It is amazing how different the two halves of a day can be. I would be hard pressed to remember a day in which the two halves were as far removed, one from the other, as they were today.
The first half was phenomenal! Jennifer, Maital and I were picked up by Yechial (yes, he really is becoming our personal driver), and he took us to Tel Aviv for the dedication of the Behavioral Science Building at school in Yaffo. What made the dedication so incredibly special was that the school was not just this amazing building and amazing school, and not just the amazing work of the Tel Aviv Foundation, but the building was being dedicated in honor of Ruben Rosental’s father, Benjamin Rosental z”l.
It was a beautiful treat to get to see Fanny and Ruben Rosental, Ruben’s mother, his brother, and other members of his family on this special day. The ceremony was beautiful, and it was a pleasure to see the honor shown his mother on this day where her late husband was being recognized.
Jennifer and I consider ourselves blessed that Ruben and Fanny would invite us this special ceremony, and the lovely lunch that followed. We were especially fortunate that we could actually accept their invitation.
A wonderful man, a wonderful family, a wonderful school, a wonderful dedication, a wonderful foundation and a wonderful half-of-a-day.
Sadly we had to rush back from lunch because that afternoon was a very important program through the Hartman Institute.
(Before I continue, I want to add that when I got back to the apartment at the end of the day, I was moved, overwhelmed, depressed, that I couldn’t even talk about it. I told Jen that I didn’t even think I could write about it. Now, a few days later, I think I am ready to try.)
The afternoon program was a trip to and a partial tour of the city of Hebron, with a group called Shovrim Hashtikah – Breaking the Silence.
Some background: Hebron is an ancient city, whose Jewish roots go back to the time of Abraham. In fact, after Sarah died, Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah as her burial site. It was the first Jewish purchase of land in Israel. Over the subsequent years, the Cave of Machpelah became the burial place not only for Sarah, but also for Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, Leah and Jacob (Rachel is buried somewhere else).
Throughout the Settlement of Israel, from the middle of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century, the Jews of Hebron had wonderful relations with the Arabs.
Then in August of 1929, when relations between Jews and Arabs all over the land of Israel were deteriorating, a group from Jerusalem came down with a truck full of guns, offering to arm the Jewish citizens of Hebron. The Jews of Hebron refused the guns, claiming that it would only be insulting and inciting of their Arab neighbors.
A few days later, the Mufti of Jerusalem made a completely false radio announcement that the Jews of Jerusalem had risen up, attacked the Temple Mount, and were slaughtering the Arabs of Jerusalem.
On that day, the Arabs of Hebron rose up against their Jewish neighbors and brutally murdered 69 Jews and wounded many others.
I will mention at this point, that driving through contemporary Hebron, one sees Hebrew Grafitti reading – Nekama/Revenge – in reference to the need for vengeance for the massacre of 1929.
It is also part of the tragic history that on Purim in 1994, Barry Goldstein, may his name be blotted out, wearing an Israeli Army Reservist Uniform, entered the Mosque at the Cave of Machpelah, murdering 29 and wounding over 150.
Hebron itself is in the West Bank, so from 1948-1967 it was land occupied by Jordan.
After the Six Day War, it became land occupied by Israel.
Like other areas of the Occupied Territories, over the past twenty-five years settlers committed to making these territories part of the State of Israel, which they are not, have been trying to build homes.
Unlike many other areas, there are clear Jewish roots here, all the way back to the beginning.
Also unlike other places, Jews and Arabs live side-by-side in this city. Jews have not built separate new communities/villages in which they live, but rather they have moved into the existing city itself.
In Hebron, there are four settlements. In this city, “settlement” does not mean neighborhood or community, it literally means a single multi-story apartment building.
After the Hebron Accords in 1997, the city was split into two sections, one under the authority of the Palestinian Authority and one under the authority of the Israeli government. The PA section is much larger, more populous, and contains no Jews. The Israeli section contains the Cave of Machpelah, the old center of town area, and is about 85-90% Arab. The Jews are a small minority.
In fact, the most surprising statistic of all – there are only about 500 Jews living in Hebron. That’s it. Of the 500, about 250 are Yeshiva students, so there are actually only about 250 permanent Jewish residents of Hebron.
