On the bus to from Jerusalem to Hebron, we met Avner, our Brad Pitt-looking guide. As he introduced himself – a former special forces soldier in the Israeli army (IDF) in Hebron – we drove over the “green line” that separates Israel proper from the Palestinian West Bank. We wouldn’t have known we had passed that invisible barrier if Avner hadn’t told us. The green line doesn’t inconvenience Jews.
The scene we were taking in concealed a much more troubling reality. Lining the streets leading away from the main square and the tombs of the m/patriarchs, there are short concrete walls. About the height of your knee and six inches thick, they are the type of thing you might see in the median of a highway. The wall divides the street, Jews from Arabs, Avner says. People in the tour are incredulous; a child could step over those things! But they don’t. Avner asks us what had happened to the begging children who had met our bus in the parking lot. Until he mentioned it, I had barely noticed that they’d disappeared. There had been no physical barrier for them at the gate, but they knew not to cross the line into a “Jews only” zone. The same was true of these stubby, symbolic walls in the city. The line was less visible and much more ominous than a physical fence. Looking up, soldiers patrolled the sun-baked streets, armed with (American made) M-16 rifles, and they are authorized to use force against Palestinians whenever they deem necessary. Many settlers around us carry weapons also.
Around the first corner we ducked behind a building to find shade for a quick history lecture. Nearby, eight or nine Israeli soldiers lounged on the steps of an abandoned building. Far from crisp and disciplined, these teenagers looked more like thugs than troops, sitting and lying on the ground joking with one another, with rifles held casually pointed in all directions. Seeing them did not convey a sense of security, but quite the opposite; they were a menacing presence here. On that corner we learned about the “Mute Woman,” as she is called by soldiers. In fact, she is deaf, and lives with another deaf woman and her small son in one of the houses we were looking at. Since that house, like all of the ones on this street, faces a “sterilized” road (they are actually called that), she is not allowed to leave her house, and is under most circumstances not allowed to have guests. Her son was isolated for years, and has been abused by soldiers and settlers.
Story after story pours out of Avner, of the injustice of Hebron. Too many to recount, and even if I did, it wouldn’t have the gravity it deserves, as it did coming from a man who experienced them. This place is horrible. A friend once described it to me as the worst place in the world. I believe it. Apartheid is part of it, but the violence and injustice goes even beyond institutional segregation.
In Hebron, the violence occurs actively – for example, a story Avner told of an IDF soldier stationed on a hill there with a grenade launcher. The grenade launcher had a killing radius of 50 yards in every direction of impact, and during the second intifada (uprising) this soldier was ordered to fire on any sniper’s position, with the collateral damage in the densely populated neighborhood seen as collective punishment for lone gunmen. The first day, we’re told, the soldier is horrified by the order and misses the town intentionally when he has to fire. After a few days on that hill, he can sleep when he goes home. The sixth time he is stationed there, he spends the shift waiting for the order to fire, and by the eighth time it’s like a video game for him. Who knows how many children this otherwise ‘good guy” killed. That is active violence.
But in a way, the passive violence there was more surprising. The past few years in Hebron have been relatively quiet in terms of open clashes. After the second intifada (more than a decade ago) the main market of Hebron and many of the main streets were shut down for Arabs, their shops confiscated and their doors of their homes welded shut. Despite admitting in 2006 that the ongoing restriction was a “mistake,” there has been no change in IDF policy – the areas remain shut and the whole city remains segregated. Humans are phenomenally adaptable though – people with amputated legs learn to wheel or crutch themselves around, those who lose their sight learn to read brail, and the Palestinians of Hebron largely became accustomed to life under occupation. When we walked there, no Arab shouted or cursed at us. No resident stared in shock at the utter inhumanity of the apartheid. No child cried out and pleaded for her and her parents to be treated with dignity. Only graffiti and the occasional Palestinian flag stood in protest. People went on about their days. In other words, this has become normal for many folks on both sides of the line. Being there, and experiencing the normality of it all was absolutely excruciating.
If I choke a person, that is clearly violent, but if I lock a person in a room with no access to food, that is also violence, though I am not laying a hand on the victim. Both types occur in Hebron, but the passive violence is more troubling to me. We are over stimulated these days by active violence. Nearly the only international crises that make the news in the US are ones that involve heaps of dead bodies. For example, Sudan mattered, kind of, because there was cruelty and murder on a staggering scale. Extreme poverty and coup de tats in Haiti barely made the news until an earthquake killed hundreds of thousands. So anything less than genocide is… whatever. We can say, “wow, the world is crazy” and change the channel.
This is not to say I think Palestinians in Hebron have been beaten down and their spirits destroyed. Far from it. Having conversations with people you can tell how varied and complex, but universally deep, people’s feelings are. People are shockingly balanced in their views actually, and as we walked through H1, the Palestinian area, not one person spit on us and not one person cursed us. In their shoes, I think I would have.
Settlers can be violent with impunity. They are technically under civilian law, but police have made it clear through word and practice that they will not enforce any law on a Jewish settler. Meanwhile, the solders who impose martial law on Palestinians are legally unable to so much as touch a settler, regardless of the situation. The written orders given to soldiers serving in the settlements state that even in the case a settler opens fire on them, they are to take cover until the attacking settler runs out of ammunition, then when it is clear, run away. Like the Stanford Prison Experiment, I wonder how many people can hold on to their humanity given such power over others. Settlers are often imbued with religious superiority and racist ideology, but even if they weren’t, how many people can refrain from sadism when put in a place where violence and cruelty have zero consequences? Having seen Hebron and heard and read soldiers’ and residents’ testimonies to the crimes committed there, I can’t help but wonder if that freedom of violence doesn’t affect the decisions of some to stay in or move to the settlements in the first place. It certainly has to affect them once they’ve lived there.
