Returning to Hebron - on a Dual Narrative Tour
April 01, 2014
One of the things I knew I wanted to do, upon returning to Israel for the first time in many years, was to go with Eliyahu McLean to Hebron on his Hebron Dual Narrative Tour. I had heard about the trip from a rabbi friend, who wrote to me:
Eliyahu's trip to Hebron is amazing and wonderful and done in tandem with a Palestinian guide. I cannot recommend the experience highly enough... on Eliyahu's trip, one spends 1/2 the day speaking with Jewish settlers, and 1/2 the day speaking with Palestinians. One experiences what is happening on the ground there. It is painful, complex, and not rhetorical or polemical. It is not either/or to go with Eliyahu, but both/and in every sense of the word.
Not either/or, but both/and: that sounds right up my alley. Eliyahu was the first person ordained by Reb Zalman as a Rodef Shalom, a seeker of peace. (Learn more about his work at Jerusalem PeaceMakers which he co-founded along with the late sheikh Abdul Aziz-Bukhari, may his memory be a blessing. And here's an interview with Eliyahu at JustVision. While I'm at it -- let me mention that Eliyahu and my friend Reuven collaborated on transcribing the story of Reb Zalman Among the Sufis of Hebron, which I have cherished for years.)
I had visited Hebron once, in 2008, but not on this kind of dual-narrative trip. I was eager to see what I would learn. So last Wednesday morning I woke up early at the Ecce Homo convent and made my way through the Old City, out the Damascus Gate, and all the way down Street of the Prophets to meet up with the group. We were a mixed group of internationals: from Iceland, Denmark, Germany, Canada, the United States, and more. As far as I could tell, I was the only Jew on the tour.
(Long post ahead -- more than 4000 words, and many images, too. I hope you'll read the whole thing, despite its length.)
One of the first things that Eliyahu said to us was, "Remember that this trip is about dual narratives. You may feel at times that they are dueling narratives!" The first half of the day was spent with Eliyahu as our guide in the Jewish area of Hebron, which is called H2. H2 consists of about 20% of Hebron, geographically speaking; about 30,000-40,000 Palestinians live there. He reminded us that Hebron is one of Judaism's four holy cities, was the first capital from which King David reigned, and is considered in Jewish tradition to be second only to Jerusalem.
Eliyahu speaks to our group; two Palestinian women at the edge of Shuhada / King David street.
He pointed out that both sides in this conflict tend to paint themselves as the victims. For instance: the Palestinian narrative holds that the closure of Shuhada street (which Jews call King David street) is a form of apartheid. That street had been a primary market thoroughfare before it was closed by the IDF. Now it is a ghost town of shuttered shops (and Palestinians are forbidden from walking on most of it), which the Palestinian narrative sees as a land grab and an exercise of power and control. The Israeli narrative says that King David street was closed because of suicide bombings and other attacks on Jews, and points out that Palestinians have access to 97% of the city while Jews are confined to a mere 3%, so clearly it's the Jews, not the Palestinians, who are the victims. (That's one example of incompatible narratives; over the course of the day we encountered many others.)
Beit Hadassah; formerly a hospital, now a museum.
One of the first places we visited was Beit Hadassah. The Jewish community began construction on this building in 1893. In 1912, when Hadassah was established, this became the first clinic in the holy land, which treated Arabs and Jews alike. After the pogrom of 1929, the Jews of Hebron were forcibly evicted by the British. After 1948, Hebron was under Jordanian rule; after the Six-Day War in 1967, Hebron came under Israeli control again. The building was reclaimed dramatically in 1979 (initially by a group of women and children who moved in and refused to decamp.) Now the ground floor is the Hebron Heritage Museum, a museum to Jewish history in Hebron. The earliest material didn't particularly impact me, but the 20th-century material touched me in ways I hadn't expected. The room dedicated to the pogrom of 1929 was so emotionally affecting that I almost started weeping in front of a room full of strangers.
In the Hebron Heritage museum. Eliyahu in front of a mural; pointing at photographs from the 1929 pogrom.
