By Ruth Stevens
Hebrew graffiti in the old city of Hebron calls for death to the traitors against God, presumably including everyone on our tour and a large majority of the citizens of Israel. It’s a bright sunny day. Many of the buildings here are quite old and have beautiful Arabic inscriptions carved into their facades or wrought in their gates. Most are locked, shuttered and abandoned. It seems that living nation of Israel, am yisrael chay, has quite effectively rocked the casbah.
I am walking with a group of members of the Union of Progressive Zionists, our guides Yehuda and Mikhael, and a dozen-man armed escort from the local IDF post, through Judaism’s second-holiest city. The UPZ cohort, mostly North American students, is here comparing the sights to what we have heard and read about on North American campuses. The guides are members of Breaking the Silence, an organization of former Israeli soldiers who decided to speak out about their experiences in the occupied territories. Both were stationed in Hebron during their military service, and share their personal experiences while guiding us. The soldiers guarding us are unbeckoned, but appreciated. They watch us quizzically throughout.
We disembarked at the bathrooms outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and the splashy logo of www.machpela.com catapulted me back to sixth grade Bible class in Merion, Pennsylvania, learning how Abraham bought this site from Ephron the Hittite. Now I’m vaguely fantasizing about reimbursing Ephron his 400 shekels – he could take my cellphone, it’s worth more – as the group strolls. This is a small city for which an excess of blood has been shed, including most famously the 1929 massacre of 67 Jews by Palestinians and the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians by a Jew named Baruch Goldstein, as well as countless other incidents before and since. Nor does this intermittent blood flow appear likely abate any time soon. Welcoming us to Hebron, a passing settler says to our guides, “when your Arab friends kill you, I will open a bottle of champagne on your graves.”
We eventually arrive in a broad open space where the community of Avraham Avinu, a settlement inside Hebron, holds public events like simchas and Jewish holidays. There is a sukkah still standing from the Sukkot festival into which one settler has apparently moved permanently, seeking to expand the Jewish-settled area by a few meters; this beautifully perverts of the holiday which celebrates temporary dwellings and implores us to empathize with the vulnerable. Yehuda recalls attending a religious service held in this space, during which the Yizkor prayer commemorating the dead was read. All those who had died in defense of Hebron were named; that list included several names of his recently fallen army comrades, and also that of Baruch Goldstein. This is not what I want Judaism to be. A Chabad-Lubavitch van drives past, proclaiming that it’s the “tank of mitzvot” driving on “the road to the Redemption”.
The city appears sparsely populated and peaceful, but closer inspection reveals the trappings of segregation, military rule and the lack of peace. Soldiers who seem to be idling on a street corner in fact are enforcing the prohibition against Palestinians walking on certain streets. The Palestinians, in turn, automatically turn at certain intersections, having grown accustomed to the rule of difference. We walk straight through these on the tour, past fenced-off alleyways that have officially been open since the Wye Accords, and between the hundreds of stores long barred from doing business. A gleaming new building is going to house Gush Katif evacuees. Memorials everywhere announce the locations of the murder of Jewish settlers, usually by sniper fire, and spray-painted words demand revenge for the murdered 10-month-old Jewish infant Shalhevet Pass.
Those Arab homes still occupied in this quarter have cages over the windows to prevent the apparently very common occurrence of rock-throwing, pastime of the elementary school children here who should be practicing long division. We speak to a Palestinian who reports that the only time he bothered to request protection from this harassment from the police, nominally enforcing law on the settlers, they told him to hang up and dial Yasser Arafat instead.
Many of these details, the particulars of occupation we see during the day, are not unfamiliar. They have been repeated canonically in talks given by the noble-hearted International Solidarity Movement volunteers and other lovers-of-Palestine who so frequently speak at North American universities. Typically, a speaker from one of these groups shows a slideshow (perhaps apartheidwall001.jpg) and eventually comes to a picture of some disgraceful Hebrew slogan spray-painted by settlers. The speaker asks if anyone can translate, I divulge the meaning of, say, “death to Arabs”, and everyone gasps with indignation. After a pause which allows the audience to collect themselves from their brief smug outburst of superiority, the speaker may then continue to recount the sins of the Jewish state.
In contrast, the guides from Breaking the Silence see their work as their contribution to that state, a vision which I share. Having been the soldiers who enforced the present reality of Hebron life, they have a perspective significantly more clear-sighted, and more useful, for anyone who cares enough about this reality to try to affect it.
There is amongst our group an Israeli not affiliated with their organization who, during his army service, spent four months in this city. I ask what he thinks of the tour and he says that the guides keep forgetting to mention that the Jewish community was getting shot at every day, though “of course, their retaliation was bombing the whole fucking city”. But on balance I am not moved to sympathy, not for their holy sites and not for their victimhood. The population of the H2 (Israeli-controlled) section Hebron at the time it was divided by the 1997 Hebron Protocol was 30,000 Palestinians. The work of 500 Jewish settlers has since then made life so unlivable here that a large portion of the Palestinians have moved out, forty-three percent according to Betselem. The rest live in the conditions of a ghetto, an unfortunate comparison made sicker by the Jewish stars spray-painted on the city walls. By Jews.
Neither do I see even an impressive display of tenacity and independence, considering that there are more Israeli soldiers and policemen guarding than settlers to be guarded. Mainly I see a repulsive Jewish variant of fascism. Whether we like it or not, the Jews here have drawn conclusions from our common heritage, and created something concrete. It’s possible that, from far away in North America, we can ignore them, but the repercussions of this little community’s actions are not going to stay in Hebron. They have long since reached my campus in Montreal. As we reach the end of the tour, Mikhael entreats us to continue our UPZ work “specifically as concerned Israelis, as concerned Zionists and as concerned Jews.” It is precisely in that spirit that we must engage this issue, and try to promote instead a more just and humane vision of the Jewish state.