Nighttime, a hill next to the town of Efrat, Israel, the year 2000. A 16-year-old boy takes out his sleeping bag and spends the night there.
He is joined each night by other friends and later they are arrested for violating a “Closed Military Zone” order. However, they persist in staying there, and after some time, the hilltop becomes a place of Jewish residence. Today, this “suburb” of Efrat, features attractive villas with desert views.
The young boy is Nati Rom and he has taken part in establishing several Jewish communities east of Shilo. Today, he is married to Yonat, is a father of six and lives in Esh Kodesh in Binyamin.
Seven years ago, Nati and his wife decided to help the Jewish pioneers in other ways. The boycott and BDS movements have pressured consumer goods stores and supermarkets abroad to remove products made in Judea and Samaria from their shelves.
The project created by Nati and his wife began with a small step: “We began purchasing items from producers who lived near us in Judea and Samaria. We would then package them in our living room and sell them to tourists from abroad.” They called the project “Lev HaOlam.” As they explained, “Lev HaOlam translates to the ‘heart of the world’ in English. This place is physically, spiritually, and morally, the heart of the world. We try to communicate from our hearts to the hearts of people all over the world.”
Slowly, the project began to gain steam: the demand for packages grew and many asked to buy them for their friends and family abroad. Some bought the packages as gifts for special events and occasions. The project moved from the family living room to a warehouse and additional employees were hired. Currently, thousands of packages are sent to subscribers in more than 40 countries around the world including European countries, Asian countries such as China and Malaysia, North American countries, Africa, and even Australia, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.
Recipients of the packages are sent a variety of different products every month, enabling the producer to receive exposure. Customers often find that they like a particular product and then request to receive it again or order wholesale quantities in order to resell or distribute.
“The products are made in many different places,” says Nati. “We represent hundreds of producers throughout Judea and Samaria. We try to reach the people who need it most, those who want to establish a business. We are their ‘kickstart.’ We give them the ability to start a business, grow it, increase their revenues and raise the socioeconomic situation in Judea and Samaria. This is the best way to fight the boycott.”
Among the products are wines from Har Bracha and Gush Etzion, cosmetics with natural ingredients such as soaps and facial cream from Itamar, shea butter from Kfar Tapuach and more. There are also food items such as chocolate from Pnei Hever, silan (date honey) from Mevo’ot Yericho, honey from Negohot, halva snacks, and other foods. Textiles from the communities of Ofra, Beit El and Rosh Tzurim are often included, as well as unique Judaica products from Susya in Gush Etzion, Itamar, and Karnei Shomron.
Lev HaOlam also realizes that fighting the boycott involves strong public relations and refutations of the lies spread by BDS. Thus, every week the organization arranges tours of Judea and Samaria for visitors from countries like Belgium, Norway, China, Germany and others. The tours leave from Nati’s home and include historical sites of the Jewish people: the Tabernacle in Shilo, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hevron, and other places. During the tour, Nati invites the tourists to see reality with their own eyes. “We show them the obvious truths. They see Arab women, men, and children walking in the streets, working and playing without fear, just as normal life should look. On the other hand, they see our children going to school in bulletproof buses, and men having to carry weapons to defend themselves.” Nati also tells the tourists of the ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, “Suddenly they realize that there is a violation of human rights here. Only it’s the reverse of what is told on their television screens. People see the signs that were posted at the entrances to Arab villages after the Oslo agreements, which tell Jews they are forbidden from entering and that entering would endanger their lives.”
The public relations efforts do not end at Israel’s borders. Nati is invited every month to lecture at conferences. He begins with a history lesson, which is the basis for the connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Next he tells the story of Judea and Samaria and then of his family and of the Jewish pioneers. “I explain to people that the State of Israel is quite small and that my drive from meeting to meeting with them is longer than all of the State of Israel.”
Those who previously only knew about Israel through information spread by the BDS movement are joining Nati’s lectures around the world. They often express their support for the organization and for Israel by ordering packages.
