One person's field trip, another’s fanaticism

Politicians and educators on the Left and the Right face off over a proposal to send schoolchildren into a cauldron of controversy.

Purim in Hebron  (photo credit: reuters)
Purim in Hebron
(photo credit: reuters)
AT PASSOVER IN 1968, MOSHE LEVINGER, A gaunt, bearded, 33-year-old firebrand of a rabbi, checked into the Park Hotel in the southern West Bank city of Hebron with his family and several other clans in tow. It was 10 months after the Six Day War, when Israel came into possession of Hebron and other locales considered central to the Jewish biblical narrative, and just under four decades since the last of the city’s Jews fled a horrific Arab massacre.
Hebron is the site of what many consider history’s first parcel of land to come under Jewish ownership. The Book of Genesis says the plot, with its series of caves, was purchased by Abraham to bury his wife Sarah. According to Jewish tradition, it ended up being the burial spot not only for Sarah, but for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for Isaac’s wife Rebecca, and for one of Jacob’s two wives, Leah, coming to be known as the Cave of the Patriarchs. Many consider it Judaism’s second-holiest site, after the Temple Mount, which includes the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
But Muslims also consider the cave holy, seeing themselves as descendants of Abraham through Ishmael, the patriarch’s other son and Isaac’s half-brother. In the 7th century, with Islam and the Arab culture spreading west from Arabia, Muslims turned a large stone structure believed to have been built around the site by Herod into what is to this day called the Ibrahimi Mosque, and with Muslim rule of the area, they forbade Jews from entering, an edict that remained in force into modern times.
So with Israel now in control, it wasn’t just for Passover that Levinger and the others came. It was, in fact, the first step in an attempt to circumvent an Israeli directive aimed at preventing Jewish nationalists from reclaiming what they believed to be their birthright – for at the end of the holiday they refused to leave, holding out until defense minister Moshe Dayan threw up his hands and told them they could temporarily stay at a former Jordanian army camp a 15-minute walk to the east.
The army camp became Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement with a population that today numbers about 7,000 residents. Their presence, together with another 500 Jews living in central Hebron, thanks to quiet real estate transactions and additional acts of subterfuge over the decades, means that 43 years after checking in, Levinger’s followers have yet to check out.
TODAY’S HEBRON MIGHT BE CALLED A MICROCOSM of the Israeli-Arab dispute. It is the story of two communities living side by side in anything but peace, with great tension and unease that often boil over into heated exchanges, spitting and cursing, the throwing of rocks and trash, and even shootings and bombings. The 500 Jewish settlers who live in the center of town require the presence of an even greater number of soldiers, some of whom serve as armed guards for Jews visiting the Cave of the Patriarchs, and others who find themselves protecting local Arabs targeted by antagonistic settlers. The atmosphere has become so poisoned that virtually the only Israelis who venture there are ultranationalists and the religious, with most everyone else preferring to stay away.
It was in this reality that a visiting (and well-protected) Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar declared in mid-February that the Cave of the Patriarchs would go on the list of field trips for Israeli schoolchildren, and a ministry statement said Sa’ar’s policy was to “reinforce the historic roots of the people of Israel in the Land of Israel.”
“This city is literally the roots of the Jewish people,” community spokesman David Wilder tells The Jerusalem Report.
“This is where it all started. This is a chance for them to open their eyes and learn where they came from.”
The decision was condemned by the Israeli Left.
“The real reason for these trips is to strengthen the students’ bonds with the territories, in case there is a decision to withdraw,” Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary general of Peace Now, tells The Report. “There will be false and incomplete information.”
Nonsense, says the American-born Wilder.
“In the US, schoolchildren go on field trips to Washington, D.C. If they get to meet the president, they view him as the president, not as a Democrat or Republican,” he says heatedly. “And consider this: Washington, D.C., represents – what, 200, 250 years of history? In Hebron we’re talking about 4,000 years of history.
