(X-posted from my home blog, Yinzer in Yerushalayim)
Nearly all of Pardes went to Hevron in the West Bank Sunday. It spent the rest of the week needing therapy. I think I faired better than most, however, because I went into it knowing what to expect and I got it in spades: It is by far the worst place I have ever been. If I never go back ever again, it will be too soon. If by some cruel twist of fate I ended up with the worst job in the world, namely, Tourism Minister of Hevron, I think the best slogan possible would be the one Suzi came up with “Hevron: Stay Home.” Second would be the one I thought of “Hevron: Come Experience Religion at its Absolute Worst.” I say that not because I believe religion is used worse in Hevon than it is in, say, Iran, I most certainly do not. Rather, I say it because, 1. unlike in other places, here it is two religions acting badly and worse, 2. in Hevron, one of them is my own.
To be fair, however, it wasn’t all dreary, we just got the most inspiring part out of the way first when we stopped at Pina Chama on the way to Hevron. In 2001, two soldiers from the Gush were killed by terrorists on the road. During the soldiers’ shiva, the idea for a place in the Gush in their memory where soldiers could go for free coffee and cake that would eventually be called Pina Chama (warm corner),was born. Pina Chama is run by the fallen soliders’ families, the Sassons and the Gllises, with help from a small army of volunteers, including Pardes’ Tovah Leah Nachmani who gave us the tour. The food and supples are donated from all over Israel and all over the world. While we were there soldiers drove up in an armored car and partook of coffee and cake. Though nearly every square inch of the small shop is covered in badges, flags, banners, and other military paraphernalia left by soldiers as tokens of appreciation, the smiles on their face and in their eyes and as they sat, ate, and drank something warm said volumes more. Tovah Leah said it best [though this is not an exact quote]: “They say ‘thank you’ to me, and I’m like thank me?? Thank you! This is the least I can do for you!” As depressing as nearly everything that followed was, I’m actually glad I saw Pina Chama first because it reinforced one crucial point: that for all the problems this region has, the soldiers themselves are not one of them. They are ordinary Israelis in their late-teens and early twenties forced into an impossible, dangerous situation not of their own making and deserve nothing but respect for their service. It was an honor to have been able to donate a small cake on my way out. It may not have been spending the best years of my life defending the Jewish people, but it was the least I could do. It was double chocolate.
We were randomly split into 3 groups for meeting our speakers in Hevron. As this was a Pardes trip, we gave each side its due. In my group, we first saw Josh Even-Chen on Tel-Rumeida overlooking the city for an energetic, non-political historical overview of Jewish history in Hevron. Then we went on a tour of Hevron’s biggest claim to fame, the Cave of the Patriarchs and the beautiful Herodian structure built over it, where according to tradition, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, Esau’s head, and, according to some, even Adam and Eve are buried.
We then went to a roundabout on what used to be the central road of H-2 (since 1997 Hevron has been split into H-1 and H-2. H-1 is a Palestinian city under control of the PA, H-2 contains Palestinians and Jews and is under control of the IDF. To be fair, we only saw H-2.) to hear a short presentation from a former soldier stationed in Hevron working for Breaking the Silence, an organization that has former IDF soldiers give public tours and speeches exposing their experiences of the darker side of military occupation. We then got together with the other groups to daven the afternoon service at the Cave,
then eat lunch and hear another former Hevron soldier (who just happened to be the son of our dean) representing Soldiers Speak Out, an organization that sees itself as a counterpoint to Breaking the Silence, touting the great humanitarian care soldiers take when carrying out their missions. For what its worth, our representative said the original plan was to setup a debate between him and our Breaking the Silence representative, but the latter organization refused. After lunch, my group heard a presentation from a Jewish settler in Hevron then a got a tour of the tragically ironically named Jewish neighborhood of Avraham Avinu (Abraham Our Father) from a representative of Jews living in the West Bank from Efrat. Finally, we met back with the other groups and heard presentations from Palestinian peace activists.
If that sounds overwhelming, like a whirlwind, like a lot of voices talking at you at once trying to win your favor, it should, because it was. It wasn’t easy on many of our speakers, either. For example the Breaking the Silence guy must have spent at least 10 minutes of his hour-long presentation apologizing for not having the time to give us all the information he would normally in their standard 5-hour tour. Every speaker had his or her pros and cons, but for me, the most frustrating part about it was that, since they all presented so many facts, they were all right: Yes, Jews should be able to live in peace in a city that’s so historically significant for us—there is archeological evidence of Jewish presence in Hevron going back 3,000 years, not to mention its critical importance in so many Biblical narratives. Yes, military occupation ultimately harms and demeans all parties involved, but yes terrorism is a huge problem and more often than not I’m sure our soldiers act admirably. Yes, it makes sense that Jews should live in Judea, but yes, it is also terribly unfair for other people to have to lose the land their families have been living on for generations because of that. Yes the pogrom of 1929 was horrific, but so was the Baruch Goldstein massacre in 1994. Yes, no one, Jewish or Palestinian, should have to live in fear of getting killed, beaten or spat upon when walking the streets or sitting in their homes, no one should have to put metal cages around all their windows to keep stones and bullets out, and it’s just beyond awful that, even with segregated streets, neither side can live without constantly having to fear that.
