Tuesday, February 12, 2002


The city of Hebron has always been at the center of Jewish history. Hebron is the city where the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the matriarchs are buried. It is the city where Ruth and Jesse lived and are buried, it is the city where King David was crowned, it was the first capital of the Jewish Kingdom under King David, and it is the second holiest city of Judaism.

From the time of King David, Hebron was continuously populated with Jews. Often, throughout the eons of history, through Rome, the Byzantines, the Muslims, the Ottomans, and the British; the Jewish community would be destroyed, exiled, or killed, but there were always new volunteers to take their place. It is said that that the Jewish people still live if there is Torah study in Hebron, but in 1929, Torah study came to an abrupt end when the Muslim population rose up, killed, mutilated, and dismembered the Jews of Hebron with passive British assistance. In 1948, the city was conquered by Jordan and remained under Jordanian control until it was recaptured by Israel in 1967. On Passover of 1968, a group of eighty-eight Jews rented the Park Hotel to celebrate holiday in the holy city. When the holiday was over, they announced that they had come to reestablish the ancient Jewish community of Hebron, and were not leaving. They remained besieged in the hotel until, five months later, the government finally granted them permission to stay. Eventually, they established Kiryat Arba, which is today the Jewish suburb of Hebron. In the heart of the city, 400 Jewish settlers have repossessed the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, site of the ancient Jewish quarter, they have refurbished the Hadassah building, the hospital built with the funds from the Jewish Women’s organization, and have established several trailer homes on Tel Rumeida, the site of the ancient city itself, all amidst a hostile Arab population of 100,000.

Hebron was the first religiously motivated settlement, and it sparked a wave of similar settlements throughout Israel of Jews returning to their ancient cities out of religious conviction rather than secular ideology. For this reason, and because Hebron is the most besieged and isolated of the settlements, Hebron is something of the “capital” of the settlement movement. When a left-wing Israeli wants to talk about removing the settlements, the first word out of her mouth is Hebron. “Hebron is full of fanatics. How can we keep 400 Jews protected in a city of 100,000 Arabs forever?” When a right-wing Israeli wants to talk about keeping the settlements, the first thing out of his mouth is Hebron. “Hebron is the second holiest city of Judaism. How can you talk about giving up Hebron? You had might as well rip the Jewish Star off our flag.” It is both the most slandered and praised Jewish community on Earth, which is why I wanted to see the place for myself.

I can tell which bus is headed to Hebron without checking the number because of the obvious retrofit in response to the recent violence. The front windshield is protected by a thick wire screen; presumably to stop rocks, and the passenger windows look to be about two inches thick to stop bullets. I give the bus driver my 12 shekels and we’re off.

The bus ride from Be’er Sheva to Hebron may only an hour, but it feels like driving through the pages of History. Be’er Sheva, where the Patriarchs lived their lives, and Hebron, where they are buried, both claim the title “City of our Forefathers,” but they feel like different worlds. The Be’er Sheva of today is a modern city. Driving through the countryside, which used to belong to the tribe of Judea, we pass Bedouin villages, Jewish towns, and gentle, rolling hills. Because of the recent rains, the usually dead landscape is carpeted in thick green. Passing the city of Meitar, the bus crosses the green line into “The Territories.” There is no sign to tell you that you’re entering Shomron, but I have the map of Israel pretty well memorized and I know where we are. The gentle hills and plains suddenly give way to steeper hillsides dusted with a thin layer of grass. Everywhere are small streams, reforestation projects, and open land. There is not a soul to be seen as we drive on and on, just more and more empty land. We come to a Jewish settlement to drop off some passengers. The settlement is built into the hillside, surrounded with barbed wire. As we stop and wait for the soldiers to open the iron electronic security gate, some men walk by with hoes and pickaxes slung over their shoulders, returning from the fields. It all looks like something from a picture book of the pre-statehood pioneers.

