A week ago I moved to Jerusalem for the next five months. Over this period of time I hope to share ocassional posts about my experience here. This is the first.
In November 2008, I organized a tour of Hebron with Shovrim Shtika (Soldiers Breaking the Silence) that challenged my core beliefs. On Monday I visited Hebron again this time joining a Health Human Rights Project delegation.
On my first visit over a year ago, we walked down Shuhadeh Street and saw the deserted part of the Old City of Hebron, with a line of Palestinians stores that were forcibly closed by the Israeli military. This area of the city, that once bustled with life and was home home to 30,000 Palestinians, was now almost a ghost town. The streets were empty, the stores were bolted shut, many with Jewish stars and other graffiti smeared in black paint on the metal doors. In some of the houses that were still occupied children peered at us from a porch totally enclosed by a metal grate to protect them against objects hurled at them by the settlers.
The Israeli military had designated the street we were walking a “sterile street,” a street on which only Jews can walk! The Palestinians who lived on the street could not leave their homes through their front doors which were also bolted by the Israeli military.
The physical experience of walking down that “sterile street” shocked me to my core. This town is deserted, the Palestinians are not allowed to walk on their own street because a few hundred very religious (“religious”?) Jews, supported by the overwhelming power of the Israeli military, have created several settlements in the heart of a Palestinian city.
As an ex-South African, I could not help but think about Apartheid. Apartheid was a travesty, a huge crime committed against millions of people, yet even under Apartheid, there were no “sterile streets.” The experience made me confront the fact that this ethnic discrimination and brutality was being done not only in the name of Judaism, by religious Jews, inspired by Jewish sources, texts and beliefs; but it was also made possible and fully supported by Israel, the state that speaks in the name of the Jewish people. The walk down that street, a little more than a year ago, changed my life. Having seen with my own eyes the effects of the discrimination, having walked with my own legs down that street, I could no longer avoid confronting the racism that was at the core of Israeli government policy, at the heart of Zionism, and in parts of my own religious tradition. I could no longer just ignore, avoid or easily reinterpret those ideas in our the sacred texts that inspired these settlers: the ideas of a Promised Land, an exclusive covenant and about destroying the peoples of the Land of Canaan. I could also no longer ignore the privileging of the rights of Jews over the rights of non-Jews that was at the core of Zionism.
Michael Manikin, our tour leader and one of the founders of Shovrim Shtika, Soldiers Breaking the Silence, pointed out that Hebron was no different from all the other settlements on the West Bank. The entire settlement project is based on the fundamental belief that the rights and lives of Jews are more important than those of the Palestinians. For him as a religious Jew, this reality was far more than just a political issue, it was a profound spiritual issue, that challenged the core of his beliefs. His Judaism was not about discrimination, it was about justice and equity. His courageous work in Shovrim Shtika was a spiritual witness and an inspiration to me.
Two days ago I went to Hebron again and this time the tour leader was Hisham Sharabati, a Palestinian human rights activist and journalist, who was born in 1967 and has lived under the Occupation in Hebron all his life.
We met in an open space in the town with alleyways leading into the market on all sides. Most of the stores around us and in the streets were closed. Hisham told us that 512 Palestinian stores have been closed by the Israeli military “to protect the security of the settlers” and countless others are closed because the of the devastating economic consequences of living under Occupation. The stores that are forcibly closed are marked with red or black dots.
As we stood in that open space in front of us there was a metal gate and huge concrete blocks, guarded by Israeli soldiers heavily laden with military gear often with their hands on their guns ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.
On several of the nearby roofs there were Israeli military posts. Towering above the Palestinian homes was a Yeshivah with the words from the Torah “Kiryat Arba is Hebron.” The settlers derive their legitimation directly from our sacred text.
We met for lunch in what was once a store front and home but like so many others was now empty. As Hisham told us his story he mentioned that Israeli soldiers routinely walk through the town in groups their hands on their guns and stop Palestinians, often young boys, asking for their identity cards. They then often force the children to stand against a wall with their hands above their heads while they pat them down, sometimes they take them off for interrogation. Sometimes it is a few minutes of humiliation, other times it may last a few hours. As he is talking, he points out that behind us the soldiers have just stopped a group of kids. We go to watch this scene, as these soldiers in the most advanced military gear, take the identity cards of three kids and then take them one by one behind the metal gate, force them to stand against the wall and pat them down. It feels like a game of cops and robbers, but this is serious.
