Dear Reader: Should I Take My Students to Hebron?

I have not visited the city of Hebron in thirty years. In that time, other than reading about it in the book of Genesis or glancing at articles about violence there, I have given it almost no thought. I attribute some of this to the way my physical distance from Israel distracts me from more intimate consciousness of the country’s daily life. Still, I suspect that many Israelis living no more than several kilometers away from Hebron do not give it much thought either. Why pay attention to a place that is often a holding pen for vitriolic hatred between settlers and Palestinians, a boiling pot constantly threatening to explode?

Perhaps I have pushed Hebron out of my mind’s way because of bad memories of the one Shabbat I spent there. I was twenty, a young man in love with the country, and trying to figure out how to understand her flaws. I was the only person in our group of summer volunteers who had not attended Yeshiva, and whose enrollment in a non-Orthodox school of Jewish studies already made me somewhat of an outsider. Everyone I worked with was very nice, but they had either bought entirely the hard line settler narrative about Hebron or they were too scared of being ostracized to ask difficult questions about why we the Jewish people needed to be there. I recall walking through the Casbah, Hebron’s marketplace, accompanied by armed guards and guides who jostled us through the Saturday shopping crowds. I do not remember if I thought about the significance of our presence in the city and at Macheplah cave, where legend places the burials of our founding ancestors. Yet, I distinctly remember thinking, “Aren’t we just unnecessarily antagonizing the people living here?” My Hebron Shabbat was an exercise in intellectual asphyxiation. Anytime I tried to gently ask what I thought were reasonable questions, I was ignored or barked back into line.

I am older much now, this past weekend Jews worldwide read about Abraham’s purchase of Machpelah in the Torah, and soon I will take yet another group of American Jews on a heritage and pride mission to Israel. Hebron is back in my thoughts. I recently asked some travel agents and a young friend involved in Israel peace activism about the propriety of taking a tour group there. The agents said without hesitation that they would help me to arrange it. My young friend replied almost nonchalantly that she had gone there with the Israeli peace group, Breaking The Silence. There is one catch, of course: to go to Hebron on an organized tour you must travel in an armored bus and stay with an armed guard, hardly the stuff of a once-in-a-lifetime Israel heritage trip for most visitors.

Thus, my deliberations about showing people Hebron are theoretical, at least for our upcoming biennial mission. However, I do not know what I will do in 2016 and in the years following. Assuming that I could give my travelers reasonable safety assurances and that they were willing to assume any possible risks, why would I not take them to Hebron?

This is obviously a double-edged question. Machpelah is an ancient Jewish holy site, notwithstanding the dubious historicity of the lore that Abraham, Sarah and other founders of Judaism are buried there. It is part of our rootedness in, and legitimate claim to, the land of Israel, a reality that successive occupiers and Arab rioters have attempted to eradicate over centuries. The Jewish people is obviously facing down a vitriolic, new anti-Semitism that dresses itself in the cloak of the deligitimization of Israel. We do not have the luxury of not defending that claim to legitimacy.

However, Machpelah is also a Petri dish growing religiously intoxicated Jewish extremism. Even with its geographic Jewish-Muslim divisions that were dictated during the Oslo Accords, greater Hebron is far from being a place where good fences make good neighbors. What value is there in lending our presence and support to a neighborhood in which several hundred ideologically hardened settlers get to make their point about being free to live anywhere in the holy land, while simultaneously antagonizing and abusing local residents and endangering themselves and the battalion protecting them?

In the end, maybe the strongest argument in favor of a visit to Hebron is to give silent testimony to that part of the Genesis story that everyone seems to ignore. When Abraham the grieving husband seeks a place for Sarah’s burial, the locals are happy to give him land. With a stiff but calm formality, he and Ephron the owner of Machpelah bargain then negotiate its sale and transfer, howbeit for a ludicrous price. When I read this story, I always sense the civility, peace, and compassion for an old man’s loss that pervades it. It is a sense that has been lost amidst Hebron’s violence and repressiveness. Dare we go there to somehow reclaim it, or is this merely another naïve pipe dream of yet one more clueless Diaspora Jew?

I ask you, Times of Israel reader, what would you do? Should I take my students to Hebron?

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.