Shovrim Hashtikah, Breaking the Silence, the group bringing us to Hebron, is a group of Israeli’s have served at least part of their in the Occupied Territories, who have chosen to share their stories. They do not have a political agenda as it relates to resolving the macro issues, but they believe that the Israeli public, in general, is unaware of the conditions in Hebron and other places. They also believe that the public is unaware of how soldiers, active and reservists, are called upon to behave in performing their duties.
Our time in Hebron was split into three – time at the Cave of Machpelah, time with an Arab in his home, and time with a settler.
It is not possible for me to fully articulate my experience or emotional state during the hours we were in Hebron. I will try, but I fully expect to fail.
First: The Cave of Machpelah
This was the one part of the trip for which I was really looking forward. This is the grave of our sacred ancestors – the first generations of Jews. Also, this is a meeting site for Jews and Arabs, since we share the same progenitor, and all revere the site of his burial. Even today with all of the issues in Hebron, the Cave, really the buildings above the cave are shared. On most days, it is divided Jews have access to one part, and through the Mosque Muslims have access through the other. In fact, about ten days out of the year, the whole is given to the Muslims and about 10 days out of the year, the whole is given to the Jews. Seems to be cooperation, right?
Very few things are as dangerous as expectations. To get to the Jewish entrance, one goes down a street that has been sterilized (Israeli army’s term) – meaning freed from Arabs. The street is filled with locked up store fronts, owned by Arabs. Actually, the owners of the stores have access to their properties, but only them, no other Arabs. So even if they opened, there would be no Arab shoppers.
And all of the closed up shops are covered with hate-filled graffiti.
Serious military presence everywhere.
If Jerusalem and Tsfat each has a unique flavor, essence, radiance to the air in the city, so too does Hebron. It is hatred, vengeance, blood and death.
I once flew through Frankfurt on my way to Israel. I was very uncomfortable in airport – signs in German and lots of armed men. My mind was able to rationally understand that I was safe and Germany at the end of the Twentieth Century was not the same as Germany 50 or 60 years earlier.
But at Hebron, my rational and irrational were in perfect agreement – this place was filled with an evil – visible, physical, palpable, breathable.
It was oppressive. My soul languished with each story our guides told us, each piece of grafitti. Learning where Arabs are and are not allowed to walk. Learning where Arabs are and are not allowed to drive cars. Watching the Arabs walk around fearful, diverting their eyes, uncomfortable.
And the Jewish settlers and many of the visitors to the Cave walk around like conquerors. I wanted to vomit at their sight.
Do not misunderstand me. There is a great deal more to the story. There is plenty of violence and hatred on both sides.
We stood in an area that had been the Arab meat market before the Hebron Accords, that then became deserted space that the Jewish settlers began using for rallies and other events. At one such event, an Arab sniper from the adjoining neighborhood shot and killed a ten month old baby girl.
Nobody has a monopoly on evil.
And I couldn’t breathe.
There are more Israeli armed service women and men – soldiers, police officers and border patrol – in Hebron than there are the Israelis they are there to protect (about 600 uniformed personnel to about 500 residents).
And here we were at the Cave. The resting place of Abraham and Sarah who gave birth to great nations, through whose children the nations of the earth are to be blessed, who welcomed strangers.
Being in Israel, has me even more aware of the struggle to identify, sense, be aware of God’s presence in this world.
In Hebron, I became painfully aware of the utter lack of the Divine Presence. This was a place that was God-less. God and the Godly have been sent into exile from Hebron.
This is Abraham, at whose death his sons Isaac and Esau came back together, peacefully, to bury him, and the Shechinah cannot visit his grave.
And I stood outside the cave watching Jews pray. This is a place of hatred, a localization of evil in a place that is holy. This is a place of Avodah Zarah – of idol worship. So, which is idol upon whose altar the residents of Hebron worship? Hatred. Bloodshed. Nationalism. Violence. Domination. Memory. Religion. Intolerance. The Pantheon of Hebron is crowded with evil idols, and their worshippers are committed.
If I had to do it again, I would not have gone inside. It is a maze of little corners to study and to pray, with the tombs that are accessible from the Jewish side in small adjoining rooms that are to be viewed but not entered.
I felt bed. A member of my group had Kaddish, so when we first got there, he put together a minyan. I would have loved to participate, but I couldn’t. It is an issur d’oraita, a prohibition from the Torah, to pray at a place of Avodah Zarah. (I was assuaged a bit that he made minyan without my help.)