I notice that I feel ashamed. I am a rabbi. These soldiers are acting in the name of the Jewish state to protect some religious Jewish settlers. What is my connection to them as a Jew? What is my responsibility for this violation? Why am I and my community so complacent in the face of this urgent moral crisis that threatens the very core of our spiritual tradition and is causing so much suffering to so many people? Yes, many of us oppose the Occupation but do we really act as if it is a mater of critical moral urgency? Do we act as if it is a matter of life and death?
Later in the day as we were walking through the market we saw another group of soldiers who had three young boys pinned against the wall with their hands above the heads. This time the soldiers were aggressive and I saw one of them kick the child. I and several others in our group stood and watched and the soldiers angrily told us to move. We stood our ground and just watched. One of the soldiers came up to me and said Lechu mipo/Get out of here and then “Let me do my job.” What is his “job”? To make sure that the residents know that he is more powerful, to humiliate and inflict suffering on thousands of Palestinians to protect the “right” of Jews to settle in Hebron. After a few minutes they let the kids go. I realized how important our presence in this situation. I don’t know how much we changed the outcome, but our presence definitely made it less likely that there would be more violent abuse.
Israel understands this and that is why it acts to prevent international human rights activists and observers from being on the West Bank. Israel is threatening not to renew the mission of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH). It also regularly threatens the courageous folk in the Christian Peacamaker Team who uphold the human rights and dignity of the Palestinian residents.
Both incidents that we witnesed were relatively mild in the scheme of things. No one was physically hurt and yet it was so profoundly shocking. This is the daily experience of these kids. What effect will it have on their life? Will they one day respond with violence? Their only experience of Jews and Judaism is the settlers and the soldiers. What do they think of Jews and Judaism? Will they develop a hatred for all Jews?
And what about the soldiers? They are also just young boys given a grossly inappropriate amount of power over other human beings. While I don’t want to equate the experience of the Palestinian children, the victims, and the soldiers, the experience damages the lives and souls of both the victim and victimizer.
The rest of the afternoon we move around the town crossing checkpoints, seeing the dramatic effects of the settlers on the town including the vile debris, stones, metal, foul water that the settlers throw upon the Palestinians.
We visit the home of Hashim al Aza, who has the misfortune of living right next to the Tel Rumeida another settlement, home of some of the most violent of the Hebron settlers. Settlers have vanalized his house on several occasions, attacked , his wife and children, destroyed his vineyards, all with the complicity of the Israeli military. He invites us into his home to show us videos of settlers rampaging through his home, attacking school children and their teachers. Some of these videos were part of the Betzelem camera project. The soldiers in the videos just watch as the settlers violently attack people and/or property.
We see other areas of the city that are blocked by cement blocks and fences and various checkpoints. On one road Hisham shows us a red line that indicates that Palestinian pedestrians must stop and wait for a soldier to come check them before they can continue on the road.
Towards the end of our tour we climb on a roof to look down on the part of Shuhadah street that I walked down more than a year ago. This time I see the rear of the houses with the passage way on the roof and the fire escape ladders that the residents use to get out of their house as they can’t exit the front door. If they want to go shopping, go the doctor, or if God forbid they have to bury a loved one, they have to climb to the roof and then down the ladders!
This city of 200,000 people is completely devastated by the presence of about 400-600 Jews.
I leave the trip shaken to my core. Hebron was one of the first Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and it demonstrates the urgent moral crisis of the Occupation, now more than forty years long and with no end in sight. I would prefer to avoid the issue of American aid to Israel, of boycott, sanctions and divestment but it might be the most effective way to shock Israel into making change. It may be the most effective strategy for non-violent change. We could avoid facing this difficult challenge, especially for those of so connected to Israel, if the situation was not so dire, so desperate. But the situation is desperate for all who care for justice and all these measures must be considered. To avoid them, or to prevent discussion of any measure is to accept the situation as it is and as it has been now for over forty years. And for those of us who are religious Jews, Hebron calls on us to carefully examine the teachings of our faith and to challenge the use of our sacred tradition to oppress and humiliate a whole people. As it says: “The Task is great and the time is short.”