As Eliyahu told the story of the 1929 massacre, it began with the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husayni in Jerusalem who began broadcasting that the Jews were trying to take over the Temple mount -- actually, Eliyahu said, they were just trying to set up a mechitzah for separate-gender prayer at the Western Wall. (About which I have complicated feelings, but that's an entirely different post.) Anyway, there was rioting in Jerusalem, and the Haganah came to Hebron and tried to provide weapons for the Jewish residents there in case self-defense were needed. The Jews, Eliyahu told us, refused the weapons. "If we take them, our friends will think we don't trust them. We know these people." Jews and Muslims had lived peacefully together in Hebron for generations, celebrating weddings and lifecycle events together. "They didn't see each other as Jews and Muslims," Eliyahu told us; "they were all Hebronites together."
But when the Mufti's radio broadcasts went out from Jerusalem, a group of Muslims in Hebron caught his nationalist fervor, armed themselves, and began marching to Jerusalem to attack. They were turned back midway... so they returned to Hebron and attacked there, instead. 67 members of the Jewish community were killed, and hundreds of others injured. Homes were trashed. Torah scrolls were desecrated. The photographs of this devastation are terrible to behold.
Source: wikipedia. Other images showed the desecrated synagogue and steps running with blood.
Many Jews attempted to take refuge in the home of Eliezer Dan Slonim, the Jewish community leader, and son of the chief rabbi of Hebron. The mob called out that they would spare him because they knew him, but they demanded that he send out anyone who wasn't his family. He replied that everyone in his home was his family. So the mob killed everyone in the house. The only survivor was a three-year-old boy who hid beneath dead bodies. (You can see him in the collage above; he is the child in the upper left-hand corner.)
As I was reeling from this, Eliyahu added, "there's also another piece of the story." Some Muslims of Hebron chose instead to shelter and to save their Jewish neighbors and friends. (There is a brief section about that on the massacre's wikipedia page: Arabs shelter Jews.) Generations of Israeli children (and soldiers) have come to this museum to learn the history of Jews in Hebron, which culminates in this atrocity and then the British decision to expel all Jews from the city for their own safety, and then in Jews reclaiming this city and this land. The implication is clear: we lived here in peace, the Muslims attacked us out of nowhere, ergo they are fundamentally untrustworthy. "How might things be different," Eliyahu asked, "if there were another display, right here, about the Muslims who protected their Jewish friends?"
Two Hebron landscapes: city, and olive orchard.
We walked past a building which serves now as a yeshiva for religious Jews, called Yeshiva Shavei Hevron. Today it is home to some 300 young men who study Torah -- some toward smicha (rabbinic ordination), others purely for spiritual enrichment. "If you're a Jew, you study Torah," Eliyahu explained. "It's central to who we are." That building is now under renovation to add a new dormitory floor. This is the only settlement construction within Hebron -- which according to the Israeli narrative isn't expansion. It's not increasing the Israeli footprint, since it's growing up rather than out.
A recently-repainted building, originally meant to be temporary, in Tel Rumeida / Admot Ishai.
From there we walked up to the hilltop Tel Rumeida -- also known as the Jewish neighborhood, or settlement, of Admot Ishai, established in 1984. (Its residents consider it a neighborhood and a legitimate Jewish habitation in a city where Jews have lived for centuries; they wouldn't call it a "settlement." Others, of course, disagree.) It consists of several small yellow-painted low buildings which were initially intended to be temporary; there is a small playground; there is an IDF military base; and there are exposed sections of an archaeological dig which reveal the original steps of the city of Hebron from about 4,000 years ago.
Archaeology of ancient Hebron.
We learned about the small community which lives on this hilltop. (Here's an article which tells some of that community's story in its own words: Tel Hevron-Admot Ishai.) And we learned a bit about the excavations and about ancient Hebron's history. Another reason why Hebron is one of Judaism's historical four holy cities: King David ruled in Hebron for seven years before moving his capitol to Jerusalem. Also, the ancestors of King David are understood to be buried there. We walked past an ancient olive orchard to reach the tomb of Ruth and Jesse (Yishai) -- Yishai being the ancestor of King David; Ruth being the ancestor of Yishai.
