A Visit to Hebron: Impasse Central

I recently visited Hebron for the first time in 35 years.  People who care about Israel should confront the complexity that is Hebron, impasse central, where the Jewish and Palestinian narratives collide – and intertwine.
Anyone who doubts that Jews have deep, historic, legitimate ties in the contested territories must go to Hebron.  Staring at the Cave of the Patriarchs, the burial place of Judaism’s forefathers and foremothers, seeing the Herodian stones which evoke the Western Wall, praying at the shrines honoring Abraham and Sarah, steeps you in Jewish history, Jewish memory, Jewish sanctity.
Zionists believe in the power of place, that particular sites have meaning and that the Land itself, let alone the markers our ancestors left on said Land, taps into our rich history and our enduring values. True, millennia of exile and the disruptive forces of modernity made Judaism more mobile, more transportable, but that rootlessness often enhances the power of our rootedness when we experience it.
Human beings are abstract thinkers and sensual beings. Our communities work best when our ideals have traction, when our values have containers, when our meaning-seeking is rooted in the texture of everyday life. I felt that in Hebron, from seeing the iconic olive trees and vineyards nearby, to touching the historic Herodian stones of Judaism’s holiest burial cave, to seeing the thriving community of 8,000 Jews just outside the city, Kiryat Arba.
Yet anyone who doubts that the Palestinians have deep, historic, legitimate grievances against Israel must also go to Hebron.  Walking the Casbah, the market, is eerie.  The shuttered stores, the blocked streets, the ugly concrete barriers, make this historic center of a 250,000-person city feel like a ghost town.  As important as history is to me – as both Jew and historian – there are limits. The past is a guide; the present counts more. How can I ignore the imposition our presence represents in their lives?
Walking down what looks like an abandoned movie set, as you feel the forced quiet, you know you are safe only thanks to the power – and occasional retributive actions -- of the Israeli army.  It is a short walk from the Cave of the Patriarchs to Beit Hadassah, which in the 1920s was a thriving medical clinic serving both Jews and Arabs and today represents to both Jews and Arabs the Jewish presence in Hebron for better and worse. Along that short walk are so many historical stumbling blocks, competing layers of history, overlapping claims, with a complex chronology of rights and wrongs from both sides.
Hebron is like one of those old stereograms, that relied on binocular vision to make two distinct but overlapping pictures look 3-D. Clicking from one picture to another, changes perspectives radically.  Attempting to see it in all its depth and complexity requires heroic efforts -- or technical tricks. CLICK – and see Hebron the city of Abraham, as he lays claims to the Land of Israel. CLICK – and see the majority Arab presence for centuries. CLICK -- and see the Jews of Hebron – massacred viciously by their Arab neighbors in 1929. The last words of my father’s friend Haim’s mother before she was slaughtered by her neighbor, heard by her sister hiding in a closet, were “How can you do this, we are friends, I danced at your son’s wedding, you danced at my daughters’.…”
CLICK -- and see Palestinians living without any Jewish neighbors around for the following four decades. CLICK – and see the ugly violence Palestinians have committed against Jews, including the sniper shooting of a baby, Shalhevet Paz in 2001. CLICK – and see the ugly violence Jews have committed against Palestinians, including the mass murder of 29 Arab worshippers by Baruch Goldstein in 1994. CLICK today and see a romantic vision of Jews returning, rebuilding, renewing ancient Jewish ties. CLICK again today and see an ugly picture of settlers harassing Arab neighbors, of soldiers blocking Arab shopkeepers from their shops, of military rule imposing whatever law there is there.
These back and forth polarizing images miss the moments of inter-communal cooperation. Abraham is the father revered by both Jews and Muslims.  The Cave of the Patriarchs contains both synagogues and a mosque. My tour guide for the day recalled growing up in Kiryat Arba, riding his bicycle to the Casbah, and befriending Arabs. He also told stories of a cooperation that persists, including of the young “settler” child who got lost and was found by some Hebronites who wanted to kidnap her, only to be vetoed by village elders who returned her safely to her parents.
I left Hebron with my peace fantasy intact. My peace fantasy entails Jews and Arabs living side-by-side, freely, safely, and democratically, sometimes in separate communities, sometimes as neighbors – while appreciating their common ties, their overlapping narratives, not just their mutually exclusive narratives. I mourn that most visions of “peace” do not go that far, and instead buy the Arab narrative that the West Bank has some kind of inviolate character and legal status making it all Palestinian – and compelling it to be Jew-free in a peace agreement. Having said that, I respect demographic realities and could envision a compromise which would entail leaving Hebron – without relinquishing the Jewish rights to the place while acknowledging the huge sacrifices Israel will make for peace.
It is hard not to leave Hebron depressed by the conflict’s intractability, by extremists’ zealotry, and the sense that an angry unreasonable minority ruins it for the silent reasonable majority.  I would not want to die for Hebron – too many already have.  I wish we could figure out a way for those who share a love for Hebron to live together with it and in it.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of eight books on US history, including, most recently, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!