"THIS IS my sports center. I'm going to put up a wall here and cement all over the ground there," my old classmate Seth was saying that chilly winter afternoon on the dusty expanse of his front lawn.
"It'll be a basketball court and a handball court, and the kids can play hockey. On the other side of the house will be a garden." A typical suburban homeowner's dream, but for the location of the arena-to-be: a neighborhood ringed by wire and fences, protected by guards in a booth, aloft in the flowing green mountains of the Israeli-administered West Bank.
Ginot Shomron -- Gardens of Samaria -- is a lovely community, a "settlement." It's just down the road from the Palestinian city of Nablus, but light years from our native Queens, N.Y. The Sacketts' red-roofed stone structure houses a family of eight, the last two born since Seth and wife Rhonda immigrated to Israel in 1990, and he began going by his Hebrew name, Shmuel.
It also is the host of unpleasant attitudes. We go inside to chat, and my eyes can hardly avert the bumper sticker ordering "Arabs: Out"; the memorial candle stuck to a photograph of the Arab-baiter Rabbi Meir Kahane; the picture of Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 praying Palestinians.
The tributes mingle awkwardly, sandwiched between a Derek Jeter poster and holy texts. Hatred contradicts Jewish values -- "He who hates his friend is like a shedder of blood," an ancient rabbinical commentary teaches -- yet it rings out in my skullcap-wearing contemporary's domain.
I'd have thought he rejected such viewpoints, too. Evidently, I wasn't paying attention.
Seth was our high school class' clown. He instigated eraser fights just as the teacher's back turned, composed tunes for school skits and mimicked like nobody's business -- such that the veins in his neck jutted out like our Spanish instructor's.
In those pre-guns-in-school-days, provocateurs were merely those who fished carbon test papers out of the trash or led raids onto the roof, where we'd empty hulking pails of water onto the squealing girls below. Seth also improvised The Scarlet Letter's recital by pinning a red "TL" (a variation of "teacher's pet") onto a popular classmate's shirt.
"That was totally fun," Seth says. "We didn't do bad things; we did clowning-around things. We would never have harmed anyone."
Flashes of the old Seth endure. There's the ascending laugh that begins "aaAAHH" and the ear-to-ear smile that clamps his eyes shut. He remains as enamored of American sports -- on his block, "we don't allow soccer," he jokes -- as when his rear end occupied a permanent spot on our basketball team's bench.
He dropped the pranks in college -- "I realized that I could continue this and make everyone laugh the next four years and be on the unemployment line the next 40 years" -- to concentrate on marketing. Seth was a young star at RCA, selling telecommunications equipment and bagging appliances as rewards. In Israel, he continued in sales with the Postal Authority, where he proposed -- in vain -- the then-revolutionary idea of introducing the Internet to the country.
Seth invested himself equally in activism. In high school, he organized fund-raisers to help liberate Soviet Jews. Once in the work force, he taught classes for some Wall Street bankers who knew little about their faith. These days, he directs an organization that runs seminaries in towns under Palestinian Authority control. He jets around the world, pitching the project and collecting contributions.
Oblivious to changes
Seth and I were hardly close friends. I was oblivious to his advocacy and even the issues. Aside from recognizing the man's name, I knew nothing of Kahane's get-rid-of-the-Arabs platform that led to a brief stint in Israel's parliament and, ultimately, his assassination.
Kahane remains a hero to Seth for steering him to Israel. Seth maintains that "absolutely not" does he hate Arabs. But he makes no apologies for considering them inferior and enemies, for refusing to hire them even to do home repairs.
Shortly after 1993's Yitzhak Rabin-Yasser Arafat handshake, Seth co-founded "This is Our Land," a movement to expand Jewish strongholds in the West Bank and to prevent them from being turned over to the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli government arrested Seth some 20 times and tried him for sedition and incitement.
He returned to my consciousness after 15 years, a photograph in a newspaper. A lawbreaking radical-in-the-making, in my own circle? How could I have missed the signs?
'An extension' of boyhood
Perhaps the answer was all too apparent. The inner struggles many of us experienced during our youthful years simply bypassed this fellow. He did not evolve -- he unfolded. Seth, his black hair and long beard evincing a few patches of gray, says he is "just an extension" of the long-ago boy.
"I've always had a dream of being at the forefront of Jewish survival," he says as we sip coffee. "I always felt I had a lot to give. Then, I thought I could have the best of both worlds -- an activist and an affluent member of the Jewish community.
"Now, I see that the two don't mix, and I no longer have the dreams of financial freedom. -- You can collect stamps part-time [but] you have to dedicate every minute of your life to bringing the Messiah. "I could be making a lot more money with my marketing ability and skills in the high-tech market in Israel, but I'd be miserable. Look -- I have six children, a car, a mortgage. I get paid. You can't tell he electric company, 'I'm working for the Jewish people.' They'll say, 'Great -- you don't pay by 12, we're cutting off your electricity.' It's not the greatest living but I'm happy because I feel I'm making a difference."
Seth's delivery captivates, if one overlooks discomfiting concepts like Messianism and Kahanism. But Seth's absolute belief in what he's advocating is unimpeachable, and explained -- as Neal Smolar, another classmate, tells me -- as a commodity packaged by a masterful salesman.
His convictions face challenges. Prime Minister Ehud Barak has pledged to preserve large settlement blocs under a final peace accord. Seth's community adjoins several others, but all lie between Nablus and another Palestinian city, Kalkilya. Won't map-making around Ginot Shomron be tricky?
Wrong question. Seth boycotts meetings on the town's fate. "This is not the issue. My little backyard and garden are not important," he asserts. "I force myself not to look at the Ginot Shomron situation since I do not want to fall into the trap of doing things in my interests only."
'A full-scale war'
If Israel surrenders any settlements, citizens must first resist peacefully, he says, but then should launch "a full-scale war" on Palestinian forces. And his community? "If by staying in place we can attack from within, I feel we should stay," he says. "Obviously, during this period, women and children should find shelter elsewhere and only men ready for battle should remain in place -- this is not a joke."
Seth adopts a who-cares posture about being labeled an extremist. And as much as he might like to fit right back in with the gang of old, he acknowledges our divergent life paths. But his rhetoric has me concerned about whether he'll be around to meet with again.
"Five thousand extremists running around Israel and the Messiah would come," he says straight-faced before breaking into a grin. "Seriously, I don't have to explain my actions to any human being. The Talmud says, 'Better to be considered a fool your whole life in the eyes of man than to be considered wicked for one minute in the eyes of God.'
"I would like to talk to my friends and try to help them to understand that the routine they're in is leading them nowhere fast, and that in this temporary, short life we have been given one must realize that it's important to concentrate on true values and make a difference in the world."
With that, Seth pats the Smith & Wesson 9 mm handgun at his hip. On the West Bank, one never knows where danger lurks. His oldest daughter's classmate had just been stabbed at a bus stop nearby. The family piles into the white station wagon and heads to dinner at the mall just 20 minutes away, in Israel proper.
Seth recites a prayer for a safe journey and all respond, "Amen." Lights flicker across the way in the Palestinian village of Azoun.
The Sacketts' car, like many Jewish vehicles in the territories, has been stoned before. No one was injured.
We reach the bus station and Seth walks me down the block. We shake hands and promise to stay in touch.
"We have a big fight ahead of us," he says. "The Palestinians are very serious about what they want. But so are we. Unfortunately, I think it's going to come down to bloodshed."
Hillel Kuttler is a Baltimore free-lance writer.