by Susan Pashman
As I set out to see for myself what was happening on Israel’s West Bank, I was also hungrily devouring Ari Shavit’s magnificent book, My Promised Land. In chapters chock full of painstakingly researched history and brave, absorbing interviews with the historical actors, I was learning from an Israeli Jew how to assess the possibilities for Israel’s future. Each day, John Kerry was pressing for a two-state solution, even as the newspaper stories grew ever more pessimistic. I booked two day-long tours: one to a Jewish settlement in Hebron and another to the Palestinian side of the wall.
The first stop on the Jewish tour was at the Tomb of Rachel. Our guide, a representative of the Hebron Fund, a New York-based nonprofit supporting Jewish life in Hebrown, appeared not to notice the barbed wire surrounding the tomb, the military watch towers guarding it, the high wall bordering a space no more than 20 feet wide.
“We are prevented from entering our ancient land,” our guide, Sarah said, “but we do not see this as an obstacle.”
Sarah seemed not to notice that the “tomb” is a horror of icy architecture reminiscent of military barracks, hardly what you would expect to find as the burial site of “our dear sister, the beloved wife deprived of burial with her husband, the mother who died in childbirth on this spot.” I wondered why it was necessary to protect the tomb from the Palestinians in whose city it was located. Wasn’t Rachel acknowledged by Muslims as their ancestor as well?
The Hebron Fund cares for the Tomb so that Jews may come here to pray for Rachel, but it seemed that it was mostly the residents of the Jewish settlement in Hebron who come to pray, along with the tourists their organization brings to the site. This is how the Fund makes its case to the Knesset that this tiny speck of land must never be abandoned in a future land swap.
Our tour moved on to the tiny Jewish settlement on the top of a rocky hillside in Hebron, a city sacred to Jews for the tombs of the Torah patriarchs. Here, a group of 70 families scratches out a difficult life, supported mostly by donations to the Hebron Fund. Hebron itself is 97% Palestinian. We were driven up a rocky hill to a small cluster of hovels and one newish modest apartment building by a second guide, the rabbi of the little community of settlers.
The rabbi explained that his congregants were here by the slim grace of the Knesset, which allotted them just 48 hours to build homes. Whatever could be built in that time would be protected by the army. The group rented cranes to lift a few shipping containers onto the hilltop; these “trailers” became their homes and a school. Outside the school, on a tiny patch of Astroturf, sat a very small plastic playground set.
The settlers built the eight-unit apartment building themselves after receiving special government permission. In the process, they uncovered ruins of the original walls of Hebron and a worn staircase, both of which have been dated to more than 4,000 years ago. Abraham lived and walked here, the rabbi said.
This rabbi/guide grew up in Staten Island; he chose the very arduous life on the Hebron hilltop because, he said, it is a meaningful life. He understands Hebron to be Israel’s second most holy city because it is where Abraham walked and eventually purchased a burial site for his family. He and his congregants see themselves as protectors of these sacred sites; they are what prevents the Knesset from ceding these sites to the heavily populated Palestinian city in which they are located.
“What do you settlers do for a living here?” someone on our tour asked the rabbi. “Where do you shop and conduct your business?” The rabbi looked down and said he’d get to that later. To change the subject, he pointed beyond to the impressive rows white buildings of stacked on the hills of Hebron. “Look,” he cried, “look what they’ve done! They have built all that!’
I was impressed, but that was not his point.
“Money from Eastern Europe built that city!” His face was twisted in dismay.
I, for one, was happy to see the Palestinians take their fate into their own hands instead of moping in refugee camps, breeding hatred. I was happy to know they were instead breeding self-esteem. You cannot strike compromises with people who are on their knees.
We mounted another hilltop where the Hebron settlers tend the Tomb of Ruth and other Davidic relatives. It consists of a tiny alter surrounded by filthy heaps of plaster and stone rubble. But the rabbi was proud of the effort to preserve it and we tourists tried to show our appreciation.
Suddenly, the rabbi glanced anxiously at his watch, raised both his arms and energetically signaled us to join him in singing the triumphal hymn, Esai Aynu. A moment later, the muezzins all over Hebron began their call to noontime prayer. The rabbi raised his voice and coaxed us to do likewise, to sing loudly enough to drown out the muezzin. The loudspeaker on the high minaret nearest us blasted the call insistently. Most people on the tour did not know the words to the rabbi’s hymn. The rabbi raised his voice still louder, but he was going to lose the contest. We were all going to lose. There were dozens of Islamic prayer calls going out from loudspeakers all around us. Hebron is a Palestinian city. Anyone with eyes could see that; anyone with ears could hear it. Except for the rabbi.
