. “We’re all paying a price. But we’re also reaping benefits. Our children’s sense of identity, their sense of self, is firmly rooted. They’ll never have to go to group therapy. They’re proud Jews, and they have their own country.” The children, she adds, have adjusted to the danger. “They have such a fine instinctive grasp of the situation,” she says. “They’re not traumatized by it. They know we’re living in a special time.”

David, who is listening, chimes in: “They know their ancestors are buried just down the road.” Adds Sorra, with a mordant laugh: “And some of their contemporaries too.”

Sorra and David say they always knew they wanted to live in Israel. In her largely Jewish neighborhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Sorra, the daughter of a CPA and a homemaker, rarely felt affected by anti-Semitism. But David, who was bullied by non-Jews at school in Queens, did. Later, while he was attending religious school and then studying public relations at New York University, life in Israel—and the idea of Jews rebuilding their land—seemed idyllic to him. “T was so impressed by kibbutzim,” David recalls. “I would wake up every Sunday at 7 a.m. to watch ‘Modern Farming” on TV’ so when I went to Israel I would be able to tell them what machinery to use.”

The couple met in their early teens at a Pennsylvania summer camp run by the Zionist youth movement. In 1969, at 18, they married, and by 1977 they had three children (Orah, now 23, Tzipi, 20, Rami, 18) and were ready to emigrate. But David had to forgo life on a kibbutz when the Landaus rejected the notion of having children raised apart from their families in communal children’s houses. “All my dreams about farming went down the drain,” says David. Since then they have had five more children: Calev, 15, Binyamin, 12, twin girls Bat-El and Ashira, 10, and Rinat, 6.

To make a living, David first tried his hand at public relations, promoting Israeli products abroad. When this failed, he started his own chicken-cleaning business, a convenience for Orthodox Jews who, by religious law, cannot pluck chickens the easy way by first immersing them in boiling water. “I began producing what in Israel is a novelty product—a chicken with virtually no hair or feathers,” he says. “My customers are American immigrants who are willing to pay a little bit more for clean chickens.”

Business has been so good that the Landaus have been able to buy two four-room apartments and convert them into a cozy, well-furnished duplex. Religious scenes from a local artist adorn the dining-room walls. Bookcases groan under the weight of encyclopedias and Talmuds and other religious works. Now that his business is thriving, David spends every day until lunchtime studying Talmud. “I decided to let God run the business until 3 in the afternoon,” he says. “Torah is not a pastime.”

David employs four workers, one of whom is a Palestinian—not uncommon in Kiryat Arba. Less common is socializing between the two groups. When a former Arab employee got married several years ago, David and Sorra were invited to the wedding. “Some of our friends said, ‘How can you go? They’re our enemies,’ ” says David. “We went to our rabbi to ask him. He told us to give them the respect due every human being and go.”

It is a lesson not lost on the Landaus—or on their children—and it causes a certain confusion. Their youngest daughter, Rinat, for example, has been in the car with her parents during two shooting incidents. “Daddy taught us what to do,” she says. “He says, ‘Hit the floor!’ and we lie down.” The little girl adds that she is afraid of Arabs. “They kill,” she says simply.

“Are you frightened of Hussein?” asks her father gently, referring to a current Palestinian employee.

Rinat shakes her head. “I like him.” In fact, Hussein Jaabari is the only Arab Rinat knows.

But ideology and human experience are often at odds in Kiryat Arba. “My mother brought us up to respect people as people,” says Sorra. “My car mechanic is an Israeli Arab. He’s a very fine person. I have a lot of Arab patients. They’re not threatening me. I take care of them like anybody else.”

David interjects: “For 27 years they’ve been murdering us. We walk around with guns not because we’re militant but because we’re afraid of being killed.”

Yet the Landaus were friends with the killer Baruch Goldstein, and they do not condemn his murderous outburst. “We can’t judge him and we can’t justify him,” says Sorra. “I think he was driven by a power from above.” Her husband is more vehement, arguing that Goldstein’s act was a preemptive strike against a rumored Palestinian attack. “If he saved us from an onslaught on Jewish lives, then he has done us a great service.”

One fear in Kiryat Arba is that, as part of the arduous, step-by-step progress toward Arab self-rule in the West Bank, the Israeli government may try to forcibly remove the settlements. Some hard-line settlers contend that they would kill themselves or resist the military by force of arms. The Landaus favor passive resistance. “I’m not naive,” says Sorra. “I’m not going to say the army can’t do it. They took down Yamit [a Sinai settlement bulldozed by Israel in 1982 as part of the peace accord with Egypt]. But I believe this is the city of our fathers, the foundation of Judaism, and I pray to God they don’t do it here. The bottom line is faith.”



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