Tomb of Yishai and Ruth.
I stopped and said a silent prayer at that tomb, my hand pressed to the limestone. I feel a certain connection with Ruth, the intermarried outsider whose kindness and compassion to Boaz enabled his kindness and compassion to unfold in turn. From their (forbidden) marriage, our sages tell us, came a son who would one day be the ancestor of moshiach. Directly from that gravesite, one can climb a set of stairs to a rooftop outlook which looks out over the city and which I believe was part of the local IDF military base.
Me atop Tel Rumeida.
From there, a quick detour to see the small visible smidgen of a very ancient wall, even older than the original steps -- this is said to be the wall of enormous blocks which the scouts witnessed and, terrified of the giants who must have built it, retreated back to tell the other Israelites that they couldn't possibly conquer this land. (That story can be found in Torah in parashat Shlakh-Lekha.) Above this wall stands an olive orchard, and because that orchard is Palestinian-owned, no archaeological digging can take place there -- though it is believed that behind the wall, beneath the trees, are more remnants of ancient Hebron.
The very old wall.
Then down the hill to meet Mordechai, a young Orthodox rabbi who led us into the synagogue of Avraham Avinu, built in 1540. Mordechai was charismatic and pleasant to listen to; he is American-born, but moved to Hebron because the first time he visited there, as a post-college graduate interested in deeper Jewish learning, he felt immediately as though his soul had come home. He spoke repeatedly of the feeling that he and his community are there to serve a higher purpose and to access the elevated spiritual energy of this holy place.
Mordechai, our first guest speaker in H2.
People asked questions -- what's your life here like, what jobs do people have, that kind of thing -- and he gave fairly ordinary answers. One person asked whether, as rumor has it, settlers receive a stipend from the Israeli government in order to live there. "I wish it were so!" he chortled. "No, not at all." It's worth noting that he referred to this section of land as Judea and Samaria; I confirmed with him that these words are his signal that he believes the land was given to the Jewish people by God, and he said of course. "The term 'West Bank' has only existed since 1948," he pointed out, "when it was the west bank of Transjordan. The historical names are Judea and Samaria."
During the time when Hebron was under Jordanian control, the synagogue of Avraham Avinu was desecrated. One end became a public latrine; another end, a garbage dump; and in the middle, a sheep pen. The synagogue was rebuilt in 1981. Today it is once again a beautiful, clean, welcoming synagogue made of white stone with a domed roof and windows letting in the sunlight. And two original Torah scrolls which were saved have been restored to the aron kodesh -- we got to see them in their Sefardic standing cases; they are more than 300 years old, and they are beautiful.
The Torah scrolls of Avraham Avinu, now restored to their home.
Over the course of the morning we saw several monuments to people -- often women and children -- killed by Palestinian terrorist attacks. At each site, a house of study had been established in order to sanctify the memory of the deceased. For me the most horrible was the one commemorating the death of a one-year-old baby named Shalhevet Pass.
The last place that Eliyahu took us was to Ma'arat HaMachpelah, the building which stands over the Cave of Machpelah and the Tomb of the Patriarchs. According to the Torah, of course, Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah in order to bury his wife Sarah there. The building which stands atop that cave is around 2000 years old; it is built from the same Herodian stones which I recognize from the retaining wall which once held up the Temple Mount. During the 700 years of Muslim rule -- Mameluk, Ottoman, and Jordanian -- Jews (and Christians) were not permitted to enter that building. One outer wall was the closest Jews were allowed to come to the interior of the building, which is held sacred by both Jews and Muslims. We saw people praying there even now.
Eliyahu approaches the Herodian-era building over the cave; daveners outside the building.