As we continue and approach Hebron, the land becomes more and more crowded with Arab neighborhoods and settlements, built in a haphazard, unplanned style. On either side of the road are roadblocks and checkpoints to keep road clear of terrorists, and we have a military Jeep paving the way ahead of us. Eventually, we come the to Kiryat Arba, the Jewish suburb of Hebron, and pass through the iron gate and the security checkpoint. I get off the bus and ask around on how to get to the city itself, and I eventually find the front entrance to the settlement where I bump into a bunch of people waiting there who tell me I can hitch a ride with them. A minivan pulls over to the side and we all pile in, about eight of us total. We drive by the squad of soldiers standing by the entrance bundled up in flak jackets and helmets, looking for all the world like giant green cocoons with M-16s. The minivan weaves through the zig-zag of cement barricades outside the entrance, obviously designed to stop some crazed terrorist from charging a car straight through the iron gate. I look around, no military escort. I notice the five millimeter thick tinted glass-window, about as effective against bullets as saran wrap. I look around in the car, nobody holding the customary M-16. But before I have time to ask any questions, the driver takes the minivan barreling straight into the heart of Arab Hebron.

This is when I realized that the Jews of Hebron are a different breed. Throughout the country, the vast majority of people rely on the military and police for protection. All the checkpoints and border fences and bag searches are enough to stop most of the terrorists, and if anybody gets through, well, it’s just a risk you’re going to take in life. Not so in Hebron. As the car zigs and zags through Arab Hebron, I’m too surprised to say anything. The buildings are covered in Arabic graffiti with spray-painted portraits of the Dome of the Rock, Mecca, and some faces (suicide bombers, I imagine, although there’s no way to know.) The streets are full of gangs of Arab men, sitting on the street corners, mothers walking home with their children, kids playing soccer in the dusty unpaved road.

From what I have read about the community here, I had expected to find in Hebron a besieged and terrified Jewish community, shuttled from place to place by armored convoy, always just waiting for the Arab population to get angry and attack and kill them, like in 1929. I expected to find the Jewish quarter surrounded by twenty-foot reinforced concrete walls. I expected that no Arabs would be allowed into the Jewish section, and no Jews into the Arab section, like in the old city of Jerusalem. But when we got to the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, we came to checkpoint and passed into the Jewish quarter, and it was full of Arabs and Jews trading and doing business. When I got off the van, there were several soldiers standing around, but none of the people seemed at all worried.

Walking into the Avraham Avinu neighborhood was like walking into some propaganda video trying to get you to move in. An old, teacher stood under a tree reciting Tehillim (Psalms) while ten children sat on the bench and repeated after him. The yeshiva students were running to and fro getting ready for Shabbat, people were taking groceries home. There are the Carelbacher religious Zionists, with their long beards and peaceful expressions, the women with their long dresses, who could all be mistaken for counter-culture hippies. I notice a plaque on the wall informing me that this is the site of the murder of Shalhevet Pass, a baby who was shot to death in her mother’s arms by an Arab sniper at the beginning of the conflict. I look up and can see the hundreds of Arab houses in the Abu Snineh hills, and I wonder if my head is in anybody’s crosshairs right now, but nobody else seems concerned. Two soldiers are playing tag with some children right here in the open, the old teacher is still reciting Tehillim in the open, and nobody seems at all worried. It suddenly strikes me; these people are fearless! It’s as if some psychological surgeon opened up their souls, made a few clean incisions, and pulled all the fear right out.

I find my way the Yeshiva where I’ll be staying and meet some other people who have also come in for Shabbat. I’m the only one without a black hat, but I’m used to that by now. Two guys have come in from B’nei Brak, the super religious neighborhood outside of Tel Aviv, and the rest are Lubavitcher Chassidim from English-speaking countries who are studying at a Yeshiva in Tzfat, way in the north. We all walk together to the Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs for Shabbat. I find a spot to stand, Abraham’s tomb is ten feet in front of me, Sarah’s is ten feet behind me, and I am charged with electricity, as if I am the conducting wire of a spiritual current flowing between them, even thousands of years after their deaths. We proceed with Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, singing, and learning, and the electric feeling gets stronger and stronger. We feel an overwhelming sense of peace, and I begin to understand what draws people here.

We are jarred when the loudspeakers cry out, “Alaaaaahuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu Achbar!” I am rudely reminded that this site is also holy to Muslims and there is a prayer rotation. I swear I can hear the Muslim prayer leader giggling through the microphone at having interrupted the Jews. The three hundred or so Jews packed into the cave begin singing loudly enough to shake the building to its foundation. I imagine Jacob is lifting an eyelid in his tomb.

