To combat boycott, settlers court Europeans with pioneer spirit and merchandise

While Israeli public diplomacy generally shies away from the issue of settlements, Lev Haolam brings them to forefront

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Nati Rom, chairman of Lev Haolam foundation, guides a group European Christians during a tour of the Israeli outpost of Esh Kodesh in the West Bank on November 10, 2015. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Nati Rom, chairman of Lev Haolam foundation, guides a group European Christians during a tour of the Israeli outpost of Esh Kodesh in the West Bank on November 10, 2015. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

ESH KODESH, West Bank — The sight of a bus full of Norwegian tourists bouncing down a dirt path deep in the West Bank is rare. Even more strange, as Nati Rom pointed out as the group piled into his living room Sunday morning, was the fact that they were “guided there by the BDS movement.”

He meant that with the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign zeroing in on the  settlement movement, his organization Lev Haolam (“Heart of the World”) has been doubling down to support Jewish communities beyond the Green Line.

Since Rom founded it in 2013, the group has sent thousands of packages around the world filled with honey from Hebron, olive oil from Beit Haggai, chocolate from Atarot and wine from Har Bracha.

“We are selling Judea and Samaria to people through food, and connecting Israel’s supporters with its pioneers” — the settlers — Rom gushed, using the biblical name for the West Bank.

While many hasbara (Israeli public diplomacy) groups shy away from defending or even raising the issue of Israeli settlements, which are deemed illegal by much of the international community, Lev Haolam has put them front and center.

A group of Norwegian pro-Israel activists listens to a presentation in the home of Lev Haolam founder and chairman Nati Rom in the West Bank outpost of Esh Kodesh on February 18, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The group of conservative Christians from Norway, a country often associated in Israel with acerbic criticism of the Jewish state, were nodding their heads in agreement and murmuring approval throughout Rom’s 30-minute presentation.

The Norwegians — coming from a variety of professional backgrounds, including politics, academia, law and medicine — admitted their views on Israel put them in the minority in their country. However, they proudly declared that their dedication made up for their small numbers.

For his part, Rom told the story of Israel — beginning well before the birth of the settlement movement — making a point of highlighting the qualities of the early Zionists that he said were also manifested by the West Bank’s first Jewish residents after the 1967 war.

“They too had to build communities in the dead of night, sometimes against the law,” he said of pre-state Zionists in a description that could apply as well to the founders of communities such as his own — Esh Kodesh in the northern West Bank — which are still unrecognized by the Israeli government.

Rom went on to show a number of pictures of himself during his post-army days, building homes in the hills of Shiloh as a member of the “hilltop youth,” a loose band of far-right activists who settle on hilltops and have been known to resist — some of them violently — soldiers’ attempts to evacuate them.

But any controversy regarding his past seemed lost on the visitors, who continued to nod their heads at the young father of six.

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Digressing from the West Bank for a moment, Rom turned his attention to an issue he likely knew his practicing Christian visitors would connect to: the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The Lev Haolam founder showed footage of Israelis being arrested after praying at the holy site in violation of the “status quo” there. The living room filled with gasps of disbelief.

“If someone tells you that there are human rights violations in Israel, tell them, ‘You are right. Against Jews!'” he asserted.

“They understand that it is not a political war but a spiritual one, so they concentrate their efforts on Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria,” Rom added, referring to Israel’s enemies in general terms. A few members of the audience chanted “Yes” rapturously, in a manner reminiscent of a participatory church service.

“If you believe in the two-state solution, you must be stupid,” Rom continued, and the Norwegians began to chuckle.

Lev Haolam founder and chairman Nati Rom gives a presentation about his organization in his home in the West Bank outpost of Esh Kodesh on February 18, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

He clicked to a 1994 photo of the late Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat holding a Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded along with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and foreign minister Shimon Peres for their participation in the Oslo Accords.

“The so-called peace process that your government gave us has only forced us to give our land to terrorists piece by piece,” Rom said.

While on the topic of Norway’s connections to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he took the opportunity to blast the BDS movement’s recent nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, whose winner is to be crowned later this year in Oslo.

Most of the visitors were unaware of the nomination, and several pointed out that it was one of hundreds that can be proposed by a host of individuals, including parliamentarians from any country and university professors.

Some of the products made in Israeli settlements that Lev Haolam sells to supporters around the world. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel

Rom ended the presentation by appealing to his guests to “support the new kind of Jew, one who knows how to do agriculture, build and keep the Torah commandments.”

He held up various products being manufactured by those “new Jews” in the West Bank. But before giving the eager group time to purchase the local goods, Rom opened the floor up to questions.

The first came from a concerned supporter, who retold a speech he heard from Israel’s ambassador to Norway, in which the envoy had said that Israel’s Jewish majority is currently threatened by a growing Arab population.

Rom dismissed the claim as “a big lie,” citing his own research refuting it.

A settler’s house in the outpost of Esh Kodesh in the West Bank, on July 20, 2015. (Photo by Garrett Mills/Flash 90)

Careful to circle the conversation back to a topic of consensus with his religious visitors, Rom closed by again highlighting the Jewish people’s connection to the Holy Land, something that the religious crowd had no problem applauding.

“That was a wonderful presentation,” said Yngve Bergstrom, a retired statistician, who was on his sixth trip to Israel. “I’m looking forward to being able to bring the information we learned to my community back home so we can combat all of the lies we are hearing in the media.”

The group’s leader, Erik Selle, heaped similar praise on Rom, saying it was his responsibility as a Christian to support Lev Haolam.

Pressed on his decision to visit a community that even the Israeli government has refused to authorize, Selle referenced an article by the pro-Israel celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz, “who argued that it’s not illegal for Jews to live in Judea and Samaria.”

The 51-year-old Selle is the leader of Norway’s PKD party, a marginal conservative Christian faction known for its ardent support or Israel. Several other members of the visiting group also said they were PKD members.

“Jewish presence here is one of the strongest proponents for peace,” he said. “How could anyone believe that expelling Jews could lead to peace?”

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