We entered the building from the Jewish side. (The building is partitioned into a Jewish side and a Muslim side, and has been so ever since the Cave of the Patriarchs / Ibrahimi Mosque massacre.) We walked through a kollel, a place of study, where men were studying holy texts together. We walked past a small indoor/outdoor sanctuary.
The Jewish side of the building; a man in the small tent-covered sanctuary.
Eliyahu told us about the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre. He described Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator, as an Army doctor whose futile efforts to save his friends after terror attacks caused him to lose his mind. "He was constantly living with the trauma of 1929," Eliyahu said. After the Purim day (during Ramadan) when Goldstein turned a machine gun on Muslims at prayer, killing 29 and wounding 175, the building was separated into two -- a Muslim part and a Jewish part. On ten days of the year, each group gets the whole structure to use as their prayer space. The rest of the time, it's divided. (Intriguingly, each side claims that the other group has access to more of the holy space -- and each side claims that the other has a "better" set of ten days as their own. Just a few more ways in which each side feels wronged by the other.)
For a small number of Jews, Eliyahu admitted, Goldstein is a hero; though most Jews would argue that what he did was unconscionable. His acts were immediately denounced by then-Prime-Minister Yitzchak Rabin and aso by Bibi Netanyahu, who was at the time the head of the Likud party. (In terms of more recent Diaspora response, Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls him Aror, "Cursed," rather than Baruch, "Blessed.")
Eliyahu told us the story of how the caves themselves (actually a cave-within-a-cave -- the name Machpelah means "doubled") was actually discovered beneath the building, and how there were indeed bones in the interior of the cave. Some photographs were taken, some maps were drawn, and then the caves were sealed permanently, because the site is too politically hot to be allowed to be accessible. And then, behind grilles and curtains, we saw the monuments to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants.
The tombs of Avraham and of Sarah.
Then Eliyahu turned us over to our second guide, a Palestinian man named Mohammed. Mohammed would take us through H1, the Palestinian side of Hebron, where Israelis are not permitted to go.
Our Palestinian guide, Mohammed.
Mohammed was both charming and impassioned. He took us directly to a Palestinian home where we were graciously welcomed for lunch. We sat on couches alongside low tables in a whitewashed room decorated only with calligraphy quotations (I assume from the Qur'an), and a man and his wife provided us with a delicious meal of noodle soup, chicken and rice, cucumber-tomato salad, hummous and pita. I regret that I have forgotten the man's name, though his wife was named Sahour. Their little girl Malak ("Angel") was one of the sweetest kids I've ever seen; she sat right next to me, I showed her photographs of my son on my phone, and she beamed at me. (Later I showed Sahour the same photographs and we smiled at each other, one mama to another.)
Our lunch feast.
From there we returned to the building over the Cave of Machpelah, this time from the Muslim side, to see the Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi, the Ibrahimi mosque. (Jews are technically not allowed into this prayer space; I neglected to mention that I am a Jew, and the IDF guards didn't ask.) A group of Israeli soldiers arrived on some kind of training tour, and rattan rugs had been laid down so that they could walk without taking off their boots. (Everyone else in the building had taken off their shoes, as is customary when entering Muslim holy space.) Mohammed fumed that this was a clear sign of their disrespect for Islam. One of the soldiers stopped to argue with him about it, but he was clearly not mollified. To him, the soldiers in their combat boots blithely walking into his holy space were just another microaggression in a lifetime of Israeli aggressions.
The mosque; soldiers visiting the mosque.
Our next stop was a rooftop where we met a Palestinian man who told us stories about his life there in the home which his family has inhabited for generations. To reach his roof, we climbed up a few flights of narrow curving stone stairs. Along the way I caught glimpses of people inside the house, and smelled food cooking, but did my best to keep my eyes on the stairs ahead of me both so I wouldn't fall and so that I wouldn't overly-invade this family's privacy.
Palestinian rooftop view.
Atop the roof, one of the men of the house told us about being arrested and imprisoned for three months for flying a Palestinian flag, and about his water tanks being ruined by settler bullets, and about how he doesn't bother to put a lock on his house because the soldiers will just break down the door when they want to come in and terrorize his children in the night.