Don’t get me wrong, the settlers are complex. I am told many of them take their houses because they are poor and the houses are subsidized by the government and by right wing Zionist groups from America. Others are so religious they just want to live in “Judea and Samaria,” regardless of the politics behind it, and some claim they would choose to stay and live under Palestinian rule in the case of a two-state solution. Still others, obviously, are ideologically opposed to Palestine as a nation, or are simply racist against Arabs.
The soldiers are even more interesting. The IDF rotates shifts in the West Bank towns, especially Hebron, the way the NYPD rotated shifts at Occupy Wall Street – they don’t want the troops getting too friendly with the residents, or having too much time to think about what they’re doing. Having an IDF guide was amazing though because I got to hear about his experience and that of his comrades. In fact, while we were touring Hebron, there was a whole group of ex IDF soldiers who were there, practicing to give tours for Breaking the Silence. When they are posted to Hebron (or anywhere in the West Bank), they are usually teenagers, new to the army. They are kids and ideologues, trained to protect each other, Israel, and most of all to follow orders. Service in the military is mandatory for Jewish Israelis (though notably not for the most religious of them), and the West Bank takes up a lot of personnel. At one point or another, many Israeli soldiers patrol the West Bank. The fact that so many Israeli citizens have been put in that situation makes me wonder what affect that has on Israeli society as well.
Being in a situation like Hebron, for either a soldier or a settler, is the problem. Maybe some individuals of both groups are to blame, because at the end of the day we are responsible for our own actions. But really, truly, the system that perpetuates the occupation is the culprit. The Israeli government gives the orders that the soldiers are pressured to follow, and the money behind the settlements lures Jews to them. The Jewish right wing plays their part to facilitate both.
How can we allow this to go on? Because the Torah says Abraham bought a field here from a Hittite for 30 pieces of silver, thousands of years ago? Who cares! What is the justification? Arabs rioted and killed 67 Jews in 1929? 116 Arabs were killed in those riots elsewhere in Palestine, and history records many Arabs in Hebron protecting Jews against their rioting neighbors. They say many Israelis, many Jews, and even many settlers are unaware of the price Palestinians (and Israelis, ultimately) pay for the existence of Jewish settlements. I hope so. The more people are aware of this terrible cost, the worse it reflects on our people’s morality.
Or is this really just sheer racism? Here it isn’t entirely skin color. Jews, Israelis, and settlers come in all colors, from red-haired Europeans to black-skinned Africans. Aside from the black African Jews, the rest of the Jews in Israel are by and large interchangeable with Palestinians – Palestinians also come in blondes and brunettes alike. The racism is over language, culture, and religion. It is being Arab and Muslim that distinguishes a Palestinian from a Jew here. But when the Jews have been in power in Israel since 1948, why hate the neighbors? Yes, the new state of Israel was attacked immediately from all sides, but one would think a people who had been chased from place to place all over Europe would understand why. Is it the unfettered and weak-minded desire to be part of a superior racial group? Is it collective trauma from the Holocaust, an entire people’s aggressor identification, where they kid who was beaten and tortured by his parents grows up to be a sadistic parent himself? I don’t have any answers, but the question has to be raised, how do people do this to each other? For me personally, how can a people who claim to uphold Judaic laws of justice and harmony do this to a vulnerable population, merely a generation after it was done to us half a continent away? It is being done in the name of Judaism – in my name, as a Jew – and for me that only deepens the hurt that is Hebron, and the entire occupation.
Some people stand behind Israel unequivocally, because, “hey, there are so many anti-Semites in the world; Israel is alone in a bad neighborhood and they could attack again at any moment.” If anything, the settlers and the government that supports them are creating anti-Semitism. Are the Palestinians better people, who will let this all go when there is peace, and be good neighbors to Israel? That is their business – we have to be better than that worry, and have to start putting some skin in the game. Many do already. We can’t play dumb and sit idlely by the sidelines anymore. But what can we do? The only obvious thing is to educate each other. American Jews like to not discuss this one, but we can’t afford that luxury. I can’t afford to recount the stories of my trip to Israel – the ancient streets of Jerusalem, a serene moonlit cup of tea in a Kibbutz, the crystal clear water at the beach in Tel Aviv, the beautiful and belligerent people everywhere – and omit Hebron because it will be uncomfortable or ruin the mood at the dinner table. The existence of elderly family or friends who survived the holocaust, or who didn’t, is not an excuse to justify or turn a blind eye to atrocities in Palestine.
I used to pontificate about a solution to the Israel/Palestinian problem. After seeing Hebron, it doesn’t feel so easy anymore. I still believe in a two state solution for the time being, because I believe every people deserves land and self-determination. Beyond that it is just so obvious that the West Bank must be freed from occupation. It is so obvious that it feels silly to write that sentence. If Israel wants to annex Palestine in whole and grant everyone equal citizenship and voting rights, great. If they want to cut bait and evict the settlers, leaving the West Bank in Palestinian hands, fine. But it absolutely cannot be allowed to continue as it is. Calling it insulting to Palestinians is absurdly understated. The occupation is insulting to human dignity, and more than that it is insulting to every Jew who thinks her tradition and her people have morals.