For dinner, I am invited to a family in Tel Rumeida, on top of the ruins of the ancient city of Hebron. A single road running through the heart of the Abu Snineh hills, which is a crowded Arab neighborhood, connects each of the different Jewish locales of Hebron; The Machpelah, the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, the Hadassah building, and Tel Rumeidah. Each turn-off from the main road is barricaded. There are steel screens attached to the buildings spanning the width of the street and reaching a height of two stories, obviously to protect the soldiers from rocks and firebombs. At every intersection is a sandbag foxhole; on top of the buildings at every street corner is a watchtower. One or two soldiers man each of these positions. At regular intervals down the length of the street are rows of sandbags, which look like fallback positions. At one point as we hike up the hill we come to a strip of the road where there are no buildings on one side of the street to block the view, but the vista is ruined by six-foot high cement blocks. This side of the street faces Area A, Palestinian controlled territory, and is lined with cement barricades, “To protect us from snipers,” explains my host. As we walk along the street, there is a gap in the protective barricades. “This,” my host tells me, “is the part where we walk faster.” He calls my attention to a particularly heavily fortified turn-off, which, he informs me, is the border with Area A. Most of the buildings on either side of the street are populated by Arab families.

Eventually, we reach Tel Rumeida. The “housing” here is really just maybe ten trailers. A steel framework has been constructed to support their weight, and the trailers are stacked one on top of the other. After the meal, as we stand in the kitchen, I can see the beautiful vista of the city lights out the window. In the middle of our conversation about his family, I notice a chunk is missing out of his kitchen cupboard before realizing it’s actually a hole. Then I see another hole, and another. Making careful mental measurements, I notice that some of the holes line up with holes in the wall.
“Is this what I think it is?””Yeah, sometimes we take fire from Area A.”
“When did all this happen?”
“Each bullet hole has a different date.”
“Was anybody hurt?” I ask, sticking my pinky into one of the holes.
“No, but that one right there happened when I was in the dining room.”
“Are you at all worried, what with the situation the way it has been for the last year?”
“No, it was just as easy to get killed here twenty years ago as it is today.”

The Jews of Hebron have a simple strategy for survival: Do unto your neighbor as he does unto you. There is no cheek-turning here. Many of the people here are followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was something of the Malcolm X of the Jews. He began the JDL, the Jewish Defense League, in the United States as a gang to retaliate against attacks on Jews. He eventually moved to Israel and started the “Kach” party, which advocates immediate forcible expulsion of all Arabs not willing to accept Jewish sovereignty, which is pretty much all of them. He actually won a seat in the Knesset before his party was declared illegal. He was assassinated while giving a speech in New York City in 1990, but judging by the graffiti around here, his ideology is still alive and well. I notice a pile of the newest bumper stickers on the table. It is a modification of the old bumper sticker “Ain Aravim, Ain Piguim,” “No Arabs, No Attacks.” The supreme court declared the bumper sticker to be incitement to violence and banned it last week, so the new ones have the word Ain crossed out and the word Yesh written over it, so it now reads, “Yesh Aravim, Yesh Piguim,” “There are Arabs, there are attacks.” Rabbi Kahane may be dead and gone, but his ideology is still alive and well. Everywhere the Arabs spray paint “Jews out!” or “Death to Jews,” the Kahanists spray paint over them the “Kach” logo, a clenched fist superposed over a Jewish star, or simply “Death to Arabs.” The Arab declarations that Hebron is an all-Arab city are mirrored by the giant Hebrew poster hanging from the barricade, “Hebron is all ours”

While the rest of the country is fighting the war physically, the Hebronites are fighting it psychologically. In most places, Israelis take what precautions they can to protect themselves. If a place is unsafe, people don’t go there. If there is a danger, you carry a gun. The Hebron Jews walk around with their heads high, totally unintimidated. While walking back downhill the next day, an Arab kid of about eight starts hurling insults and stones at a Jewish kid of the same age. Now normally, a Jewish Israeli would back off or maybe get some help, but this kid just picks up stones and starts hurling them right back. Anything the Arabs do, the Jews do right back, they don’t wait for the police to get involved. The Meir Kahane book I read last night, Referendum or Revolution, declares that if a government is unable to protect its citizens than the citizens are required to take matters into their own hands. Hebron’s Arab mayor was assassinated years ago, and there have been several attempts, some successful some not, to bomb Arab busses. I am scared to know what happened after Shalhevet Pass was killed by that sniper. They walk in the open davka, specifically to prove that they aren’t afraid, and it works. This is the first place I’ve been where Jews and Arabs interact, and the Arabs don’t follow you around and stare you down like they want to kill you. We go about our business and they go about theirs. Something tells me that if the army were to withdraw from this place, these people would do just fine by themselves.

