Biblical Hebron is a complicated, historic, heartbreaking hot spot

Clearly our kids do hard things, make tough decisions and, like most soldiers, endure endless bouts of numbing boredom punctuated by occasional moments of sheer terror.

ISRAELI SOLDIERS on a trip at an observation post. (photo credit: REUTERS)
ISRAELI SOLDIERS on a trip at an observation post.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I recently experienced the real Israel, Israel at its softest, most united, tender-hearted best, by visiting Hebron.
No, I’m not naïve.
Reporters characterize Israelis as angry, argumentative, perpetually stressed. You witness it firsthand when a bunch of Israeli parents carry on at school meetings, be they for kindergarten or high school.
Foreign reporters believe the army reflects Israel’s cruelest, hardest, most unappealing characteristics, especially in controlling the Palestinians. If so, the capital of Israel at its ugliest must be Hebron.
With 215,452 Palestinians and 850 Jews, Hebron is a complicated, historic, heartbreaking hot spot. The Cave of the Patriarchs, with its Western Wall-like Herodian stones, evokes the power of Jewish history, our deep, legitimate ties to our land. The deserted market, with its Palestinian stores boarded up so Jews can wander there safely, epitomizes the pain of Palestinian history, and their deep, legitimate frustrations regarding the loss of their land. Anyone who cannot see Jews’ genuine link to Hebron has no eyes; anyone who cannot feel Palestinians’ genuine sadness in Hebron has no soul.
Yet there we were, three dozen parents visiting our children for IDF Parents’ Day in Hebron. Our kids are officers serving Nahal Brigade 931, patrolling the area. It was a representative sample of Israel: Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, city-slickers and country-folk, modestly dressed “settler-types” and fashionably dressed “Tel Avivis,” – dressing down for their day in dust.
“How will they pull this one off?” I wondered. Beyond a promised tour of the area, I have endured enough group interrogations to know that Israeli parents have a superhuman capacity, lachfor, to dig relentlessly into the dumbest issue, as if it were life and death.
Knowing how life-and-death things really are whenever our kids leave the base – for them, for others – I sympathized with the platoon’s commander. He’s a 30-something himself, responsible for our kids’ lives, for the soldiers’ lives, and for the lives of every Palestinian these late-teens and 20-somethings encounter.
The commander set the tone impressively. He speaks Tzahal/IDF-speak fluently, that minimalist, “just the facts” dialect. Describing himself by detailing where he lived, whom he married, how many kids they had, he humanized the situation, disarming the parents.
Welcoming us to our children’s “second home” and “second family” acknowledged parental primacy while affirming the familial atmosphere he and his officers cultivated in their concrete-and-barbed-wire asylum. Steering straight down anxiety alley, he identified the day’s goal: “to offer a taste of what your kids do.”
As we wandered this historical powder-keg, when other commanders briefed us, or when the young tour guide talked us through Hebron’s complicated history, the tone never varied. Just the facts – good and bad. No politics – not even the wink-wink, nudge-nudge nods to the insanity of any given moment we professors can never resist. And a focus on “the mission” – defined poetically, apolitically, as “protecting this Jewish community” – and keeping the peace.
WE ALL knew what that mission occasionally requires. We recognized the anguished politics and high stakes charging every interaction. But we accepted that our kids must concentrate on what they had to do, not what we – and our leaders – failed to do, i.e. give them a saner world.
This amazing, dispassionate historical journey and calm presentation of messy realities contrasted with the cartoonish, contentious encounters in the territories most American Jews I know endure. My American friends – Left to Right – especially rabbinic and organizational leader-friends – often experience Hebron and environs as a gang war. The Palestinian “Crips” bomb with love, trotting out only open, humanistic, eloquent, tragically injured, peace-loving spokespeople. Although few American Jewish leaders even bother visiting their fellow Jews – the settler “Bloods” often misplay it. They display an aggressive, unapologetic, “we’re-tough-Jews-and-you’re-wimps” wiseacre approach guaranteed to propel American Jews ever-more leftward.
Some programs like Ardie Geldman’s iTalk Israel offer shabbatot in the settlements and more user-friendly interactions. But to teach anyone about the territories from a constructive, thoughtful, reasonable, non-partisan platform, I’d hire some former commanders and those IDF-trained tour guides.
The day ended with short speeches from the commander, other officers and a parent, showcasing two other IDF mainstays. First, marinate in values. We heard improvised prose poems about totality, commitment, confidence, responsibility, leadership, liking people, listening, taking initiative and those key phrases repeated, a second home, my army family. Then, bake in a super-sweet firgun crust. Firgun means atta-boying and atta-girling up the wazoo. The commander complimented the officers who complimented the parents who complimented the commander.
This whirlpool of warmth soothed that terrifying beast: the AIP – the Anxious Israeli Parent – unleashing every parent’s inner teddy bear. It reminded me of war-stories from American Jewish suburbia, wherein the vortex of values Chabadniks spun at nursery pickup made mentsches of the same parents who were edgy and catty at Jewish day-school pickup.
Clearly our kids do hard things, make tough decisions and, like most soldiers, endure endless bouts of numbing boredom punctuated by occasional moments of sheer terror. But every IDF veteran who heard my tale smiled a smile of recognition. That’s Israel’s secret: We fight like hellions in the Knesset, but work together like angels when necessary in the army.
A recent visitor was surprised at Israel’s calm, unlike Trump-obsessed America. I explained that because buses aren’t blowing up and our kids are not fighting daily, we’re mellow. We also have Vitamin P, a non-partisan, apolitical perspective epitomized by our modern Maccabees in the IDF, also known as our kids, our family, heroically defending our first and second homes.
The writer is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.