If you don’t know your past, how can you determine your future?” Wilder envisions guides from the local field school and settler leaders telling busloads of kids about the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Jewish presence in town.
“They’ll receive lectures, they’ll be able to ask questions,” he says of the schoolchildren.
Oppenheimer, however, fears that “the people who speak to the kids will not talk about democracy or what is happening to the Palestinians in Hebron.”
In reality, little is known about the program, although Jews living in Hebron and its environs – home to some of the most extreme among the settlers – have suggested itineraries of their own, including a visit to the grave of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994, on Purim, opened fire on Muslim worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs, killing 29 and wounding scores more before being beaten to death by a vengeful mob.
The civil servants at the Education Ministry, perhaps not wanting to be drawn into an issue that has such clear political overtones, issued only the following written statement: “The education minister has instructed the head of the ministry’s Jerusalem District to formulate a pilot program for visits to Hebron by local authorities and schools expressing a desire to take part. The head of the Jerusalem district will formulate the pilot program with the relevant professionals. Details of the pilot program and its budgetary aspects have yet to be determined.”
THE HEAD OF THE EDUCATION MINISTRY’S Jerusalem District, Meir Shimoni, refused to speak to The Report. But the principal of one of the country’s high schools was willing to, on condition that no names were used, as the ministry had not given its approval for the interview.
“All I’ve heard about the proposal is from media,” the principal tells The Report. “I haven’t heard anything from the ministry, so the information we’re getting is incomplete. But I’m not interested in focusing on conflicts as part of a school trip. It’s not the time or the place.”
There’s also the issue of safety, with a visit to Hebron requiring travel over roads that have seen numerous terrorist attacks – and this before reaching a town that even on good days can best be described as being “on edge.”
“Today, school trips to the West Bank from schools within the Green Line are largely forbidden,” the principal continued.
“This is due to security, but also because it’s a highly divisive issue. A lot of parents would not like it; many would have concerns about security, and I’m much attuned to what parents have to say about such issues.”
The principal also came right out and questioned the motives of Sa’ar, a rising star in the right-wing, pro-settlement Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“There are politics involved. He’s a politician who has to satisfy an electorate, and in this case it may have been matters of politics taking precedence over matters of education,” the principal asserts, adding that consultations with other principals and educators had elicited similar feelings.
Richard Curwin, a retired US-born educator, author and educational consultant living in the settlement of Efrat, and whose expertise is in child behavior and motivation, believes one key lies in the reasons behind such a trip.
“A 16-year-old probably has some knowledge about the background of this particular issue,” he tells The Report. “So a lot of it comes down to whether the initiators have good intentions. Do they want the kids to understand the complexity [of the issue], to learn responsibility about decision-making? That would be a wonderful outcome.
But if the goal is indoctrination, that’s dangerous.”
And then there’s the big picture.
“Kids need to learn,” Curwin says. “But taking them there and merely showing them something isn’t going to have an educational impact if there’s no context.”
Peace Now’s Oppenheimer appears to agree, saying the group’s youth wing has written to Sa’ar asking him to either cancel the planned tours to Hebron or add context.
“What’s important is not just the city’s meaning, both ancient and more recent, for Jews,” he asserts, “but also the story of the occupation.
It’s important to know what it means to a democratic society, meaning it has to be clear what the occupation costs us, not just monetarily but morally.”
Hebron settler Wilder scoffs at the notion, turning the tables on those who say Sa’ar has politics in mind.
“It’s the controversy [over the proposed tours] that’s politically motivated,” he complains. “Talking to the Palestinian residents of Hebron would be political. We’re still involved in a war, a war of independence.
The Arabs still want to annihilate us. We’re dealing with an enemy. You don’t teach your children to sympathize with the enemy.”
And there the matter might very well stay, with two sides butting heads over an issue that reflects an even greater schism that has long divided the country, and some professionals digging in their heels against what they fear is a politician seeking to indoctrinate the young.
As education specialist Curwin puts it, “it’s too hard to determine the right time to take a child to see something so controversial.”