“Thank you for what you said earlier,” said the Doctor travelling with us, as we got off the bus in Jerusalem. I was confused for a moment, then I remembered he was referring to the scene outside of maarat ha-makhpela, the tomb of the patriarchs in Hevron. And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hevron, and Abraham came to mourn for her.
Our guide, Mahmoud, had brought us as far the entrance to the synagogue portion of the building, and told us that he could go no further- he had once asked if he could but they did not let him. Twenty steps or so down the path, the soldiers came back and stopped us. Mahmoud spoke with them in Hebrew on behalf of the group. At one point, he identified us as a group of tourists, which included both Jews and non-Jews. At this point the soldiers said that anyone who was Jewish could present their documents and would be allowed to enter. I wondered how he had known that a few of us were Jewish.
Mahmoud presented this offer to us in English. Of our group of about forty, I was one of three Jews. I hesitated for a second, then barely knowing what I was doing, or maybe knowing exactly what I was doing, I ran up to Mahmoud and to the doctor. “I think we’re travelling as a group, as friends, and I’m one of the Jewish students here, and I don’t think some of us should go where others aren’t allowed.” The other two Jews nodded in agreement from where they stood. So we walked back to the mosque entrance. I wondered if I was allowed in there. I wondered if they would ask if we were Jewish, and if so, if this would be a dumb place to admit it. But no one asked anything except that us women don hooded cloaks, that gave us the appearance of extras from the set of Hogwarts, and that we remove our shoes. Remove your shoes from your feet, for the ground where you stand is holy.
I could read enough Arabic to identify the tombs- Sarah by the entrance, Rebecca and Isaac side by side in the middle.
The front of the room- with its calendars, religious calligraphy, and bookshelves with jumbles of crumbling books painting with gold leaf reminded me more of synagogues than I expected, so much so that I picked up a book to confirm that the writing on the spine was in fact Arabic and not Hebrew. Mahmoud pointed out a bullet hole in the wall- it was from the Baruch Goldstein massacre, he said. The past isn’t gone, it isn’t even past.
A short story: there is a soup kitchen near the mosque entrance, because Abraham is called “al-khalil” in Arabic, “the friendly one,” and kindness to strangers is one of his attributes. They say that no one is ever hungry in Hevron; I don’t know if it is true. The root of the Hebrew name is also “friendship.”
I was jumpy on this trip. I wasn’t worried about violence as our group looked sufficiently international and non-Jewish. I was jumpy because of my own internal conflicts. I don’t want to have a “side”. I don’t want to ever see things as “us” versus “them”, especially not when “us” means Jews, and “them” means Palestinians. At the same time, I share a religion/ethnicity, though not a nationality, with one group of people there. And I don’t understand how they reached the point that they did, but the behavior of settlers in Hevron is regularly horrifying, as is the behavior of the soldiers assigned to guard them (often to the soldiers themselves, as one can see in the testimonials of soldiers from Breaking the Silence.) I don’t know how many settlers in Hevron who would not consider me a traitor, a self-hating Jew because of how frequently I run my mouth on the subjects of coexistence. The proportion of followers of Kahane is high among the settlers of Hevron, some of his followers have included left-wing Jews among their assassination targets, which, I guess if you look at it right, is sort of an honor.
The doctor’s son was one of our guides, and he had lived in Hevron for two months with a team of Christian observers, documenting the random yet routine friskings, harassment, and arrests by soldiers. He told us stories from his time there, and it was clear to me that he had come to love the Palestinians there, and was mostly horrified by the soldiers and settlers he had encountered there, that in principle he believed he should love them, but he could not internalize it.
I don’t mean to single him out, I often get jumpy around international activists, in a way that I don’t around Palestinian activists. I worry that my people are invisible to them- our fears, our dreams, our humanity. I worry they can’t see further than a soldier’s helmet, to look into peoples’ eyes, I worry that they conflate the settlers in Hevron with all Israelis. I worry when they say “oh, I have a side here,” when I have seen Israeli and Palestinian activists, who have so much more at stake, and have endured so much more, who have overcome that sort of thinking, when I believe that overcoming that sort of thinking is the only thing that might ever make a difference here.
And then I chide myself for that jumpiness. Many of them are doing a lot more than I am to document and prevent human rights abuses. It’s often at a certain amount of personal cost, and they often start to carry personal baggage. I know a little something about carrying the weight of things you’ve seen. I know I have my own blind spots. I squirm away from the doctor’s son’s stories, and have to remind myself that they jibe fairly well with the testimonies of IDF veterans collected by Breaking the Silence, that I have no reason to doubt him. Maybe just recognizing our blind spots is a good start.
I ask the doctor’s son how it is for him being back in Hevron. He says it is hard, his stomach has been twisted up in knots all day. I nod in recognition. I know something about that too, Derech Aza in Jerusalem used to do that to me, but that was years ago and last time I was there I was ok.
Maybe I talk about that too much. Sometimes I don’t know how not to talk about it. I probably would have the same views that I have now if I hadn’t been there in the bombing’s immediate aftermath. But just as a tattoo or a piercing modifies the body, there are things that modify the soul, and what I believe is burned into me with fire.
As trauma, scars, and emotional baggage go around here in Israel and Palestine, I got off easy.
I don’t remember how it came up, but someone asked me at dinner how I stopped being a Zionist. I told him that I did not consider myself anti-Zionist, but that my attachment to the land was personal, not governmental. I told him my views in general took form when staring at blood and death, and the moment I knew that I didn’t wish it on anyone. He said that my perspective was pretty cool. I notice that my hands are shaking.
Also at dinner, a classmate raised the possibility that only violent resistance would change things. I hadn’t really been part of that conversation, but I jumped in, and said that it was the worst thing that could happen, the second intifada had decimated what remained of the Israeli left, had created another traumatized generation. I don’t know why I made a utilitarian argument; it wouldn’t matter to me if I thought a violent third intifada would end the occupation. Maybe I have my own blind spot here, if so I don’t think I can change it.
There were three Jews today in Hevron who did not behave as soldiers or as settlers. Three Jews refused the privileged status the city offered us. We weren’t the first to do so, or the last. A tree fell in a forest. Did it make a sound?
On the bus, I apologized to my classmate who had made the violence comment for jumping down his throat. He told me he didn’t really support violent resistance, he raised it as more of a thought experiment, because he didn’t know what would end the occupation. I didn’t like this theoretical violence, because at the end of the day it is not theoretical people with shrapnel wounds, or theoretical burnt flesh and a stream of blood trickling down the pavement, and this is true in Jerusalem, and it is true in Jenin and in Gaza. It is not theoretical families who are bereaved, in Ashkelon, or in Hevron. So I pushed him on this line of argument a little further, I made my classic pitch, by which I mean deeply held belief that as future doctors, we have to transcend sides, because we have to be ready to fight to save the life of any patient who comes into the hospital, even if we consider them our worst enemy. Otherwise, how are we different from that which we claim to hate?
I have a side. It’s the human being in front of me, whoever it is. Bullshit, you probably say, and you’re right. But I’m trying. Will you try with me?