Posted on April 4, 2012 by J. Belasco
About a month and a half ago, I went to Hevron for Shabbat with a few Pardesniks to visit a fellow student’s wife’s family. His wife actually grew up in Hevron; and her parents still live there today. I was very grateful for the family’s generosity and hospitality, and for the chance they gave me to experience Hevron via something other than a quick tour. The following is my account of some of the moments that stood out for me about the weekend.
On Friday evening, we went to kabbalat Shabbat services at what they call “the Me’arah” (otherwise known as the Cave of Machpelah). It’s not really much of a cave – more of a big shrine sort of building with “graves” of matriarchs/patriarchs labeled. There are like 4 simultaneous kabbalat Shabbat minyanim there, but the one we attended seemed to be the largest and was held in this big, cavernous, freezing cold space. It was a mechitza minyan, of course – I’ve gotten used to that by now – but unlike the orthodox minyanim I tend to frequent in Jerusalem, there was very little attempt to make the women feel that they were in any way a part of the davening.
The women’s section was incredibly crowded, mostly with seminary girls. The davening on the men’s side was extremely lively, with tons of dancing and singing that went on and on and on, while the women just sort of stood there, some of them singing halfheartedly and some of them not even bothering. I wasn’t sure whether to blame the women for not making an effort, or the men for creating a situation where the women feel alienated from the spirit of the davening. Let me say that the women’s section being blah while the men’s section is more exciting is a chronic problem with orthodox minyanim in Jerusalem too, but at this minyan it was way worse than I am used to. It really pissed me off to have to sit on my butt doing nothing for nearly two hours while the men danced their brains out. Of course, then I got mad at myself that I was in Hevron of all places, and the thing I was feeling most upset about at that moment was not the extremely troubling political situation and the settlers’ behavior towards Palestinians, but rather the fact that *I* wasn’t having a good davening experience. So I tried to take my anger at being marginalized as a woman and channel it into empathy for marginalized Palestinians. It kind of worked.
Shabbat in Hevron is basically like Shabbat anywhere (if you can ignore the deserted streets and boarded up Palestinian storefronts and soldiers everywhere and Palestinian houses on the hillsides rising up all around you, and the occasional woman in a long dress and hijab walking in one of the few places where Palestinians are permitted). Ok, so it’s not really like anywhere. But the point is that, unsurprisingly, settlers – even the most politically fanatical ones – have nice homes and eat meals and act friendly and play with their children and in many ways are relatable, sweet, and generous human beings.
This, I think, is an important point to remember – not that it makes their politics remotely okay, but I think that both as human beings and as people working for political change, we need to remember that people are people. I find this necessary to say because I’ve seen a few too many radical left-wing activists (usually college kids or recent grads) come here waving signs and yelling slogans and giving soldiers the finger and screaming about how awful “the settlers” are without realizing that they are, in a sense, committing the same crime of generalization and dehumanization of which they accuse others. I’m not saying that dehumanizing settlers is the moral equivalent of dehumanizing, across the board, all Palestinians – it’s not – and I don’t feel particularly sorry for the settlers (at least the ones in Hevron) being dehumanized – they’ve knowingly injected themselves into an extremely inflammatory situation through their choice of where to live. But, I do think that if you want to be a mature, effective activist, it behooves you to take a nuanced view of the human beings involved in all sides of this totally screwed up situation.
As long as I was in Hevron, I wanted to have some meaty conversations, and get at the settlers’ personal motives and experiences, but unfortunately I didn’t succeed as much as I would have hoped. I had no intention of starting a political debate – frankly, if someone has lived in Hevron for the past 25 years, I have about zero chance of convincing them to join Peace Now. So instead I asked questions about the community in Hevron, why they moved there, what it was like living there and growing up there, what was the best part, what was the most difficult part, etc. again, I was surprised that my hosts didn’t give me very extensive answers — I would have thought they’d want to take the opportunity to explain their worldview to me.
In any case, I gleaned, in the end, that they moved to Hevron because of the city’s connection to Jewish history. (I was hoping to get more of an elaboration about this, but didn’t manage to.) When I asked the daughter of our host family, now in her mid-20s, what it was like growing up in Hevron, she emphasized the contrast between the warm, embracing experience of growing up in a small (400-person), tight-knit Jewish community, and what she called the “balagan” of Hevron as a whole. In a way, I think, her comment epitomizes the sense of dissonance and contrast that I was left with after my weekend in Hevron — between the typical Shabbat serenity within the home where we stayed, and the deeply upsetting and violent political situation outside.
Most of Shabbat evening and Shabbat morning were, again, fairly typical — food, rest, the comforts of a family and a home, and a sweet 10-month-old baby to play with. On Shabbat afternoon, I went on a tour of the “kusba,” or the old city of Hevron, which is located in H1, the Palestinian area of the city where Israeli citizens are (by Israeli law) not allowed. the Jewish settlers run this tour every week, in both English and Hebrew. They do it with the grudging accompaniment of the Israeli army. As the guide explained, the army knows that if it did not agree to allow the tours (which are obviously provocative, and theoretically illegal), the settlers would do tours anyway, and it would be even more provocative.
The tour was extremely troubling to me. We were told before entering the Palestinian area that we should beware of the non-Jewish “missionaries” who would be approaching us with political information about Hevron. To me, the use of the term “missionary” in this context implied that the perspective the activists were offering was fundamentally opposed to Judaism, intended to somehow steal our Jewishness away from us. (I will say, at the same time, that some non-Jews who come to this part of the world to do solidarity work with Palestinians do upset me because I feel like they speak arrogantly without having made a sufficient attempt to understand the complexities of the situation. I also am somewhat skeptical of the efficacy, in this context, of passing out leaflets as a method of advocacy.) Next, we were told that part of the purpose of the tour was to show the Palestinians in H1 that even though Israelis aren’t allowed to live there or visit there, it still rightfully belongs to them. “so,” our guide said, “walk around like you own the place.”
Naturally, after this introduction — which articulated and intensified many of the uneasy feelings I already had about my presence as a Jew in Hevron — the tour experience was deeply uncomfortable for me. I couldn’t help but wonder what all the Palestinians I encountered saw when they looked at me — who they thought I was — what they thought I believed — how they thought I related to them. I felt that I was engaging in an act of oppression just by walking through the Palestinian city in the way that I was, without openly declaring my opposition to the group that I was with.
I’m glad to have had the opportunity to visit Hevron for Shabbat, but, ultimately, none of my political concerns were allayed, though I did sincerely appreciate the hospitality I received. The disconnect between the peaceful, daily lives of the Jewish families living in Hevron and the ugly politics of the dynamic between the settlers and the Palestinians remains very, very troubling to me.