Rooftop tank with bullet holes.
After a tour through the shuk (which was by and large similar to last time I was there, though I couldn't help noticing that both the merchandise and the shoppers were quite sparse, compared with other marketplaces I visited in Akko and Jerusalem) our last stop was a second Palestinian home. There we were welcomed by our second host, and we sat for a while in a comfortable living room draped with embroidered goods made by his wife. We drank hot tiny cups of cardamom-spiced coffee or mint tea, and ate green almonds which were distributed, with many giggles, by a three-and-a-half-year-old boy wearing a Spiderman shirt which my son would surely have coveted.
Second home visit. Alas, no photo of the kid in the Spiderman shirt.
Our second host told us a series of stories too. His first wife died when shot by settlers, and she was pregnant at the time. Today three of his four children are elsewhere for their own safety or health; only the little boy we met still lives with him, born to his second wife. He also told us that the window in the livingroom where we were sitting (which is abutted on all sides by Israeli-controlled real estate) had been barred from the outside by the army years ago, and that settlers had tried to kill his family by sending a poisonous viper into the room -- he showed us the snake in a jar. (The other things he said were things I could understand; the part about the snake was frankly bizarre.)
Remnants of tea, coffee, almonds.
After that the conversation shifted into a kind of general Q-and-A, in which people asked questions both of our host and of Mohammed. I remember hearing from Mohammed that he absolutely believes that the settlers receive government stipends for living in Hebron, and I remember hearing him say that the Palestinians just want to live in peace, to have equal rights, and to be allowed to move freely around the country, but the Israelis aren't interested in peace and will never agree to it. (I remember hearing similar things from the Palestinians who spoke to the group with which I came to Hebron in 2008.)
Mohammed talked about how checkpoints and Israeli policies of land control make it impossible for him to travel within his own country, and about how both sides need new political voices who aren't part of the old guard. And he talked about how he still has the key to his grandparents' pre-'48 house, and someday he dreams of living there again. I thought about asking what about the people who've lived there for the last 60 years and surely regard it as home too, but I didn't. I couldn't imagine that he would have an answer which would satisfy me, and my heart felt too bruised from facing this intractable conflict all day. (How's that for American privilege? But there it is.)
He walked with us briefly into the edge of the newer city of Hebron, which had a completely different energy from what we'd seen before. It felt like any bustling Middle Eastern metropolis, alive and full of people and commerce and noise. (There we spotted a few Palestinian police; that is the part of town where Palestinian police are the local law enforcement, rather than the IDF.)
And then back to eerily-empty Shuhada Street with its closed-up storefronts. He bade us farewell at the second checkpoint there, because he's not allowed to cross over. "You can find me on Facebook," he joked, "just look for Mohammed."
Shuhada street graffiti: one protesting the ghost town, the other pro-Third-Temple.
Eliyahu met us there and we talked about the day and what our impressions were. And that's when Eliyahu said something I found really valuable: "In general," he said, "when it comes to the Jewish narrative, let the Jews tell the story of their experience; and when it comes to the Palestinian narrative, let the Palestinians tell their story."
Don't listen to the Palestinian narrative about the Jews, he advised -- for instance, there's that persistent Palestinian rumor that settlers receive government money for living in Hebron, which is not true. (Those with a low income may petition the government for welfare assistance, but that's provided to any Israeli, whether they live in Eilat, Tel Aviv, Haifa -- or Hebron. It's not a salary given for simply moving to contested territory.) By the same token, he noted, don't listen to the Jewish narrative about the Palestinians, which tends to be equally wrong. Instead, he urged, listen with compassion to each community tell its own story in its own voice.