Inevitably, when living this close to the edge, some people fall over. One morning in March 1994, a man by the name of Baruch Goldstein calmly walked into the Arab section of the Machpelah, pulled out an uzi, and started mowing down the worshiping Arabs. He was the Jewish version of the suicide bomber. 

On Shabbat day, I stayed with another family in Tel Rumeida. The husband is an “Anglo” (English speaking) immigrant, so we are able to understand each other quite well. After the meal, he walks outside and briefly talks with a soldier before returning. A giant armored truck which looks like a gasoline carrier drives by and sets up at the end of the street. He informs me that there was an attempted stabbing earlier today, so they are going to set up a fire hose at the end of the street and blast anyone who comes near. A fifteen year old Arab girl had attacked a Jewish woman walking back from synagogue with a fifteen-centimeter knife, in full view of a soldier. The soldier froze up and didn’t know what to do, so the woman pulled out a revolver and stopped the girl, who ran away before being caught.

“This whole place is built on murder,” he mutters. I ask him to explain. “We can only build after there has been a murder, because that’s when the opposition in the Knesset is lowest. When the original families took over the Beit Hadassah building, the Knesset couldn’t decide whether to let them stay or not. For five months, they were besieged in there until an Arab murdered five Jewish children who were playing outside the building. When that happened, the resistance in the Knesset was low enough that we would pass a bill allowing us to stay. We didn’t get permission to rebuild the Avraham Avinu neighborhood until there was a murder.” He points outside to a series of cement pillars, “That’s going to be our new home, but we couldn’t get the permit until an Arab broke into one of these trailers and murdered our Rabbi.” I remember when Shavhelet Pass was killed by that sniper, her parents refused to bury her until the Army retook the Abu Snineh hills. I am overcome with the eerie feeling that if I get killed here, there’s going to be a bill in the Knesset tomorrow to get another building, that if I die, it’s one more point for Hebron, that giving one’s life is expected.

After Shabbat, I am sitting by the bus stop waiting to get back to Kiryat Arba and catch a connection to Be’er Sheva. I am not a Hebron Jew, so I try to position myself next to the bus stop so that I am out of range of snipers. The sound of a huge explosion reverberates throughout the valley. The next day I read in the news that a roadside bomb had gone off as a convoy of soldiers passed, but nobody was hurt. The bus pulls up and I get the last seat, sitting next to an old Sephardi man, who immediately begins grilling me on how my Shabbat was, “Why are you sitting here? You should have sat somewhere else! There’s no room because we’re both fat! HAHAHA! How was your Shabbat? Did you pray at Machpelah? Did you like the food? What do you do? Oh, you’re an engineer? Are you married? Would you like to meet my daughter?” I politely explain that I’m going back to America in three weeks and would need more time than that to marry his daughter, and I hop off the bus in Kiryat Arba. The schedule says that the next bus isn’t coming for another hour and a half, so I start walking around the town. I eventually come to a long garden with benches and a path, lit by floodlights. I walk down the garden to the end and see a three foot by three foot by six foot rectangular stone. It must be a grave! I wonder who it is, someone pious? It must have been someone exceedingly righteous to merit having an entire garden built for him. As I come closer, I see that the grave is covered in small rocks. It is Jewish custom to place a small rock on the tombstone when visiting the dead, and so many of them indicates that this must be someone very special to have so many visitors. I bend over and read the inscription, “Baruch Goldstein.” I jump back! I’m not quite sure what to do with myself, and I just stand there numbly thinking about what I heard today.

