Back in Hebron to see the city through the settlers’ eyes.

***Part 4 of a four-part travel diary, in which I explore Hebron first from a left-wing perspective and then from a right-wing perspective, inviting the reader to make his/her own mind up about the city.***

“I guess what I’d like to know most,” I said, “is why on earth you would want to live here, of all places.” I am sitting in the living room of David Wilder, who showed me around Hebron in the morning as the Jewish community’s official spokesman. I wouldn’t live in this city even if you set me up in a penthouse on the roof of the Cave of the Patriarchs: so why would David want to live here with his family?

“Where is ideal to live?” David asks, bemused. “Go live in South Korea, take a ferry. Live in Kiev! Where is ideal?”

photo 3-4

Could you move a bit to the left?

But David lives in a war zone, and his home bears ample proof. The Wilder home has absorbed more than its fair share of bullets. There is a bullet hole in the window frame in the children’s bedroom, another on the wall where a bullet narrowly missed David’s daughter, and another in the wardrobe door.

Hebron is a microcosm,” David explains. Curiously, I have heard this sentence once before: last week, in Hebron, from Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence. Avner meant that Hebron was a microcosm of the Occupation, in terms of the restrictions placed on the Arabs. But for David, Hebron is a microcosm of the State of Israel: “It’s difficult to live here, because we’re surrounded by Arabs”, and since there are more of them than us, should we just pack up and leave?

“Anywhere you go in Israel, you’re threatened.” Some might hope for Arab hostility to wane if the Occupation ended, but “the Arabs see no difference between Tel Aviv and Hebron. Maybe just give them the Kotel? Where do you draw the line?”

There is no doubt that Jews have a right to live here: this is the starting-point of all discussion. “If a Jew were told he could not live in Hebron, Nebraska – that would be racism!” There are some twenty Hebrons in the world, he says. How could it possibly be that Hebron, Judea, is the only one that must be Judenrein?

Moreover, if Jews did not exercise their right to live here, there is no way that Jews would be able to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs: the Arabs wouldn’t allow it. So the settlers see themselves as the custodians of the Machpelah on behalf of the Jewish people. Military control of territory is untenable in the long-run without a civilian population for the military to protect. If the settlements were evacuated, the army would have to go, and Jewish prayer rights (and in the case of other settlements – strategic depth) would vanish.

That’s the basic strategic logic of the entire settlement movement.

David begins to complain about the call to prayer of the muezzin at the mosque; I suspect he is exaggerating, because he probably doesn’t like to hear it. But then ‘Allahu Akhbar’ blares through the window, and I jump: the noise is impossibly loud, as if every loudspeaker in the Levant had been fixed on that minaret. I can only imagine how intrusive it must be for the Muslims who live closer to the mosque than David does.

A few years back, Palestinians complained about the noise of loud Hassidic music blaring from the roof of the Gutnick Centre; the loudspeakers had been installed by Kiryat Arba resident Ofer Ochanah, whom readers might remember from my first excursion to Hebron. The environmental inspectors confirmed that the muezzin was far louder than the Hassidic music, but it continues uninterrupted – an obtrusive instrument of some very nasty religious coercion in this city.

But the fact remains that “this is the first Jewish city in Israel”, an “integral, essential part of Judaism”. So despite the terrorist attacks and the really quite frightfully loud muezzin, “it’s a privilege to live here”.

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John Kerry would have a heart attack if he saw this illegal washing line.

John Kerry would have a heart attack if he could see this illegal washing line.

The status quo, however, is clearly unpleasant – both for the Jews and their Arab neighbours. David says he would much rather the security measures disappeared and Hebron returned to being an open city.

So I press the question: How do the Jews of Hebron see their community twenty years hence? What is their vision, and what are their hopes, for the future of this city and this land?

The two-state solution is obviously a non-starter. “Even if Abu Mazen does teshuva [repentence] and withdraws his PhD [on a ‘secret relationship’ between the Nazis and Zionists]”, what if Hamas comes into power? What do we do if Palestine fires missiles on Ra’anana? The Palestinians made their phased plan to destroy Israel perfectly plain. “It’s what their leadership says, and they mean it – why shouldn’t I believe it?” Such a state would be an existential threat for Israel, the launchpad for a campaign to wipe Israel off the map.

“Of course they want peace, but they spell it P-I-E-C-E.”

The Palestinians do not want their own state alongside Israel. Why else would Arafat have rejected Barak’s proposal at Camp David, more generous than he could have imagined “in his greatest wet dreams”? Netanyahu put Abbas “in the corner” by demanding that he recognise Israel as a Jewish state – the Palestinian leader had nothing to lose by calling Israel a Jewish state, but he cannot reconcile himself to the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Moreover, and here’s the rub, David is convinced that the Palestinians do not want their own state at all. The PA is corrupt. They would all rather live in Israel.

Nor is the two-state solution going to happen. I ask David whether the settlers here would agree to be evacuated in the context of a peace treaty. “It’s just not gonna happen,” he says casually. The Israeli public doesn’t want it. “I have no doubt we’re going to stay.”

So if the two-state solution is not in Israelis’ interests, nor in Palestinians’ interests, and if it would violate the rights of Jews to live here, and it won’t happen in any case, what gives?

The solution (“of course”) is to extend Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Judea and Samaria. This is the so-called ‘Israeli solution’ of Caroline Glick, a latter-day Theodor Herzl for the Israeli Right: a journalist promoting an agenda that few take seriously – for now.