It was only then that I discovered that the man in whose apartment we'd had coffee and almonds at the end of the day was the man from a recent news story I'd read before leaving the US. He'd put a Palestinian flag on his roof, and a settler (annoyed by its presence) came to remove it for him -- but got caught in the barbed wire between the Israeli-controlled buildings and his rooftop. So the Palestinian man helped the settler extricate himself, and then the army told him to remove the flag because in that location it was a provocation (although there are several Israeli flags on neighboring rooftops, which are apparently not considered provocative), and he did. (You can read all about it, and also see a few videos -- which feature our second Palestinian host, the man who had the flag on his roof -- here: Settler seeking to remove Palestinian flag in Hebron gets tangled in barbed wire, Jerusalem Post.)
Duelling propaganda 1: "Palestine never existed (and never will)."
Over the course of the day we saw Jewish posters arguing against the presence of Palestinians, and Palestinian posters arguing against the presence of Jews. It's clear that each side wants to delegitimize the other's claim to this place -- Jewish materials note that Hebron is only the fourth-holiest city in Islam while it's the second-holiest in Judaism; Palestinian materials argue that Jews have no historical connection to the land; and so on.
Duelling propaganda 2: "Warning! this is illegally occupied land."
The mistrust and misunderstanding on each side is phenomenal. Eliyahu mentioned that even today, his Jewish colleagues ask how he can trust the Palestinian guides with whom this tour collaborates. Mohammed described settlers as "crazy" and told us that they are all armed and dangerous, and it was clear that he regarded most Israelis as untrustworthy. I'm pretty sure that Eliyahu thinks we need to find a different paradigm, one in which each side acknowledges the other's connections to and love of this land. I do, too. But I don't have any idea how that's going to happen.
I came away from the day feeling overwhelmed and sad, my mind abuzz and charged-up from all of the stories we'd heard, my heart weary and drained. Hearing about the murderous pogrom of 1929, or the anti-Jewish suicide bombings of recent decades, makes me want to cry, or throw up, or possibly both. And then on the other side the stories of pregnant Palestinian women killed by settler gunfire, or Palestinian children traumatized by late-night IDF incursions, give me the same kind of emotional reaction. (For more datapoints, look at this list of incidents in Hebron.) In one set of stories, Jews are the victims. In the other set of stories, Jews are the perpetrators. The cognitive dissonance makes my head spin.
The hardest thing for me is that I can't see how things are going to get better. Of course, one could argue that the very fact of this dual narratives tour is a sign of hope. The fact that Jerusalem Peacemakers teamed up with this Palestinian NGO and with Abraham Tours to make this happen, and the fact that a group goes twice a week and the tour seems always to be full, is a sign of hope. The fact that people are trying to meet each other, however clumsily and cautiously, is a sign of hope. But these are small signs of hope taken against the backdrop of a deeply-entrenched history of enmity and mistrust.
More duelling signage.
On the bus back to Jerusalem I heard Eliyahu talking with another person who'd been on the tour, and I heard him saying that just as our conflicting religious stories often fuel the violence, those same religious stories can fuel our reconciliation. (That's the kind of answer I associate with Rabbi Menachem Froman, may his memory be a blessing.) I hope that he is right, and that our religious traditions -- including the one which I so deeply love, and in which I have dedicated my life to serve -- can help to heal these wounds. But I don't know where to go from here.
I'm glad I went on this dual narratives tour; I absolutely recommend it. But as one of my fellow passengers said on the bus back to Jerusalem, "I feel like I have more questions now than I did before we started." I think that's a sign that the tour did its job, but sitting with these tensions is hard. And I'm always aware that I'm generally coming to this from the comfortable perspective of the Diaspora. I live half a world away. My confusion and grief matter to me because I'm marinating in them, and because as a rabbi and a Jew I feel connected with these stories in complicated ways, but my feelings and reactions are nowhere near as important as the suffering and anger of those who live with these realities every day.
If you would like to see more photos, here's the photoset from this daytrip: Dual Narratives Trip to Hebron. (And here's my photoset from the other parts of my trip: Israel 2014.)
Also worth reading:
- In the Land of Double Narrative, a Tikkun article by Mimi Schwarz about Hebron.
- Day Trip to Hebron Photoessay by Adam Groffman, which chronicles the same dual narratives trip I took, though with a few different features.