When I was eight years old, my parents took me to Hebron. Etched in my memory is the walk through the bustling Arab market. I was fascinated by the exotic displays; baskets filled with sheep heads and camel carcasses hanging in the butchers' shops. We prayed at the Cave of Machpela where my father explained how privileged we were to visit the burial place of our ancestors.
Since then, much has changed. While the settlers celebrate the phenomenal growth of the Jewish community there, human rights activists say that for Arabs, Hebron is the "City of the Ghosts."
This week, my students visited Hebron. One of our guides was the official spokesman for the Hebron Jewish community, the other works for Shovrim Shtika, collecting testimonies about Israeli human rights abuses in Hebron. Their conflicting narratives made for a challenging day.
Sitting on the grassy verge by the Cave of Machpela watching the Arab traders selling pottery and trinkets, we felt the beauty and spirituality of the place. Hebron is the cradle of Jewish history; and its community are the guardians of one of our holiest sites. They have withstood terrorist attacks and worked hard to rebuild the Jewish quarter, restoring the damage caused by the 1929 massacre and the centuries during which no Jew was allowed near the tombs of the patriarchs. "Do Jews have Jews less right to live here than in New York, London or Paris?" they ask.
A huge military presence protects the settlers through strict policies of separation. It forbids Arabs from crossing the road to play in the park where we sat, so little Arab children huddled across the street gazing at us. The Arab market which I visited as a child is now off limits to its traders and the Cave of Machpela, where Jews and Arabs once worshipped side by side, is strictly segregated. Local Palestinians complained to us of intimidation by Jews who point at their homes saying, "This building belongs to us," backing their claims with Biblical quotations.
The tragedy of the situation is most apparent on Shuhada Street where the entrances to Palestinian houses are sealed, Even the home owners are barred from the road. The only access to their homes is via a web of step ladders leading across the rooftops.
In an attempt to relieve these grim spectacles, Jews have painted brightly colored murals on the concrete blocks that seal the homes and streets of their Palestinian neighbors. These feature Biblical citations celebrating the beginning of the Messianic era.
My sense that this Jewish community has been infiltrated by extremists is reinforced just a few kilometers up the road where in "Meir Kahane Park" a special mausoleum venerates, "The holy Baruch Goldstein" - killer of twenty-nine innocent Palestinians at prayer.
We urgently need a just, political resolution to the conflict including a decision about the future of Hebron. In the meantime, the glorification of a murderer and the messianic proclamations are inappropriate for an inspiring, moral Jewish community in a troubled neighborhood. They call into question the settlers' protestations about their peace-loving lifestyle. Religious Jews have a responsibility to weed out racism, violence and illegality from their communities, respecting the rights and dignity of their non-Jewish neighbors.
The Torah forges a profound connection between the Jewish people and Hebron and it recognizes our need for self-protection, but it also demands that wherever we live we make a Kiddush Hashem, enhancing the reputation of the Jewish people and sanctifying God's name. It speaks of the Messianic age as a time when we will live peacefully with our neighbors and other nations will respect and admire our conduct.
Hebron is the resting place of our forefather Abraham – the man charged by God with educating his descendants to righteousness and justice. It should reflect our highest values. We must strive for a truly holy city where everyone can mingle together harmoniously, proudly enjoying their religious heritage.
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Rabbi in Israel. He also directs the Rabbis for Human Rights Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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