What's Wrong With This Picture?

Photographer Benjamin Lowe was beaten up by an enraged mob of Jews at the funeral of Hebron settler Elazar Leibovitz. Little did his attackers know that the target of their fury was the stepson of U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim, the No. 3 man in the Pentagon, who is a religious Jew himself

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

On Sunday, July 28, Dov Zakheim, the American undersecretary of defense, married off his son Reuven in Jerusalem. To mark the gala occasion, the entire Zakheim family flew in from the United States and settled in at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, where the wedding ceremony was held. Arriving a few days ahead of the rest of the entourage was Benjamin Lowe, a 32-year-old photographer, who is Zakheim's stepson (his mother is now Mrs. Deborah Zakheim). Lowe spent his time here working on a photographic project that is focused on the Jewish settlers and Palestinian residents of Hebron. He never imagined he would be stealing the show from the bride and groom.

On Friday, Lowe heard about the shooting attack in southern Hebron in which first sergeant Elazar Leibovitz, 21, a resident of the Avraham Avinu quarter in Hebron, was killed. Two days later, Lowe naively believed he would be able to photograph the participants in the funeral procession, which ended at the ancient Jewish cemetery near Tel Rumeideh, and still manage to get back to Jerusalem in time for the wedding, which was set for 6 P.M. He never dreamed that this documentary mission would cost him dearly. In Hebron he not only lost his photographic equipment - estimated value: $10,000 - but was also severely beaten by a riotous mob of enraged settlers.

Lowe, who has spent the past week at a friend's apartment in Tel Aviv, says that before he began working on his photography project in Hebron, he carried out a survey of the mixed city's history. "Hebron is a metaphor for the conflict, which is why the story is so significant to me. After I was attacked, a friend said to me: `Why don't you go to Belfast? It's the same story, only there are no Jews there, and you wouldn't be so emotionally attached.'"

But Lowe is emotionally attached. He also believed, perhaps with the naivete of a neophyte photographer, that the written permission of David Wilder - a New Jersey native who serves as the foreign spokesman of the Jewish settlement in Hebron - would protect him, if need be. "Benjamin Lowe is here with my knowledge and my permission. Please do not disturb him; it is also okay to assist him," wrote Wilder.

Lowe's stepfather is the No. 3 man at the Pentagon behind Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Assistant Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and is responsible for the largest defense budget in the world, which includes the budget for the war on terror.

Dov Zakheim was also surprised at what happened to his stepson. Known as a conservative Republican, Zakheim is a religious, kippa-wearing Jew who is thought to be in favor of settlements in the territories. His son Reuven married Tamar Bendheim, daughter of religious businessman Jack Bendheim - a former deputy chairman of the Jewish lobby AIPAC who is known for his left-wing views. Bendheim is one of the biggest givers among American Jewish supporters of the peace process. Some people here remember Zakheim as the assistant to secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger in the 1980s, who led the effort to kill the Lavi fighter-jet project. As a member of the George Bush, Jr. administration, he played a part in suspending the sale of the Phalcon early warning aircraft from Israel to China in July 2000.

In a telephone conversation from his office in the Pentagon, Zakheim said this week that he was "a little surprised" at what happened to his stepson in the City of the Patriarchs. Later on in the conversation, he corrects himself and says that he was "very surprised." "We never imagined such a thing could happen. It's hard to believe, because Benjamin had already been there and had taken pictures and interviewed people. He told me that they were people wearing kippot who attacked him, and I was even more surprised. That's not the way. I never saw in halakha (Jewish law) that this is how Jews behave."

The swelling in Lowe's face is still noticeable. His right shoulder is immobile, and his elbow aches. He has no broken bones, which the doctors attribute to his well-developed musculature. He stands 186 centimeters tall (6'2"), has a solid build and a ready smile, but when he relates what he went through, the horror is still perceptible on his face. "The toughest thing for me right now is the fact that I don't have my cameras. I am used to carrying two cameras with me everywhere I go, even the supermarket, and I feel naked. I've been in the middle of shooting situations in Ramallah more than once, and I was even hit in my ankle and calf by rubber bullets. I have also witnessed shooting incidents in Gaza, and have often wondered what I would do if I were attacked by an enraged mob. Although it may sound macho, I figured I would defend myself and fight. But when I was attacked in Hebron by a gang of settlers, I decided not to fight back. Looking back, it was a wise decision."

As someone who received a traditional Jewish education, did you think of crying out the Shema Yisrael prayer so that the attackers would stop?

"I didn't think of it. I lay on the ground all rolled up like a fetus, trying to protect my head and my cameras."

On Tuesday, July 23, Benjamin Lowe paid a visit to Hebron community spokesman Wilder, apprising him of his plan to take a series of pictures about life in Hebron, the mixed city. "He not only knew that I was a Jew, he also knew exactly who I was, who my parents are and who my stepfather is. I knew that settlers have some problems with the media and with how they are covered and I told Wilder that my aim was to be as objective as possible. Since I am familiar with both sides, I want to take a look at the situation from a refreshed perspective. I am young enough to be a little immature."

