“You can’t teach me anything about Europeans,” once commented the deputy mayor of Jerusalem. Europeans had killed his father. “You can’t teach me anything about Palestinians.” Palestinians had killed his mother.
The deputy mayor embodied a common sentiment among Zionists, many of whom had suffered dear losses to one or another enemy of the Jewish people. The deputy mayor’s losses culminated in a shrewd, rigid approach to the Palestinian people. “Look how primitive they are,” he was quoted saying. The dishevelment of their streets proved to him that the Palestinians are a lesser people than the Jews.
We drive from Bethlehem to Hebron past container homes, plywood shacks, abandoned electric appliances, and harrowing narrow roads. If I look with my eyes I see uncivilized homesteads. But if I look with my experience living with a Palestinian Christian family in Bethlehem, I see towns deprived of water, fuel, and any real chance to better themselves. For Palestinians, assembling a better life and a more civilized existence is not as simple as going to the big city for a better job. Their Palestinian passports don’t allow them into proximity of any seriously transformative economic possibilities. The cycle of limitation here is very deep. Limitations may be engrained into the imaginations of the locals by trauma and rock-bottom life prospects. But their humanity is no more primitive and no less civilized than that of any Israeli.
The plot thickens as we park in Hebron and walk down through market stalls toward the Old City. Locals stare at us, sometimes beckoning to make a sale, not exactly perturbed at our presence but certainly not enthusiastic either. We approach the Old City and see signs of the chaos and dysfunction at the heart of Hebron. A Jewish settlement suddenly rises over our heads, built directly atop Palestinian homes, a hulking new yeshiva building punctuated with defiant Israeli flags.
I notice wire netting that separates the Arab market from the Israeli settlement. It is weighed down with trash. Trash thrown by settlers out their windows and onto the Palestinians below. The wire caught most of the debris and allowed for something closer to normal functioning in the Arab market, where Palestinians shop for household necessities, build community, and try to better themselves economically.
Who is civilized, and who is primitive? Such categories are never clear here. Looking with my eyes tells me Palestinians are primitive. Looking with more information tells me they cannot bathe regularly because Israelis control their water supply. And their streets are filled with trash, thrown from above by Jewish settlers and yeshiva students.
In the Hebron settlement there are 400 Jews, guarded by 1500 members of the Israeli Defense Forces. Hebron, being the resting place of the patriarchs Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah, is seen as the oldest recorded Jewish land purchase and therefore a powerful symbol of Jewish right to the land. The settlement started as a hotel that visiting Israelis refused to vacate. Still they refuse to vacate and the space is divided with great tension. Palestinian families plan their shifts at home, never completely vacating their apartments for fear their houses will be staked out and seized by settlers. Occupied and occupier live together, and very far apart.
In the market the merchants try to bargain with us as we walk by, watching hawkishly for any sign of interest in our eyes. Freshly slaughtered goats and pigs swing on giant meat hooks. Spices and burning trash confuse the nostrils. The women wear multi-layered hijab and double-breasted corduroy suits. I am only in a sweatshirt in the summer desert and I feel faint and distracted by heat. I cannot imagine their burdens.
We arrive at the heart of the Old City where Herod’s temple, half mosque and half synagogue, is guarded by many flanks of Israeli soldiers. Our Palestinian guide leans over to me: “Don’t mention you’re Jewish. They won’t let you come out the same way.”
We enter through two borders of metal turnstiles into a wide, empty street. Central Hebron is a ghost town. The homes are eerily boarded and lone figures move quickly and solitarily through the plaza. Our other group leader turns to me. “Now we’re going into the synagogue. But don’t let anyone know you’re a Jew. Otherwise they won’t let you go into the other side.”
The other side of the synagogue is a mosque. Herod’s structure had once been a mosque but in 1996 a crazed Jewish settler entered during prayer services and shot 29 people before being killed while reloading his assault rifle. The mosque was closed ten months, then opened again, divided in half down the middle. The mosque side houses the tombs of Isaac and Rebecca, the synagogue houses Jacob and Leah, and in the middle are the shared tombs of Abraham and Sarah, both viewing windows encased in bulletproof glass.
Security on both sides is tight, especially on the synagogue side. We pass through a metal detector and young Israeli soldiers question our motives. One soldier, a handsome tough fellow in a thick bulletproof vest, laugh and gleefully urges us, “Remember Israel! There is no such thing as Palestine!”
We enter the tomb of the patriarchs. I am not able to see anything because, as a woman, I am confined to stand behind the mechitza, a solid wood partition with pinprick holes. I am permitted to stand tiptoe and look through the the wooden slats to see men arguing over a passage of Torah.
Palestinians can never join these men in their prayer, and neither can I.
We spent little time in the synagogue, which was too long for me. My sweatshirt weighed on me in the 90 degree air. We descended the synagogue mount and saw more nothingness and blowing trash where once stood a bustling city.
I cannot be who I am here, Jew or woman, baking anonymously under my sweatshirt. But the heat is the smallest problem I can imagine.
The bigger problem is Hebron’s ghostly streets, the entitled settlers who throw macabre and joyful afternoon picnics on the Herodian plaza, ignoring wary Palestinians who tuck into their collars and rush home to their families, under nets heavy with Israeli settler trash. The patriarchal tombs don’t seem the real reason for the occupation of Hebron. They seem like an excuse, a reason to justify a much larger project of Jews reassuming territory that was not theirs for 1800 years.
Hebron is a broken place. There are no answers here.
Image courtesy of the author.