Shabbat in Hebron: The Good, the bad, the inappropriate and the ugly

"I think that most people on this Shabbaton were able to internalize something from everyone, even though it was difficult.”

Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Not everyone would consider spending Shabbat in Hebron, let alone a group of Anglo post high-school students trying to enjoy their gap year (a year between high school and college) in Israel. Students from the ATID student leadership program, however, boarded a bus at 6:40 a.m. on Friday morning on December 28 to learn about the Jewish and Palestinian communities in Hebron over the course of Shabbat. While there, some cried during prayer services at the Cave of the Patriarchs, some fumed with anger during political discussions and many asked questions during discussions and talks with activists from both the far Left and far Right sides of the Israeli-Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Program organizers extended the invitation to non-ATID participants, bringing in a handful of young professionals to the mix.
“A lot of times, people are either very stuck in their ways, or they’re completely swayed in one direction and dismiss anything else they hear. I think that most people on this Shabbaton were able to internalize something from everyone, even though it was difficult,” Danit Felber, the program’s managing director commented.   
Head educator, Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen said that the weekend aimed to deepen participants' sense of Jewish identity and connection to Hebron while exposing them to how Palestinians are experiencing life in H2 (the 20% of Hebron that is under full Israeli control). HaKohen stressed that the goal of the weekend was to empower students to create their own unique ideologies. “ATID is about creating the intellectual leadership of a 21st century Jewish liberation movement that can clean up Zionism’s mess while safeguarding its positive achievements,” he said.
“Participants are encouraged to go through a difficult process and come to their own conclusions,” HaKohen said. “One of the greatest barriers to peace, in my opinion, is the fact that both Jews and Palestinians feel threatened by each other's stories. We're both afraid that if the narrative of the "other" is true, it makes our own narrative less true. I see it differently. I think both peoples are correct when we talk about ourselves and our experiences but tend to get it wrong when talking about the "other," which leads to us each superimposing identities and motivations on the "other" that have little in common with how we each actually experience ourselves. We're both playing fantasy antagonists in one another's stories and this leads to very counterproductive methods of struggle on both sides.”
In order to give people the opportunity to draw a conclusion, the group listened to a handful of speakers in Hebron, after setting up camp at the Hebron guest house. After conducting morning prayers at the Cave of the Patriarchs, the program picked up. First was a talk with Palestinian tour guide Mohammed al-Mohtaseb. The group followed him to the rooftop of his family’s home in H2, which is above a souvenir store. It was an extremely brisk day and the group listened patiently as hail fell from the sky. Al-Mohtaseb told the group about his life experiences. In under 20 minutes, the guide explained the difference between the Hebron territories, shared his experience between military law and civilian law, telling the group that while Israeli citizens are innocent until proven guilty, he and his community are guilty until proven innocent. The guide shared an anecdote, detailing a time when he was jailed for throwing stones -- but was able to prove to the commander he was innocent, as the man in the photo that the authorities offered him as evidence, pictured a man that was 50 kilograms heavier than al-Mohtaseb.
Following the stories, students asked questions while al-Mohtaseb’s father brought up a large pot of tea, which made its rounds rather quickly as students warmed their hands. “What do you think of BDS?” “Do you think their language is extreme or helpful?” “Should people boycott Israeli companies that employ Palestinians?” The questions snowballed and al-Mohtaseb answered graciously, explaining that while he follows his own unique path, boycotting products is a non-violent way to protest.
The tour continued. HaKohen stopped to show students monuments of Jews who had been killed in Hebron, providing details about the events. We stopped at the site of the ancient Roman markets, where Jews were taken, sold off as slaves and marched off to Europe. Where we stood, HaKohen explained is the birthplace of Ashkenazi Jewry. We also took a moment to sit in a synagogue that dates back to 1540. It is still operational.
The stories and stops were all on the way to a visit with Tzipi Schlissel, a woman who knows about the conflict firsthand. Her long ties to Hebron and far Right views made her the perfect candidate to follow al-Mohtaseb. Just as the group was feeling sympathetic, Schlissel recounted how her grandmother was saved by an Arab family during the Hebron 1929 massacre, in which nearly 70 Jews in Hebron were murdered.
She then moved to the tragic story of how her father was murdered in 1998 in his own home -- at the hands of an Arab terrorist who came through his window with a knife and a molotov cocktail. Schlissel painted the scene. Hebron was a mixed city at the time with 18,000 Arabs and a small community of less than 1,000 Jews. Twenty-one Arabs are known to have saved Jews during the riot.
“This was very hard for the community. The feeling that their friends killed them. This was all before there was any excuse of occupation. Before this was Israel’s state. Every time they find a different excuse why to incite the people of the Arab society to go and kill Jewish people,” Schlissel said. “Only after they killed my father did the government give us permission to build. The Jews in Hebron don’t have the rights to build, to buy, to go to their own houses they owned from before the massacre. We have a strong connection to this place. There’s no other place in the world that we can see buildings 2,000 years old -- big ones that are used for the same thing it was built for. And everyone knows this is where the Patriarchs -- the fathers and the mothers of this nation are buried.”