When we reached the old synagogue where the rabbi held services, one of the tourists had a question. We had passed along a street of shops all of which were closed and shuttered. How did the 70 families earn their livings? Why were they not operating these shops?
Those are not our shops, the rabbi explained. They belong to Arabs who abandoned them. We invited them back because we wanted a place to shop, but they declined and moved on. Now, the Knesset forbids us from opening them because the street will probably revert to their owners when Israel “gives in to Obama and Kerry and returns all of Hebron” to the Arabs. They don’t want to have to destroy Jewish businesses. The Hebron settlement is merely a residential zone, inhabited by those few who have taken this holy work upon themselves; they do their shopping and other business in towns about an hour away.
The rabbi told us he has a severely handicapped autistic son. He took the boy to see many rabbis but nothing helped. I tried to absorb the fact that this man, born and educated in New York City, took his son to rabbis, not doctors, for medical therapies. He believes he is serving God by protecting Jewish sites in Hebron, a city that will undoubtedly soon revert to Palestinian control. I wondered if he would not be serving God better by getting the best possible care for his suffering child. How do we understand what provides meaning in the life of another?
As we headed to lunch, we saw swarms of Palestinian children returning from school. The rabbi remarked that a big problem here is that the school day is too short. The kids get bored and amuse themselves by throwing rocks. I asked him why the school day is so short. I thought he would say that the schools lack for funds. Instead, he said:
“Why is it short? Well, they study rock-throwing for one hour, and bomb-making for one hour, and then they read Quran for one hour. After fourth grade, they learn math for one hour. There is nothing else for them to learn.”
Later in the tour, I asked a question: Why, in the 1930s and 1940s, when so much Palestinian land was being cleared to make the Jewish state continuous, was Hebron, the second holiest city of Israel, not cleared as well? I did not use Shavit’s inflammatory words—“ethnic cleansing”—for this clearing. I asked simply why Israel did not give more attention to this very sacred place before the Palestinians went in search of foreign money to build a great city here. Hebron is the first town settled by the Jews upon arriving in the promised land. It is where Abraham purchased land to bury his family. Why didn’t the government long ago—or the Zionist settlers even earlier—see the value of this land to the Jewish state?
The rabbi might have said what I recently heard a panelist from the Hartman Institute say in answer to an embarrassing question: “Israel is a country that was thrown together in a hurry and many mistakes were made.” Or, he could have said that the Zionists did not view ancestral bones as significant to the present-day concerns of Israel. But Hebron was giving his own life its very meaning.
Instead, he replied that the Israelis abandoned Hebron because they could not live here. Palestinians, on the other hand, clearly had no trouble living on the stony slopes of Hebron. It is hot as blazes and the terrain is tough, but Middle Eastern peoples who are lithe and small-boned and dark-skinned thrive. Perhaps the Knesset understands better than the settlers that the Jews simply do not belong in Hebron. (Yes, Abraham and the patriarchs were there, but these Jewish ancestors, let us recall, were dark-skinned, small-boned shepherds, not Europeans.)
On to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site that has been held for over a thousand years by “Arabs.” (The rabbi never said “Palestinians,” a term that implies a nascent nation.) A large mosque was constructed over the tomb centuries ago. In the inner courtyard, a canopy has been raised and beneath it, shielded from the hot sun, an Ark has been constructed. The architecture of this courtyard is plainly Arab, red and white striped archways reminiscent of the famous mosque in Cordoba. As we left the Tomb, someone noted that we did not see the actual coffin of Abraham or of any of the “patriarchs.” No, said the rabbi, all that is under the control of the Arabs. We Jews own the Tomb because Abraham purchased it for his family, but the Arabs control it. This, I thought, was a strange sense of ownership.
At the end of the tour, we were handed donation cards. I gave the minimum. I thought this project was doomed. I have a problem with tombs. I’d rather support life, and I don’t think the life of Israel is about bones, however ancient they may be. I don’t think faith of any sort should depend on material objects because that is what faith is; it’s what you have regardless of a lack of evidence. If you need to see the bones to believe the story of Abraham or of Rachel, or—more importantly—to find a way to integrate those stories into your life, you are not moved by faith, but by scientific evidence. And that is not religion.
Two days later, I met up in Jerusalem with three other tourists for a day’s travel through the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah. I’d chosen this particular tour because it promised a Palestinian escort; we would not only see the sites of Palestinian grievance, but hear the voice of the aggrieved. Our guide, Jamal, was a congenial young father of two, a certified tour guide who wanted to tell the story from his side of the wall.
We had to meet Jamal at a road stop; he was not permitted into West Jerusalem. He drove us in his Jeep to the other side of the same wall I’d seen two days earlier, the wall around Rachel’s tomb. On the Palestinian side, we found a dirty, rubble-strewn area, the watchtower sooty from fires that had been set repeatedly in protest; half-burned tires remained piled up beside it. Jamal pointed out a house that overlooked the Tomb; an odd sort of fence bordered its roof. The owners were not permitted on their own roof for security reasons. “Security reasons,” Jamal said, are responsible for uncountable restrictions on the Palestinians’ freedom of movement.
The wall was decorated with posters made by Palestinian women. They told of terror and harassment, of being suddenly wakened for warrantless house searches—many grievances illustrated with touching drawings. Other parts of the wall were decorated with graffiti, much of it work spray-painted by the British street artist Banksy during a 2005 trip: a little girl body-searching a policeman, a firebrand reeling back as he hurls a bunch of flowers.
Next, we drove to a Palestinian “refugee camp.” It looked nothing like the camps one sees housing, for example, Syrian refugees, although at one time it looked just like that. When a winter flood damaged all the tents, the UN ordered the Israelis to provide better housing, and so one-story limestone huts were built. But now the camp is a small town of four-story apartment buildings. The Palestinians, who are experienced at building with the rocks and rubble at hand, strengthened the foundations of the buildings Israel provided so they could support additional stories, and then built up higher and higher. Several generations occupy what was once a single-story hut, one generation on each floor. The number of stories on each house has never been officially documented; neither has the number of people residing in each building.
Running along the base of each house are pipes and pumps, and Jamal explained that water is allocated to the camp by the Israeli government, which turns on the water once every three weeks. Residents of each house can then fill the containers on their roofs. There is enough for some cooking and a bath—one bath every three weeks. Jamal warned that soon there would be a terrible uprising over the issue of water. The settlements all around the camp, the Jewish settlements, he told us, receive fresh water allotments every day while the Palestinian refugees receive fresh water once every three weeks. We only want our human rights, he said plaintively.
But I had just read about the water situation. The Palestinian Authority is billed for the water used each month by their territories. The P.A. has not paid their water bills for several years. The Israeli water authority, as a humanitarian gesture, provides a livable ration of water at no charge.
I noticed that the joints connecting the water pipes to the pumps at each house were leaking terribly and that water was running down the cobblestone streets to the foot of the hill. I wondered why these people who could build their own houses could not seal the joints and thereby save some of their precious water.
Jamal pointed out that the streets in the camp were unpaved and dirty and that there was no place for children to play. I turned my head and saw a grassy, but garbage-strewn, area with a rusty fence around it. I wondered why it had not been cleared to serve as a play area; it was perhaps ten times the size of the play area at the little school in the Hebron settlement.
In the near distance, Bethlehem rose white and huge on the hills. The Palestinians there were living reasonably well. Their brothers in the camp were free to move into Bethlehem’s modern apartments at any time. They chose to live in the camp, reminding tourists and international “observers” of their terrible plight. The camp residents commute each day to Bethlehem and Ramallah for work, but they would not consider moving. Like the Jewish settlers in Hebron, they were placing their bodies in uncomfortable positions for the sake of giving their lives meaning.
At the edge of the camp, a huge iron key hangs suspended over a limestone wall with an oddly shaped entranceway, the shape of a keyhole. The key represents what every camp resident has in his home: a key to the home from which he fled or was expelled in what Palestinians call the Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948. This same symbolic key hangs over gas stations and lampposts throughout the Palestinian cities.
An English woman on the tour was visiting her husband who was “observing” for the Quakers. I remarked to her that six million people I can think of were also dispossessed of their homes and never got to take their keys.
“But that doesn’t make this right,” she said. “That doesn’t justify this.”
She was right. It doesn’t.
I was reminded of something my philosophy professor, Raziel Abelson, said when we were discussing “explanation” in the writing of history. Does giving an “explanation” of an historical occurrence thereby justify it? Is it true that to explain is to justify? There are two ways to make something “understandable.” An explaining fact is not necessarily a moral judgment. In Shavit’s history of modern Israel, he lays out his painstakingly researched facts. But as his book makes clear, those facts don’t yield a moral sanction.
As we left Bethlehem for Ramallah, Jamal warned us that our journey would be a long one. Many Palestinians commute between these two cities daily. The trip would take 20 minutes along the road that cuts through Jerusalem, but Palestinians are not permitted along that route. Instead, they must travel around Jerusalem on a badly rutted, two-lane road. The road is being improved with US aid and, as it nears Ramallah, it widens and smoothes. Still, the checkpoints can tie you up for hours.
Along the route, Jamal pointed out small Palestinian villages that were being surrounded, engulfed, by Israeli settlements. I was shocked by the size of the settlements: Long banks of identical apartment buildings, not small encampments such as I’d seen in Hebron. These settlements are full-sized walled cities; their walls run right up to the Palestinian homes so that whatever views the Palestinians had from their homes looking out across the Judean desert landscape are blocked.
Along the road to Ramallah, we stopped at Yasir Arafat’s Tomb, a beautifully landscaped little park with a marble portico; under the roof is a marble coffin with an inscription which Jamal translated: “….and who was murdered in the year….”
No, I said. Arafat was not murdered.
Yes, said Jamal, they opened the tomb and tested for poison. Polonium.
Yes, I agreed, they tested and found no poison. Arafat died of natural causes in a hospital in Paris. That’s been confirmed. Isn’t it highly inflammatory to say–to engrave in marble–that he was murdered?
As we speak, a young family, dressed in solemn attire, entered the sheltered area and began to pray. A respectful hush.
Arafat was the best leader the Palestinians ever had, not like Abbas, Jamal continued. His people need to see that he was a martyr.
But he was not murdered and he was not martyred. He got sick and died.
But this tomb was carved before they did the testing, said Jamal.
Precisely. So there was absolutely no reason then to call him a martyr. And there still isn’t. What are you trying to do here?
Jamal smiled. He was, once again, like the rabbi/guide in Hebron. There was no way to get through to either one. I thought perhaps there is also no way to negotiate peace in this part of the world. A big conclusion to draw from such a tiny smidgeon of evidence, but still…..
As we entered Ramallah, I was struck by the thousands of pane-less windows on buildings rising about us. I had inquired about this same phenomenon when I traveled in Egypt, and was told that people built not only for themselves but for future generations so that a family could live together under one roof. Taxes on an “unfinished” apartment were much lower than on a finished one, so the owner left the panes out of the windows until his sons were ready to occupy them. I asked Jamal if this was the case in Ramallah.
No, he said, these apartments just aren’t yet finished.
Well, but what remains to be done except put in the windows? The stores on the street level are all open for business and look quite lived in. Why aren’t the upper floors finished yet?
Building takes time.
Thousands of unfinished apartments? I could not believe that these were works in progress. Why could not the brothers and sisters living rotten lives in the refugee camps occupy apartments in these “unfinished” buildings in the city where they come each day to work?
Jamal laughed. The refugees have homes. They even have the keys to those homes. Hadn’t I been paying attention to what he’d been saying on this tour?
After a march through the souk of Ramallah, we were dropped at a checkpoint into West Jerusalem because Jamal could not accompany us through. When I arrived home, I learned on the television news that I had passed through the very checkpoint where the women of Ramallah had chosen to celebrate Women’s Day by casting aside their femininity in favor of a traditional male activity: They had assembled at the checkpoint to hurl stones. I had passed through that point a bit later and so missed the celebration of Women’s Day.
The rabbi/guide in Hebron and Jamal were, I finally concluded, pretty much the same person. Neither one actually listened to any of the questions put to him because neither one intended to deliver answers. Each had a prepared script and, when confronted with a question, each would latch onto a key word in the question and deliver the portion of the prepared script that contained that word. Both had stories of victimhood to tell; for each there were simply no questions either to ask or to answer. For both the rabbi and the Palestinian, the most important thing was to pursue of life of “meaning.”
“We are not interested in a two-state solution,” Jamal had said. “We want peace the way things were before the Nakba, peace in which all the farmers live side by side, each on his own land.” His days are spent delivering this message because it furnishes his life with its sense of purpose. The rabbi in Hebron denies his son proper medical treatment; he knows that a two-state solution will force him to abandon the home he has fashioned out of a shipping carton, the congregation he has served from the old Sephardic synagogue, and the meaning his life has derived from guarding the burial sites of Hebrew ancestors. Neither Jamal nor the rabbi can hear the arguments for the two-state solution because to do so would cost them their lives’ meanings.
I reach the final chapter of Shavit’s book. He loves Israel. He believes it will endure. But he acknowledges that Israel’s “right” to the land is a right based on might. Only as a Spartan state, Shavit concludes, only as a heavily militarized and perpetually vigilant state, can Israel survive.
Then there will always be a wall, I have to conclude. Israel will live as a medieval hilltop town, its citizens ever on the alert. This, Shavit believes, will be worth it.
And on the other side of the wall, there will be posters registering the complaints of women who have been harassed, and the charred remains of tires burnt in weekly protests. Perhaps Bethlehem’s “refugees” will someday move to shiny apartments, but they will hang huge iron keys from the lampposts and not forget their meaning.
Meaning is what makes human life possible. It is also, it turns out, what may make a two-state solution impossible.
Susan Pashman is a retired lawyer and a philosophy professor at Boston Architectural College. She is the author of a novel, The Speed of Light, and is currently at work on a memoir, Journey To A Temple In Time: A Philosopher’s Quest For The Sabbath.