With the growth in the number of supporters, the opposition from BDS activists has also grown. Some of them have taken note of the conferences and have protested outside. “There are stubborn BDS activists who follow me everywhere I go, even to European Parliaments,” says Nati. In one video taken by Nati, a BDS activist whom he knows well is seen at a protest outside the Swiss Parliament. The protesters call for boycotting the State of Israel. In response, Nati calls on them to boycott Radical Islam. The protester violently confronts Nati and then begins beating a journalist who asks the protester why she was acting violently. “It is the characteristic violence of anti-Semites,” explains Nati.
Lev HaOlam supporters have also participated in their own counter-protests. Thus for example, when Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the Dutch Parliament and anti-Israel activists protested outside, a thousand people came out in support of Israel. Another protest in support of Israel was organized in a central square in Holland during Operation Protective Edge.
“I believe that the hatred of Israel by many BDS activists comes from a place of deep anti-Semitism and there is no way to reason with them,” says Nati. “In the past I would go to debates at universities. Today I operate differently: We go out and strengthen those who want to hear us. We give them tools and information.”
Senior officials in Israel also support the organization. Prime Minister Netanyahu arrived for an official visit at the organization’s warehouse and even prepared several packages himself. Members of Knesset and Government Ministers have also visited. Subscribers to the packages have received letters from Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Knesset Chairman Yuli Edelstein who thanked them for their support. Volunteers have also come from abroad to participate in preparing the packages, some from Singapore and Norway.
Nati is also an attorney and a partner in the Rom Arbus Kedem Tzur firm. The firm focuses on civil cases of various types including applying state law in Judea and Samaria, protection of Jewish communities, and Supreme Court cases. “No one deals in a systematic manner with land claims, rather they focus on putting out fires. No right-wing organizations have carried out a serious and in-depth survey of land claims. Left-wing groups do so regularly with million of dollars of funding,” says Nati.
As part of their work, Nati and his partners represented a claim by 50 Arabs against the Palestinian Authority. The plaintiffs were found guilty by the PA of cooperating with Israel and during the 90’s they were placed in prison cells, where they were interrogated and tortured. As a result, the plaintiffs suffered serious physical and emotional harm. Following a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, PA funds held by Israel were frozen for the first time.
“When we reached out to so-called ‘human rights organizations’ asking for their help on behalf of the plaintiffs, none of them answered. This shows the clear hypocrisy of these groups,” explains Nati.
“This story received top headlines in Israeli media. Outrageous acts were performed in prison cells only kilometers away from us and under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority. We were quite pleased with the order freezing PA funds. It is obligatory upon the State to assist those who suffered physical harm and in some cases even death, in order to protect our citizens from terror, death and bereavement,” says Nati. “Even at this very moment there are Israeli sympathizers deep undercover who act to stop terror. They are watching and analyzing whether the government will stand at their side during their time of need. Turning our backs on them would harm the security of the State.”
Yonat, Nati’s wife, recently published a cookbook that was included in the packages. The book contains the stories of Jewish pioneers and recipes from their homes. Yonat’s first husband, Ami, was murdered while serving as a soldier during the Second Lebanon when she was just 19. He left behind his parents, 16 brothers and sisters, and Yonat, who was eight months pregnant. Their daughter, Tohar, was born a month later. Yonat explains that from their first meeting, she and Nati “had a natural connection. Thank G-d we have been able to create a happy and warm home. It is wonderful to see Tohar and the girls grow up on the hilltops that Ami loved so much. Ami’s parents are our children’s ‘third’ set of grandparents and we see them as much as is possible given that they have 17 children of their own and dozens of grandchildren,” says Yonat.
Yonat was the youngest IDF widow in the history of Israel and recently wrote a book in memory of Ami. “The children were definitely a part of this creative project,” explains Yonat. “The most important takeaway from our perspective is that light comes out of hardship in the end. It is amazing how much hope and life there is in the world. Despite all the pain, there is much remaining to be done.”
In each package there is a bulletin with news from the region which strengthens and deepens the important connection between supporters from abroad and this place, the holy land of Israel. As Nati says, “People come to visit Israel once a year, maybe during Passover. They say, ‘We love Israel!’ but we don’t see them here and the connection ends when they return abroad. Through joining Lev HaOlam these people can take an active role in strengthening the Jewish pioneers in Judea and Samaria. The boycott affects the economy of the producers in Judea and Samaria. Through our project we provide people abroad with a real way to join those living here in developing and building this holy land and in strengthening this important relationship.”