“This whole place is built on murder.” A memory comes back to me of what my cousin told me about the Independence War. I had wanted to hear some stories about the war, so I asked him what he had been through. He just looked out the window wistfully and told me, “I was seventeen years old. My entire generation died.” I didn’t get it then, but looking at the Jews of Hebron, I get it now. These people know what happened to all the previous generations of Jews who came to Hebron, how they always ended up getting killed by the Arabs, and they are prepared to risk it all, to put everything on the line, to preserve this place. And, looking at Baruch Goldstein’s grave, I see how far it can push people.

I suddenly become very frustrated, as if some of Baruch Goldstein’s energy is still in the air. I feel my hands clenching like the clenched fist over the Jewish star in the Kach graffiti, and my mind fills with questions. Is this really what it takes? Why do we have to go through this? Why do we have to live next to people so full of hate for us that the only way to survive is to become them? Why can’t they just accept a Jewish minority the way Israel can accept an Arab minority? What is it about us that makes them so murderous? And why do we have do give so much? Nobody is asking the French to leave Paris, yet driving the Jews from the holy city of Hebron is considered justice! Why is it that, when somebody says “Jewish Settlers,” it’s always pronounced with a sneer, as if we’re all legitimate targets? Nobody ever asks what the “root causes” of Baruch Goldstein’s act of terror are, and yet they’re crawling all over themselves to declare in disinterested voices that terrorism against Jews is bad, and with passionate, angry voices about the horrible injustice that has been wrought upon the Palestinians that they should be forced to live next to a bunch of Jews! And what makes us so evil for wanting to live in our own home? And what gives everybody else the right to tell us that our home is not our home, it’s somebody else’s? And why do we have to be so perfect all the time? When the Palestinians gained control of Joseph’s tomb in Schem (Nablus,) they immediately gutted, destroyed, and burned it, yet when the Jews took control of the Machpelah, they worked out a time sharing arrangement so that Muslims and Jews could both pray there together, and yet the Jews are considered evil for being there! How outrageous! Why is it that we try so hard to be perfect, and the world seems to just hate us all the more for being so?

I’m not even close to being able to answer these questions, so I hop on the bus and head back to Be’er Sheva. We pass the green line, out of the territories, and the army escort heads back. Quiet, modern Be’er Sheva. No barbed wire, no soldiers in flak jackets and helmets, no armored personnel carriers, no “Death to Arabs” graffiti, no checkpoints, no explosions, no terrorist attacks in Be’er Sheva for the fifty three years of statehood. It seems so calm, but the very next day, two terrorists drive down the street spraying random people with bullets, killing an 18 year old and a 20 year old girl.

Despite my mixed feelings about the trip, I can definitely say that I learned more about what peace really is from one day in Hebron than from a year and a half in Israel. The settlers in Hebron taught me that peace is something that starts with us, not our enemies. The Jews of Hebron are at peace with themselves. Being in that community, one can feel that their souls are welded together as one, and that one soul of Hebron has the force of a locomotive. They are focused like a laser on what they are doing; restoring the Jewish community of Hebron, fulfilling the religious obligation to live in their homeland, and protecting the right of the Jews to pray at the Machpelah. They are prepared to make major sacrifices in their life, and occasionally of their lives, to bring this about. Fifty years ago, a generation fought in the Independence War to build the state. People who had survived five years in the concentration camps of Europe would get off the boat, be handed a gun, go to the front, and die the same day, only to be buried in an unmarked grave because nobody had time to learn their name. These people were prepared to give it all, and give it anonymously. They knew what they were doing, and the Jews of Hebron know what they are doing.

Nobody is strafing the streets of Tel Aviv with gunfire every night, nobody is sniping at babies around every street corner, I’ve never seen a kitchen full of bullet holes there, but the people are confused and lost because their paper peace of Oslo has fallen apart in their hands. Everybody used to make fun of Arafat because he kept his wife and children hidden safely in Paris. They stopped laughing last week when a report was aired on channel two that the children of almost every minister of the Labor party are living in America. If somebody doesn’t know why he’s here, then every responsibility becomes a burden, every week of reserve duty a nightmare, every bomb scare a trauma. But in Hebron, on the front lines, the people are calm and at peace with the world because they know why they are there. The hotels of Tel Aviv are empty, but I had to wait two weeks to get a free bed in Hebron. Tel Aviv has a thing or two to learn about peace from Hebron.

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