The idea is to establish a Greater Israel on all the land between the river and the sea (excluding Gaza), and to give the Palestinians full citizenship. If they agree to certain conditions, that is: to swear an oath of loyalty to the state, to give up terrorism, and to cease incitement. Do these conditions need to be accepted by Palestinian society as a whole, or only by individuals? “Look, I can’t tell you now exactly what papers everyone is going to have to sign, but there will be conditions.”

The key is demographics.

The present numbers forecasting an Arab majority in such a state “are all out of whack”. There are only 1.5 million Arabs in Judea and Samaria (“I’ve seen the numbers”), who together with 1.5 million Israeli Arabs would make for a minority of 3 million, against a Jewish population of 6 million. “I’m not a prophet,” David says, but the Jewish population will soon leap to 10 million with a mass aliyah from Europe and the US, where extremist Islam will make life increasingly intolerable. Throw in the mix rising Jewish fertility rates, and falling Arab birth rates, and the Palestinians could not catch up “even if there are 2.5 million” of them.

There is no demographic time bomb, no demographic threat: a Jewish and democratic one-state solution is possible, with an Arab minority anywhere between 23–33% of the Greater Israeli population.

Bennett’s plan to annex the 60% of Judea and Samaria that is Area C, and give the Arabs in Areas A and B autonomy, is “a good first step”, but should ultimately give way to the annexation of the whole lot.

“Where I come from, they would call you an extreme leftist,” I say with a bemused smile. David grimaces. “Have you ever considered cooperating with the Left, since you both want the exact same thing?”

David tuts. The Left has a very different vision of a one-state solution, he says. In fact, he seems to reserve most scorn for the quislings of the Left, and in particular Breaking the Silence, which is he says is paid by foreigners to influence Israel. In any other country, they would be jailed for treason. (The Hebron Fund, which David works for, is headquartered in New York, but I let that one pass.)

Breaking the Silence spreads lies, anyway. The racist graffiti I saw last time in Hebron? Probably scrawled by leftist provocateurs so they could photograph ‘evidence’ of the settlers’ criminality. The community painted over most of it once it received permission from the army.

The bottom line is this: If Jews have a right to live in Hebron, they should stand their ground and fight for their right to their homes, instead of allowing themselves to be chased out of town because of moral scruples about the disruption to the lives of the Arab population. Because if it’s the latter, then the State of Israel might as well just pack up and go. The Occupation is not ideal, and that’s why many settlers want to end it: they just have a very different picture of how it can and should be done from the international consensus.

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As we drive towards the charming Avraham Avinu neighbourhood, on the ruins of the old Jewish Quarter, I feel I must point out the elephant in the room: Baruch Goldstein, the settler who committed the bloody massacre of Muslim worshippers in the Cave of Patriarchs in 1994.

“We don’t spend ages thinking about it,” David says sanguinely. Most of the visitors at Goldstein’s grave in Kiryat Arba are left-wing tour groups. “The community doesn’t accept that the solution is to kill  and the proof is that everyone here is armed but nobody shoots.” Instead, the community has its sights set on the future: he hopes that Jews will be able to move into vacant, Jewish-owned property here soon, but the Ministry of Justice “makes up the rules in the middle of the game.”

Before my return to Jerusalem, I ascend the steps of the Cave of the Patriarchs for a momentary pilgrimage. According to the international consensus, Israel must cede this site together with the holy places in Jerusalem for peace. It is unimaginable, apparently, that Jews should hold Islam’s third-holiest site – but totally uncontroversial that Muslims should hold Judaism’s second-holiest site, this sacred tomb. Go figure why international public opinion is held in such low regard here.

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It really isn’t something we do enough: listening to people with whom we disagree, from their own mouths. Too often the Right learns about the Left through the right-wing media, and the Left about the Right through the left-wing media. And this mediation distorts our understanding of what our political opponents want and think. It becomes easy to dismiss the Other as crazy, because we never hear how he thinks: only how someone else thinks that he thinks. So instead of understanding where our opponents are going wrong – maybe there is a factual mistake, or the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises, or a certain value judgement is dubious – we dismiss their statements as utterly false at best, or mendacious at worst.

This failure of engagement is poisonous for public debate and democracy, because it pushes people further apart: as our opinions of the Other are entrenched, we become less and less likely to give them a fair hearing – even if doing so can open our eyes to a truth we never grasped, or at least give us a better picture of what we’re up against.

What I have tried to do in this series is to give readers as unmediated an impression as possible of what Hebron looks like from a left-wing perspective and from a right-wing one. Not to analyse or to persuade, but to articulate what a thorny political question looks like from different angles. To say: here is what people believe, and why they believe it – disagree if you wish, but at least hear them out first so that you can disagree in good faith and better understand how to move forth.

I can only hope I have achieved this aim and that you have found this series useful, whichever eye made your blood boil.

This travel diary is the fourth in a series of four on Hebron: 

  1. Hebron through my Left eye: Part I
  2. Hebron through my Left eye: Part II
  3. Hebron through my Right eye: Part I
  4. Hebron through my Right eye: Part II

If you think I’ve got the wrong end of the stick and want to give me a tour around this land yourself to see it from a different angle, please email me on eylon.aslanlevy@gmail.com. 

Visit the Hebron Fund website to book a tour to Hebron