The tension in the air is there is palpable: both sides put English signs in their windows meant to antagonize and demonize the other side as much as win the sympathy of guests like us. Everything everyone says is in terms of “us vs. them.” Armed soldiers on walkie-talkies are everywhere and armed guards stand on watch from the tops of buildings. Sorry, you spoiled American G-20 protesters, but this is what a police state looks like.
But the most confounding part is that it wasn’t always this way. Every speaker who lives in the area spoke wistfully about the days when Jews and Arabs coexisted more-or-less peacefully in this area. Before the Second Intifada the abandoned street above was a busy shuk at the center of Hevron. But might have been back in Abraham’s day for all the difference it makes now. I don’t think the sad part is that this street is now off-limits to Palestinians. I think the sad part is that it needs to be.
Personally, I thought the best speaker was the Soldiers Speak Out representative because I feel he gave the most nuanced presentation. He readily acknowledged that mistakes have been and by necessity will continue to be made while still strongly affirming the basic goodness of Israel and the soldiers. The Palestinian peace activist was my second-favorite. While I found his arguments to be a mixed-bag, I can’t help but respect someone who is willing, especially in such a tense environment, to put himself in personal danger by publicly standing and meeting with groups of Jews and saying things that are not anti-Israel, his determination to work for peace for his people through peaceful means even if it makes less charitable people on both sides hate him. I also really want to give credit to the American-born woman from Efrat who gave us the tour of Jewish Hevron. While I disagreed with her about many things, she was nonetheless very good at making me feel uncomfortable about some things I wasn’t prepared to feel uncomfortable about. As diverse as opinions at Pardes are about the trip, from what I have heard, I think we would be pretty close to unanimous in agreeing that the Jewish settler in Hevron came off as the worst. Of him, I will only say that it takes a certain type to leave New Jersey to not only live with, but devote your life to defending, the sort of people who would build a monument at Baruch Goldstein’s grave. I’m not sure exactly what this means, but it seems worth pointing out here that—and this fact was confirmed by one of our teachers who lives in the Gush—most of the extreme settlers are not native Israelis, but American expats.
Even more than the historical connections, the biggest reason people get so riled-up about this place is the Cave of the Partriarchs—over control of it and access to it, and I think this is the biggest tragedy of all. Why? Because, the way I see it, there are two ways of viewing the Cave: Either all these inestimably important people are really buried there and this is an inconceivably holy site, or else no one is buried there and the whole thing is built on nothing (for obvious reasons excavations at the site are prohibited so we won’t soon know the true answer). If you believe the first, Abraham is considered a patriarch by the Jews and Muslims and the rest (except Esau) are considered at minimum holy prophets by both faiths. The last scene in the Torah involving Abraham is when his equally beloved (see Rashi on Genesis 22:2) and previously estranged sons Isaac and Ishmael reunite to bury him here (Gen. 25: 8-9). If something of Abraham’s soul rests here, is this how he would want to see his children behaving towards each other? I know that my mom practically cries with joy every time she finds out my sister or I so much as called each other, and we get along! If my mom feels so joyful about her kids getting along, can you even imagine how elated Abraham Our Father, let alone God, Whose children we all are, would be at the very same? And if no one is buried there, then the whole edifice is nothing but a rather apt metaphor for the entire situation in Hevron, and certainly nothing worth living and raising a family in a terrible situation and hurting others for in spite of whatever legitimate historical connections both sides have.
Confusing and frustrating as the day was, it did leave one thing achingly clear: anyone who tells you he or she as “the” answer or “the” solution for the situation is either a blithering idiot or else extremely naive. None of the speakers we saw fall into these categories since none of them would come close to offering any kind of a solution, only facts and grievances. One of my classmates put it best during one of the many processing sessions, both informal and formal, we had during the following week, that the peace process must end in Hevron, it cannot start there. I of course pray for peace (what else can I do??) as much as anyone else, but I must say as the situation exists right now, the future just seems completely—
Tuesday afternoon, we went on a Social Justice tiyyul to the Max Rayne Bilingual School in Jerusalem, where Jewish and Arab students live and learn together in a totally bilingual (trilingual, really, after they begin learning English as a second language in I think 4th grade), multicultural environment. Each classroom has two teachers: one Jewish, the other Palestinian. Right now, the school is roughly 1/3 Jewish 1/3 Arab, and 1/3 other, including a good number of Armenian Christians. Chanukah and Christmas decorations were everywhere. All students learn about the Hebrew Bible, Christian Bible, and Koran.
While I personally have some misgivings about this set-up—is it healthy to expose children to so much cultural relativism so early, don’t you need to learn how to appreciate your own and learn your place and responsibilities within it before you can truly appreciate someone else’s culture? What do you do in high school when they all want to date each other? (The school was founded in 1998 and just graduated its first high school class, but this problem did not arise since all graduates were Arab Muslims.) As a religious Jew, I’m all for my children learning about other traditions on those traditions’ own terms, but that doesn’t mean I want my kids making Christmas decorations. What will happen when the Jewish kids graduate and go to army and have to stop their former classmates at checkpoints—and wouldn’t send my children there because of them, I’m still super-glad this place exists. If the peace process must end in Hevron, then maybe this is where it can start
Quote of the Week: “Can somebody please tell to the Eastern European what is meant by this ‘emotional education?’” -Reka
Hebrew Word of the Week: בלגן (“balagan”) – Mess, a chaotic situation