One of the most controversial communities on earth is also one of the most mysterious.
The outpost of Havat Ma’on lies in the hills of the southern West Bank, and despite its tiny size and population remains contested and controversial. Its founders were once part of the nearby settlement of Ma’on, but broke off in 1997 in order to form a small agricultural community. Today, it is home to less than two dozen families who work as cheesemakers, shepherds, farmers, and other work involving husbandry and dairy production.
In 2000, several of the outpost’s buildings were deemed to have been built illegally and were demolished by the IDF. As a result, the residents took to the forest, many of them living in makeshift dwellings, cultivating a life of religious piety coupled with subsistence agriculture.
Despite their bucolic surroundings, however, the residents are politically extreme, and tensions between them and neighboring Palestinian communities have been constant. A resident was killed by Palestinians in 1998, while other residents have been accused of violence against their Palestinian neighbors, including harassing children on their way to school.
Tower photographer Aviram Valdman ventured into this strange, forested wilderness to photograph the members of this reclusive community. He found them friendly and willing to be photographed, but nonetheless wary of strangers, with some convinced that he must be working for a Leftist group opposed to settlement activity.
In particular, Valdman was struck by the natural beauty of the site with its trees, flowers, and children playing in what—at that moment, at least—appeared to be a paradisiacal setting. He also photographed sheep herders and farmers who seem to have leapt out of the biblical past, carrying on a lifestyle that can only be described as ancient in nature.
Among those he photographed were two brothers who seemed to personify the Havat Ma’on itself: One is a shepherd who tends daily to his flock, the other is a writer of Torah scrolls. This combination of the most ancient forms of agriculture and ritual, for better or worse, is what makes Havat Ma’on what it is.
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Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower