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Tale of Two Cities

For groups with wildly different ideas about what it means to be a Jew in Israel, Hebron is a battleground

Daniella Cheslow
October 10, 2008

On a Wednesday in early August, Mikhael Manekin and Yehuda Shaul lead a group of twenty-two visitors through the West Bank city of Hebron. Manekin is collected, friendly, and compact in a University of Maryland tee shirt; Shaul speaks angrily, breathes heavily, and his large frame seems about to burst out of his button-down shirt. The two veterans of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are co-directors of Shovrim Shtika (in English, Breaking the Silence), an organization founded in 2004 to collect testimony from soldiers about what they see as abuses of Palestinians.

As soon as the visitors arrive in the city, they are instantly ringed by more than one hundred police officers, who buffer them from local Jewish settlers harassing the group.

“The gay pride parade isn’t here,” shouts a boy in a tee shirt, yarmulke, and tzitzit.

“You say you are humanists, but you’re fascists,” a bearded man screams into a megaphone.

Manekin and Shaul don’t answer; instead, Shaul keeps talking to his small group, his voice barely rising above the crowd of settlers heckling him.

The West Bank city of Hebron has long been notorious for the brutality between Jews and Palestinians, numbering 1,000 and 166,000 respectively. But lately the city has become a battleground between two groups of Israelis led by Orthodox Jews, waging what each sees as an epic struggle over the physical and moral borders of the future Jewish state. Instead of truncheons and guns, the weapons are tour buses and megaphones.

“Our state has to decide to be here or not,” say Shaul, who is twenty-five. “But one of the things we think can’t happen is this injustice.” He’s talking about the restrictions on Palestinian life, the focus of the eleven-dollar tours of Hebron, which depart from Jerusalem once a week, led by Shovrim Shtika.

After a walk down the main avenue of Jewish Hebron, a silent street that was once the commercial center of the city, Manekin and Shaul take groups to visit a Palestinian family, and then to the grave of Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli-American settler who, in 1994, shot twenty-nine Muslims in the city’s Tomb of the Patriarchs before being killed by a mob.

I met Manekin in a café in Jerusalem’s Talpiyot neighborhood, where he lives with his wife and infant daughter. Earnest and quick to smile, Manekin, who is twenty-nine, wears a yarmulke over closely trimmed black hair and a neat, short beard. He grew up in Maryland, with an American father and Israeli mother, and moved to Israel in time to be drafted in 1998. He began to question Israel’s treatment of Palestinians during his four years as a soldier.

“You can’t be a benevolent occupier,” says Manekin. “Most of [Shovrim Shtika’s] soldiers were the people who came in to do things differently, who had moral qualms. And all of them failed. We are not [in Hebron] to make the situation more calm, we’re in there to make it known.”

Manekin says his group tries to reach Israeli teenagers who will soon be drafted. The organization also caters to other Israelis – journalists, parliamentarians, and ordinary citizens, with additional days for foreign media and politicians. In 2007, Shovrim Shtika brought three thousand visitors to the city. “We target the Jewish audiences because we think they have a stake in this conflict,” he says.

Yet, to the settlers who choose to live in Hebron, these activists are putting sympathy for the Palestinians above the plight of the city’s Jews, past and present.

On a warm Wednesday in May, New York transplant Simcha Hochbaum speaks to a group of twenty-four tourists beside a yellow plastic jungle gym in Jewish Hebron.

“Let’s forget about politics,” Hochbaum, who is forty-one, tells the group, as behind him a settler leaves a caravan clutching a small boy, two bike helmets, and a machine gun. “Let’s talk about Abraham.” He speaks rapidly, peppering his spiel with jokes about Ruth collecting food stamps and young King David taking Ritalin.

Hochbaum guides these tours through the settlement’s fundraising body, the Hebron Fund. Tours cost forty dollars and depart from a Jerusalem hotel once a week during the year and twice a week in summer. But those aren’t the only differences from the tours led by Shovrim Shtika.

Hochbaum paints Hebron as a place where Jews have always lived, were brutally evicted, and finally bravely replanted themselves. His itinerary includes the Tomb of the Patriarchs, built on land Abraham bought in the Bible and said to contain the remains of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives. The group also visits a memorial room for the 1929 massacre of Hebron, in which the city’s Arabs slaughtered their Jewish neighbors. And Hochbaum visits a wall dedicated to Shalhevet Pass, an infant shot by a Palestinian sniper in 2001, and says he named his daughter after the slain child.

* * *

Hebron is the only Palestinian city with an Israeli settlement inside it. In addition to being Abraham’s first purchase in Biblical Israel, Hebron also served briefly as King David’s capital, and Jews are said to have lived there peacefully since. However, after sixty-seven Jews perished in the 1929 massacre, the rest of the community left and in 1948, Hebron passed to Jordan.

When Israel won the Six-Day War, and with it Hebron, religious Israeli nationalists saw a chance to renew the Jewish community. They moved first to the adjacent town of Kiryat Arba, and eventually into the historic Jewish quarter of the city in 1979.

Hebron Spokesperson Noam Arnon is a prime example of the pull of the city. As a twelve-year-old in a secular suburb of Raanana, Arnon was captivated by Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War and the many religious artifacts dotting the newly-conquered West Bank. Six years later, he moved to Kiryat Arba, and finally settled in Hebron, where today he lives with his wife and eight children.

“We came here to Palestine only because of the history,” says Arnon, who is fifty-three and has a master’s in Jewish history from Hebrew University. “And history begins in Hebron.”

“All the Jewish sites were destroyed. The Jewish quarter was a dump and public toilet and a cattle path,” says Arnon, who led excavations in the synagogue. “Everything stank. The Jewish cemetery was destroyed, and on it was a garden for trees, and grapes and vegetables.”

The settlers of Hebron rededicated the synagogue and moved into formerly Jewish buildings. But the animosity from 1929 never wore off, and Jews and Arabs continued to inflict such brutal casualties on each other that in 1997, Israel and the Palestinians divided the city, assigning eighty percent to Palestinians, twenty percent to Israel, and forbidding each side from entering the other.

But this plan has a serious catch: the Jewish section’s borders included thirty-five thousand Palestinian residents. Since 2000, the IDF has declared parts of this area “sterile,” meaning Palestinians cannot drive, open shops, or sometimes even walk on sections of the main road”known to Jews as King David Street and to Arabs as the Street of the Martyrs”in the place where they live.

Although he has seen it hundreds of times, Manekin says the Street of the Martyrs still shocks him. It’s a long, dusty road, lined on either side by old stone two-story apartment buildings, where rusting green steel awnings hang over shuttered green steel doors that are spray-painted with Jewish stars and the Hebrew word for revenge. Up above, Palestinians sit on second-story balconies enclosed with metal netting, which Manekin explains is defense from settlers who throw rocks their way. Because the IDF welded their front doors shut, these families must clamber out their windows and walk across rooftops until they reach the section of the street where their feet may touch the ground.

“There’s something about that Star of David on that door which is very sickening,” says Manekin. “The idea that [Jewish] people walk around freely and other people are caged up on their second floor and that’s being upheld by the Star of David . . . That’s the point where no excuse can excuse it.”

Arnon doesn’t see things that way.

“The rebuilding of Hebron is the most right and just idea in the world,” Arnon says, and mentions that he regularly gets stones thrown at his house and car, including one that shattered his living room window three months ago. For him, evacuating Hebron is not option.

Anyone who tries to evacuate Jews from the city “will not get out alive,” Arnon says. “And they don’t have the right to do it. The Jewish community of Hebron had existed here before the state of Israel. Jews lived here under Herod and under the Crusaders and under Mamluks and under Byzantines, and Jews will live here anyhow and anyway under any condition.”

* * *

On his tours, Hochbaum refers to Palestinian Hebron as “the eighty percent unfortunately given away,” and laments that Jews must share the other twenty percent with thousands of Arabs. Manekin and Shaul, for their part, speak of Hebron’s slain Jews, but mostly on the bus ride in.

The target audience for the settler tour is North Americans who are sympathetic to the Jews of Hebron. One Christian minister says she is outraged by large Palestinian homes within a stone’s throw of cramped Jewish caravans. A Jewish father and daughter are regulars to the city’s annual Passover celebrations; the family’s thirteen-year-old girl recently asked Bat Mitzvah guests to contribute to Hebron. Hochbaum’s tour is in English, and emphasizes this fundraising aspect.

“We are here every day putting ourselves on the line as messengers and emissaries and it’s not easy,” he says to his group.

The Shovrim Shtika trip, by contrast, is in Hebrew. Although there are a few Americans, the majority of participants are young Israelis from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, mostly well-dressed and erudite. Several Israelis are home on vacation from European universities.

“You can’t help being shocked and disgusted by the violence that is present in every sentence [the settlers say],” says Itay Snir, 33, a high school philosophy teacher from Tel Aviv. “It’s racism all the time toward the Palestinian residents.”

Hebron is just one part of the rift between Israel’s right and left, who are carrying out a modern-day incarnation of a decades-old debate about how to be a Jew.

The first Zionists who moved to Israel were eager to shed their weak and pale personas in favor of a strong New Jew, embodied by the charismatic, fictional Ari Ben Canaan in the film Exodus. Ben Canaan helps defeat Arab enemies and shepherds Holocaust survivors to safety in the new land, operating in a world of clear right and wrong. Arnon sees the world in a similar way.

“To make propaganda against the Jewish people and against the Jewish community in Hebron, and against the army, which is the Jewish state, and to make this propaganda and to bring here foreign journalists and diplomats, this is anti Jewish,” he says of Shovrim Shtika.

“I know the Jewish history from the beginning, and I know that every generation is writing a new page in this very old book,” Arnon adds. “I try to do my best that the page our generation writes will be a page of continuing the heritage and not a page of betrayal and abandonment of our roots and nationhood and history.”

But Manekin, who refuses to give his ideas for how to solve the problems of Hebron, sees a world with fewer clear answers.

“I don’t feel like what bothers me is nationalist questions,” he says. “Religion is very much a part of my life, and being a Jew is very much part of my life. And it bugs me. It bothers me that Judaism is used to promote hate, forcefulness, and callousness. The Judaism of my family is one of being gentle.”

And the fact that he and Yehuda Shaul are Orthodox only exacerbates the conflict between them and the settlers. “We’re all religious zealots,” he says. “We all think that we know what’s right.”

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

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