Planet Hebron

“Planet Hebron” is writer Ben Ehrenreich’s borrowed label for the ancient biblical city where the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people are entombed and King David ruled. Inhabited by 200,000 Palestinians and 600 Jews, site of terrorist attacks from within both communities, the divided city has long been an epicenter of tribal conflict in the Land of Israel.

Ehrenreich claims to have grown up “with a deep sense of what it meant to be Jewish” — the heritage of his “Marxist Jews” grandparents, for whom Zionism was an unwelcome “distraction” from the class struggle, and his secular liberal Jewish father. His own visit to the West Bank in 2011 revealed “the awful clarity of the injustice” to Palestinians, which prompted his rejection of “objectivity” for “truth.” But his version of truth had already been revealed in a Los Angeles Times column published two years earlier, entitled “Zionism is the Problem.” An outdated nationalist ideology that ignored “the presence of Palestinians in Palestine,” he wrote, Zionism made comparisons to South African apartheid “feel charitable.” So much for his Jewish identity.

Ehrenreich’s The Way to the Spring (2016) is an impassioned embrace of Palestinian victims and a fusillade of outrage at their Israeli occupiers. Zionism is no longer “the Problem”; Israel is. He divides his fury between the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, where weekly protests against Israeli occupation captured international attention, and the ancient biblical city of Hebron, where Jews become his chosen villains.

His 90-page tirade on “Planet Hebron” (a derogatory label borrowed from Amos Oz) is a case study of politically driven distortion. Amid endless riffs about Palestinian victimization and suffering, he offers not the slightest hint that Hebron is a thriving center of West Bank commerce. With villas and apartment complexes, two universities, two hotels, and multi-story shopping malls along a thriving commercial avenue, the sector controlled by the Palestinian Authority comprises 80% of the city. Ehrenreich refers only briefly  to that “newer downtown” that he “passed through” on his way to the dingy zone of old Hebron governed by Israel, where several tiny Jewish enclaves are surrounded by 30,000 Palestinian residents.

Ehrenreich’s home base during his month-long visit was the Youth Against Settlements House, “headquarters for local anti-occupation activists.” It is located in a decrepit Palestinian neighborhood adjacent to the contested Tel Rumeida “settlement” (inhabited by “particularly zealous” Jews) where archeological discoveries have revealed a Jewish presence as early as the 8th century BCE. He cites “the maddening intimacy of its violence,” where “normality” included “being shot at”; having “Molotov cocktails thrown at you house”; IDF soldiers “firing tear gas at children”; and “being arrested, questioned for hours” and then released. In Ehrenreich’s Hebron enclave, tyrannical Israeli oppressors always lurk nearby.

He evokes the grim environment of the old city: Israeli military checkpoints; shuttered Palestinian shops; the steel mesh screen above Shuhada Street; an abandoned vegetable market; caged balconies of Palestinian homes. He devotes one sentence to the “particularly ugly” massacre that killed sixty-seven Jews in 1929 – when the Jewish Quarter was decimated, the ancient Jewish cemetery desecrated, the Avraham Avinu synagogue ruins became an animal pen and Hebron became Judenrein for forty years.

Ehrenreich’s guiding theme is the humiliation of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, exemplified by the suffocating arrogance of the handful of Jewish settlers he interviewed when he was not enchanted by his Palestinian hosts. He was greeted “warmly” by Tzipi Schlissel, granddaughter of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine under British Mandatory rule. The 1929 massacre that claimed the lives of her grandmother and great-aunt was part of her family history. She and her Jewish neighbors seek “to tear redemption from a history of loss” (which also includes the murder of her father, stabbed to death in his Tel Rumeida home). To Ehrenreich, however, they are “trapped” by their tragic past and “blind to the magnitude of the hurt” inflicted on their Arab neighbors.

He also met Anat Cohen, “the fury of Beit Hadassah,” the former medical clinic that was the chosen site of the return of Jews – 10 women and thirty-five children – to Hebron fifty years after the massacre that destroyed the community. To Ehrenreich she is “a ferocious soldier for her god,” with “the courage to believe in something with the fullness of her being and no calculus to guide her save her own bottomless rage. . . and the awe-drenched narrowness of her faith.”

He is even less charitable to Baruch Marzel, “the unofficial leader” of Tel Rumeida Jews. Marzel exemplifies the brutal colonizer obsessed with “race hatred.” A “blunt, combative, relentless” disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, he embraced his mentor’s belief that “no coexistence with Palestinians was possible, and mass expulsion [is] the only solution.” Ehrenreich suggests, without a shred of supporting evidence (because there is none), that this has become the “mainstream position” among Israelis.

Had Ehrenreich spent more than a few moments with David Wilder, the knowledgeable and genial English-language spokesman for the Hebron Jewish community, it might have moderated his palpable loathing of settlers. Wilder would have informed him about the history of Beit Hadassah (where he lives); guided him through its fascinating museum of Hebron history and the beautifully restored Avraham Avinu synagogue nearby; led him to the ancient Jewish cemetery; and accompanied him to the majestic Machpelah shrine (which Jews were barred from entering for 700 years by its Muslim rulers). They could easily have walked up the hill to the thriving Kiryat Arba settlement, home to 7000 Jews and a vibrant yeshiva. There Ehrenreich might have met and learned from (as I did) Rabbi Eliezer Waldman and lawyer Elyakim Haetzni, among the founding fathers of the restored Jewish community in Hebron.

Instead, Ehrenreich burrowed ever deeper into his Youth Against Settlements hangout, oblivious to the thriving Palestinian city of Hebron a few hundred meters away while refining his disparaging clichés about malevolent Jewish settlers.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009)



About the Author
Jerold S. Auerbach is author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009). His new book, Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, will be published in February by Academic Studies Press.