Hebron: Now and then

Six days of war in 1967 have shaped these past 45 years of human entanglement in territory conquered by Israel during that long ago June. I’ve been pursuing a growing personal purpose over this past decade — to add meaning to my lifelong involvement with Israel as an American Jew by deepening my involvement with Palestinians. In addition to work on cultural exchanges, dialogue and community development projects, I’ve traveled twice on listening and learning trips led by the American-Israeli organization Encounter. Encounter brings Jewish participants to the West Bank to experience Palestinian daily life and meet with Palestinian leaders in business, media, nonviolent activism, education, and politics. Having journeyed last year for several days in Bethlehem, I jumped at the unexpected opportunity to participate again — this time on Encounter’s monthly West Bank leadership seminar trip.

This encounter was to be in that core city of holiness and conflict — Hebron. The participant group was made up of Jewish Americans studying in Israel at yeshivot and rabbinical schools of varied tendencies, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox. I was briefed on the short bus ride from Jerusalem, and arrived in the Palestinian Authority “controlled” section of Hebron to meet our Palestinian host from the committee to rehabilitate the city. We started walking and talking along a bustling commercial road, bustling with life indeed — but were informed that “no, this is not the traditional market area, that place is actually parallel to this and in toward the old city, and we are working to restore what we can.”

And so we set off of on a day’s leap into modern archeology — no digging required. All of the changes in city life since Israel’s military victory in 1967 — the subsequent arrival of Israeli settlers and ensuing violent confrontations and fragmentations — were embedded street to street. The “traditional” market was a warren of rehabilitated, semi-stocked shops, wire cages looming overhead — protection from the debris that “rained” down from Israeli housing above onto the Palestinian neighborhood below. There were no shoppers.

The tradional market, Israeli housing above
The tradional market, Israeli housing above

Going further into the old city, we encountered a series of cut-offs, what looked like ghost streets, ending in fences, then areas filled with debris and walls. In one such cut-off block, identified as the “market for birds,” we encountered plenty of caged birds, but neither shopkeepers nor customers. As we were leaving this ghostly corner, our facilitator ran into a woman she knew from past meetings – a kindergarten teacher, woman’s health activist and crafts entrepreneur. This determined woman took us to a side door, which was the back (and only) entrance to her house, as the main entrance had been sealed shut. That door fronted on the main thoroughfare of Shuhada Street — shut off to Palestinians for 18 years as a result of security measures taken in the wake of settler Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Muslim worshippers at the divided and shared Abrahamic burial shrine, a holy place for Jews and Muslims alike.

These and other measures, ostensibly to protect both communities from the worst elements in each, have become a wrenching spatial stamp of domination. They are a means of control over some 300,000 Hebronites in the name of protecting the lives of 1,500 settlers. As we were ending our animated discussions in the “bird market,” a small IDF patrol appeared — on foot, helmeted and armored. I am used to give and take with young soldiers inside Israel — and even human exchange at checkpoints. But this was a sudden dreamlike appearance of a surveillance team, a platoon leader trailed by what looked like wobbling military ducks tottering behind in eerie silence. I could only stare in bewildered astonishment, as our Hebron rehabilitation host said “not to be alarmed, it’s normal.”

Yes, you could feel the life in Hebron pulsing and pushing back against this species of normalcy. We explored our way through more closures and fragmentations, into long lines at checkpoints deep in the Old City, then crossing over to that part of town totally under Israeli rule. There, we literally had to climb hills and ladders to get to the back entrances of Palestinian homes, where families lived to protect against further encroachment of settler leaders in homes next door. We heard stories from these Palestinian families, from young leaders of the Youth Against Settlements, and at a training center reclaimed to counter those settlers entrenched in the house next to that site. Our Palestinian hosts spoke to us in ways they don’t share with their Jewish neighbors. Occasionally they recounted incidents, such as an account of an IDF soldier intervening against settler arson. But mostly they poured out stories of endless disruptions and worse — along with their determination to live on in Hebron and build on their aspirations of freedom, mobility — and to outlast a dominant, hostile force.

I gained glimpses that day of the sorrowful and of the sublime that led to ever-deeper contemplations. We found ourselves in a rough discussion of the horrors and counter-horrors that each people had endured at the hands of the other in the 20th century blood contest in Hebron. Again, talk of the murders committed by Baruch Goldstein, circling back to the convoy of Jews massacred at nearby Kiryat Arba in 1948, to uprootings in the Palestinian community in ’48 and ’67, and then spiraling back to the savage murders at Arab hands of Hebron’s Jewish community in 1929. At the mention of 1929, our host hung his head, acknowledging the shame of his own community, and our historical review fell to despairing silence.

Living next to the “Bird Market”; back entrance to home with Shuhada Street sealed off behind the fence
Living next to the “Bird Market”; back entrance to home with Shuhada Street sealed off behind the fence

Earlier that afternoon we had stopped for tea at a Palestinian home deep within the Old City. We were told, quietly, that our hosts had put aside a room in their house for the guests to daven their Mincha (afternoon) prayers. So I found myself sitting on a low couch in a lovely domed room, with a scalloped, sculpted ceiling. I sat there jotting down notes on which I base this writing, and from time to time staring up at posters of mosques and Arabic calligraphy. I looked up through a towering human forest of bobbing and weaving Mincha daveners, each communing with the sacred here in the heart of Hebron, each with his or her own personal connection.

On the bus back to Jerusalem, we debriefed and shared some thoughts. I pointed out that this was my second visit to Hebron and that my first visit had taken place 32 years ago. (There was a choral gasp throughout the bus as the number 32 hit home. The trip’s organizer leaned over to me and said, “That’s when I was born.” Something was coming full circle.)

“In 1979,” I told my bus-mates “the return of Israelis to the West Bank was relatively new and fresh. There was clear resentment among the citizens, seething at military and settler presence, but there was mobility — a city that was not scarred by years of disruption, by acts of pettiness and cruelty. Now it’s a twilight zone of ghostly archeological overlays and bewildering areas of life coming back, along with stillness and omnipresent domination. It seems somehow normal and totally bizarre! With all this, seeing that the spirit of Palestinian life endures just floors me.”

I am moved by the call of sacred Hebron as the birthplace of the Jewish people. For the Palestinian people, it is also sacred — and one of their essential urban homes. On that bus journey back from Hebron I was overwhelmed by a flash of hot anger at the impasse to which we’d been led by settler action, the complicity and failure to stop their excesses in our name.

I don’t think anger serves my yearning to see the proper measure of Hebron’s Jewish holiness restored. Rather, the task is to focus furies into compassion, into meditation on how we talk to one another — and on how we receive the lessons of that Other who endures our fury and subjects us to his, or to hers.

We must find ways to look eye to eye at those who come with bruised, but open, hearts; we must listen with ears that allow meaning to enter. What we hear will often be difficult to absorb, and our Palestinian interlocutors will not always be able to hear us. In that conflicted realm between the “river and the sea,” it seems presumptuous to be a bridge between peoples — perhaps dangerous. Bridges are trampled upon and endure heavy burdens. But I believe such exchanges from the heart are how battered souls, with painful histories together, open up possibility. It is Encounter’s calling and gift to open pathways of sharing through listening, to provide that essential space where acknowledgement and empathy open profound directions toward a hoped-for future.