Immediately after listening to the painful story of Schlissel, the tour moved across the street to visit a Palestinian activist named Issa Amro, who seated the group in his backyard and spoke about the lack of human rights for his people. Similarly and yet oppositely to Schlissel, Amro said that the Jews had been violent to the Palestinians.
“You are not allowed to practice any kind of general assembly, you are not allowed to have visitors and there’s settler violence all the time. And people are completely alone and isolated and nobody hears about them. Nobody really knows what’s happening here in Hebron,” he opened.
During Amro’s speech, soldiers passed through his yard. Some yelled. Some laughed and some showed the lay of the land. Amro told the group that the soldiers were simply explaining to the newcomers how to proceed during Shabbat. Many of the students were visibly uncomfortable by the presence of the soldiers, turning around to watch them. Some bit their nails. Some stared at the floor.
One of the participants asked a question.
“If you had to choose to live with Hamas, the PA (Palestinian Authority) or Israel, who would you choose?”
“I am for a country with full civil rights and democracy. And none of them is doing that right now. Let me say that I don’t want to see those soldiers there. During an attack, if somebody was attacking me and I would see a soldier and tell him to protect me. He would say I am with them. Not with you. I am against you, not against them,” Amro said.
Later, the activist talked about his Jewish neighbors, including Schlissel who he referred to as “that angel” and told the tour she had struck him using her hands earlier in the week during a dispute. Amro said he would construct a low wall beside his house. After the discussion, I returned to Schlissel’s home and asked her if she had laid her hands on Amro. She said the construction had been illegally done on property that didn’t belong to him and then asked me if I thought she looked like a woman who would attack a man twice her size.
At this point, the group headed back to the guest house for a talk about spirituality before having time to wash up for Shabbat. Friday evening services were held at the Cave of the Patriarchs after the Shabbat dinner, a right-wing speaker addressed the room. Coming from Efrat, Yishai Fleisher expressed to the crowd that in order to gain respect in the Middle East, the Israeli army needs to be strong and feared. He added that in this world, the option is to be the oppressor or to be oppressed.
Fleisher presented a number of options to the audience, but the option that gained the most backlash from students was a one state solution, in which all Palestinians become Israeli Arabs, living under Israeli law as citizens - without the right to vote. Fleisher got lots of aggressive comments from his speech, but as the night dwindled on, people stopped questioning politics and started making their way up the stairs to bed.
On Saturday morning, some slept in and some returned to pray near the Cave of the Patriarchs before an early lunch. Chris Whitman, a pro-Palestinian activist spoke to the refreshed group. He went over how he became involved in the conflict, moving from the States to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and then moved to Ramallah for a more authentic experience that would relate him to what he had studied. He described the long journeys by car on roads that were meant only for Palestinians. He described being hit in the head with a tear-gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier from 15 meters away during a protest. He painted a picture of what life is like on the other side. He did all this with a touch of humor. What was his solution for the problem? For the Israeli government to begin making up for the way Israel was born -- on the heels of removing Palestinians from land and perhaps even living in a country that is not a state. He suggested that Jews should have moved in seamlessly amongst Arabs in 1948, and questioned the need for Jews to have identified the area as a state at all. “Do Kurds have a country?” he asked, answering "no."
Later in the afternoon, the group had a debriefing. It had been an intense couple of days and HaKohen thought it was necessary to let participants get some of their feelings and their new views off their chests. Each person came away with a different viewpoint. One offered that there’s no way for Jews to properly work with Palestinians because “they have a sh*t culture.” One said she couldn’t face her friends anymore, who repeatedly choose to ignore the problems of Palestinians and blindly defend Israel. Another said he felt more committed to both furthering the Jewish presence in Hebron as well as to bettering the situation for Palestinians in the area.
Dan Amroussi from London is studying at Hebrew University. He joined ATID, where he hears from political speakers and activists every other week.
“I came here obviously with an opinion about the conflict. But coming here with ATID and with the university, I gained a wider perspective and realized how ignorant I was and how ignorant other people are as well. I’ve always wanted to come to Hebron. This weekend showed the conflict in such a small area. You can see the tension in just this tiny place,” Amroussi said.
Another participant shared her opinion about the weekend, but wanted to withhold her name in order not to hinder her chance of gaining entrance to her desired university, which has a reputation for being antisemitic.
“It was eye-opening really. Some of it was very, very disturbing and sad and heartbreaking. But at the same time there was a lot of important stuff I think that I gained over the weekend. Hebron is an intense place. There’s really a lot of animosity between the two groups. And a lot of the people who live here -- they seem to be really, really intense people with a little bit of a violent side to them, which on one hand is kind of scary to see, but on the other hand proves itself to be necessary given the circumstances they’re living in. But one thing that I did notice that was kind of beautiful to see was that there was some kind of a brotherhood between some of the Arabs and Jews.”
Another student participant, Yeshaya Shapiro asked if he could give his thoughts about the weekend.
 “It really got deep into your bones about how complex the situation is here. I would say I already had a diverse opinion, but it seemed that I didn’t. It tickled that part of my brain -- and made me think more.”