After the cave, we visited Hani, an Arab man who lives at the end of one of the streets that is Arab-free (sterilized). For Arabs who live on this streets, they are permitted to live in their homes, but when they exit they must walk down the street, in a pre-determined direction, without dalliance, to a street upon which Arabs are permitted.
Hani welcomed us into his home and told us his story. He also showed us video from Jewish settlers attacking the homes of Arabs. They are wild and insane videos. It looks like my image of Kristallnacht except the people breaking windows and pulling down fences are wearing kippot and tzitzit. Dreadful.
And there are soldiers who are present and watching.
Under their orders, soldiers are not permitted to engage the settlers who are Israeli citizens. They are their to protect the settlers (Israeli citizens) from the Arabs. So if the settlers want to riot or attack Arabs, all the army can do is watch. It is the job of the police. So, where were the police in the video? Not in it, that much is clear. The third group, Israeli Border Patrol, are there to guard and manage the check points which control the access between the different sides of Hebron.
Like I side, the truth is quite complicated.
After leaving Hani, we went to meet a settler whose name alludes me and was not included in my written journal. He was warm and friendly – like meeting your uncle.
In the basement of one of the settlements (remember, settlement = 1 apartment building in Hebron) is a museum for the massacre of 1929 and for the victims of that great tragedy.
But this is not a museum. This is not lichvod hamet – for the honor of the dead. This is a place of chilul zekher neshamot – desecration of the memory of souls. The “museum” is an attempt to take the memory of the murdered and to use it as a defense of the revenge ideology, as proof that the Arabs are evil and can’t be trusted, and to convince the viewer of the rightfulness of the settlers cause.
Through the ears of my soul I stood there and listened to the souls of the righteous who died through Arab hatred of Jews, begging Jews to let them rest and not be used to serve Jewish hatred of Arabs.
The ears of the soul are very sensitive, and days later as I write this, those cries are very much with us, stinging to the depths of my soul, begging for help.
After our brief tour of this vile-place they call a museum, the fellow leading us through sat us down, told us about himself, his family, the settlement. He seemed so nice – not just nice, cheimish. He told us about Arab atrocities against Jews, and who righteous his side is. He put himself on the side of the Chalutzim who built up the Land of Israel, against all odds and against the desires of the larger world. “If they were not committed, in spite of the opposition,” he argued, “there would be no Israel today.”
Again, he seemed so reasonable. But he wasn’t. Not all commitments are equal. It is dishonest, even blasphemous to associate his commitment to hate and to ignoring and subverting the will of the Israeli government and its laws, when they don’t support him, with the commitment to those who built the land. Those settlers came in love, with a sense of righteousness, many of whom, at least in the early years, had a broad sense of universalism that included care and concern for the Arabs – read Theodore Herzl’s “Old-New Land.”
It was stifling to be in the room with him.
Finally we were back on the bus. From the moment we entered Hebron, I had not eaten, I had not had any thing to drink, I barely spoke. My afternoon fast was a prayer for this place and these people, a prayer that God’s blessings would eradicate their curses for each other, a prayer that the light of Righteousness, Goodness and Compassion would enlighten the darkness that envelops this city and all the inhabitants thereof.
And I just wanted to leave.
When the friend of mine who had Kaddish wanted to stop at the Cave on the way out for minyan, I asked him if he would instead make minyan back in Jerusalem when we got home. He was concerned that everybody would just run away.
So we stopped again at the Cave. I couldn’t just his minyan. (They made minyan just fine without me.) I just couldn’t do it. It is an issur d’oraita to pray at a place of avodah zarah. The Shechinah had been sent packing, forcefully.
The Gates of Heaven above this place are closed. They will remain closed until the voices calling up are voices of Teshuvah instead of voices of hatred. The Gates will open when the memories of the righteous are for a blessing instead of a curse.
I stood off to the side and offered Tehillim, Psalms, praying that God should help us, help them, do the Teshuvah necessary to reopen the Gates and to again make the Cave of Machpelah a place that honors the memories of our ancestors.
And one thing is clear in Hebron – it is not at all clear how that will happen or what we can do to help.
And when I got home – late, ragged, lost, from the schizophrenic day just ended – all I could do was go quietly to bed, and pray.