Students should visit Hebron

Even if the historical sites will not remain under Israeli sovereignty after a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, young Israeli Jews should be exposed to them.

view of Hebron_311 (photo credit: David Wilder, the Jewish Community of Hebron)
view of Hebron_311
(photo credit: David Wilder, the Jewish Community of Hebron)
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s March 2011 decision to initiate a program whereby students from national and national- religious schools visit Hebron and its environs, exposing the students to the historical connection of the Jewish people to “the Land of the Patriarchs,” was without doubt a legitimate one.
I say this even though I haven’t set foot in Hebron since the mid- 1980s. The shape that the legitimate Jewish return to this city assumed is distasteful to me, and I find the way the Jewish settlers in Hebron behave toward both the Palestinians and the IDF totally unacceptable. But that is my personal point of view and choice.
I nevertheless believe that even if as part of a permanent settlement with the Palestinians the Cave of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb, Beit Hadassah and other historical sites in the area do not remain under Israeli sovereignty, young Israeli Jews – religious and secular alike – should be exposed to them, just as they should be exposed to other historical sites, of both a religious and national nature, that helped formulate the Jewish and Israeli ethos and narrative.
Nevertheless, what occurred on Sunday last week in Hebron during a visit of eighth graders from the Hebrew University High School (Leyada) ought to give rise to some second thoughts on the manner in which the program is being implemented.
Briefly, there were two events that marred this particular visit, which led to the school deciding to cut the visit short. The first was that the police did not enable representatives of Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence) to take the pupils on a tour of Hebron and introduce them to Palestinians, even though this was part of what the school had planned as a counterbalance to a meeting with Jewish settlers in the city.
Breaking the Silence is an NGO established by IDF veterans which collects testimony from former soldiers and officers who during their service in Judea and Samaria claim to have encountered illegal or morally disturbing activities by Israeli forces.
The second was that during the pupils’ visit to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the lectures that they heard from their teachers and supervisors were constantly interrupted by a group of extreme rightwingers, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir (the Parliamentary assistant of MK Michael Ben-Ari), who kept contradicting what was being said, among other things about Dr.
Baruch Goldstein, who in February 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians in cold blood while they were praying in the mosque in the Cave.
According to police, the tour with Shovrim Shtika was cancelled because the route of the tour had not been coordinated with them. Why Ben-Gvir and his group were not prevented from disturbing the visit to the Cave of the Patriarchs is not clear, though one can guess that at best the security personnel had no instructions as to how to act in such cases, and at worst they were in sympathy with the provocateurs.
As far as I know the Education Ministry assists in the organization of the school trips to Hebron and its environs, but does not interfere with the manner in which each school decides to convey the information to its pupils, and does not dictate the subtexts.
In other words, a religious school with right-wing inclinations can place greater emphasis on Jewish religious messages and on sympathy with the Jewish settlers in Hebron, while a liberal, secular school can place greater emphasis on a more balanced presentation of the facts as seen by the Jews on the one hand, and the Palestinians on the other.
Nevertheless, I think that the ministry has a duty to set some limits. For example, even though one can try to understand what led Goldstein to do what he did, the State of Israel cannot view as legitimate his being presented, as was done by Ben-Gvir, as a martyr.
Again, while it is impossible to force any school to remain neutral on controversial issues, or to offer its pupils unbiased, balanced information that might contradict what they have been taught to believe as absolute truths, the ministry certainly has a duty to enable those schools that try to educate their pupils to pluralism, tolerance and to unbiased thinking, to do so.
Though Leyada invited representatives of Shovrim Shtika to address its pupils at the school itself after the tour was cancelled, and the experience at the Cave of the Patriarchs was certainly an excellent first-hand lesson for the school’s pupils regarding the dangers inherent in the extreme-right approach to the freedom of expression. This is not how Leyada’s visit to Hebron should have ended, and the Education Ministry ought to ensure that such occurrences never repeat themselves.
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.