He began taking pictures on Tuesday, continuing work on the project on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. "I spent Saturday with the family, which came in for the wedding. Everyone came." On Sunday, he wasn't sure if he should go to Hebron, being that the wedding was later that day, but his friend Jeremy Portnoy, a British immigrant who is the videographer for Maccabi Haifa, encouraged him to go. In retrospect, he is sorry that what happened to him cast a dark shadow over the family celebration that everyone had been looking forward to, and raised the ire of his stepfather and mother, but it was too hard for him to miss the chance to document the funeral. "I knew that Leibovitz's funeral was a fundamental element of my mission, and that through it I would be able to document an important part of the lifestyle of the Jewish residents. I didn't want to photograph the funeral; I wanted to photograph its effect on the residents of Hebron."

He took a taxi from Jerusalem to the roadblock at the entrance to Kiryat Arba. "From there, I hitched a ride ... I was wearing jeans and a white shirt and I tied a bright orange bandanna around my head, which I always wear because it makes it easy to spot me, so that I won't be anyone's target. I had a free-transit permit and my equipment, two Nikon cameras (an F-3 and an F-100), three lenses and a flash, and about 30 rolls of film in a shoulder bag.

"I got to Hebron by noon and began walking around among the people. The cameras were in their cases. I ran into a yeshiva student I had met, and we shook hands. I told him I was sorry about Leibovitz's death. There were other photographers there, and at one point someone walked up to us and asked us not to take any pictures. I went off to the side and saw that the mourning women were sitting in the shade, crying, with their babies in their arms, and I thought it would make a pretty good picture. I asked permission, but they didn't want me to, so I walked away. When the funeral procession began moving in the direction of the cemetery in Hebron, and I realized it would be passing along the Muslim side of the city, I knew things would end badly.

"The hearse drove slowly and the people who were walking behind it were crying. Suddenly I heard a shot fired. I told myself that that is why I was here and that I had to take pictures, no matter what. I hurried up the side, holding my cameras close to my chest, so that while I was running they wouldn't fly up and hurt anyone. Until that moment, none of the photographers had taken any pictures. There were about five of us, and we were very frightened. Someone walked up to me and said, `Don't take any pictures,' and then another young guy ran up and said: `Give me the film.' I told him that I still hadn't taken a single picture. Before I could finish the sentence, someone smacked me in the face.

"I fell to the ground. A soldier quickly came over and started pulling me toward the alley, but someone else came up from the side, pushed the soldier away, grabbed one of my cameras and slammed it against the wall. The first guy who hit me, and two others, dragged the soldier away and then came back and started to punch and hit and kick me. Someone kicked me full force in the groin. I couldn't see any faces, only feet, wearing a wide variety of Teva sandals. I am now extremely well-versed in the intricacies of Israeli sandals."

A policeman and a soldier made two attempts to rescue him, without success. "The soldier grabbed my hand and tried to drag me, but from the other side a settler grabbed me; that's how my shoulder got hurt - it was pulled out of its socket. At some point, one of them gently put his foot on my head, and then began to hit me and step on my head with greater force. It's something I will never forget. I considered pretending to be unconscious so he would stop, but I was also trying to protect the other camera. Someone pulled at its strap and wound it around my neck until I started to choke. I gave up. The camera was taken. Five people were beating and kicking and stomping on me. I don't remember what they said. At one stage I tried to hold onto the chain that I got from my girlfriend. They tore my transfer permit to bits and they took my pack. They smashed the camera lenses and even took the pole for the flash. But the chain remained intact."

When did the nightmare end?

"A soldier managed to drag me away and somehow I crawled in the direction of a car that was in the alley. My arm was in horrible condition. I sat in the car a few minutes and then went over to one of the IDF vehicles, where a medic took a look at me and gave me some water. I had to try very hard not to break out in tears. The pain was intense, and my hands were shaking. I walked over with one of the photographers to see what was left of my equipment. They had destroyed it all."

As he was making his way to the police station in Kiryat Arba to file a complaint, Lowe's mother called. "She asked where I was, because the whole family was already posing for pictures and I wasn't there. My problem was how to get back to Jerusalem. I was scared to death that the settlers who had beaten me would grab me again. I went on foot from Hebron to Kiryat Arba, injured, in torn clothing, to catch the bus to Jerusalem."

Reaching the hotel, he refused to go to the emergency room. He was examined by a friend who works at Magen David Adom, who also gave him some painkillers. Ice was placed on the injured spots. His mother covered the signs of injury on his face with make-up. He dressed up nicely and with all his remaining energy walked into the ballroom. "My mother was mad, and still is. She calls every day, and is still worried. I went into the ballroom and did everything I could so that people wouldn't see what I'd been through. Everyone was happy that I was okay. No one in the family thought it was an especially good idea to go to Hebron the day of the wedding, but I avoided talking with people about what happened. That night I went to the emergency room."

On Monday, in an effort to apologize and minimize the damage, Lowe was called by Wilder and by Rabbi Hillel Horowitz, a leader of the Jewish settlement in Hebron. "They said they were terribly sorry. They said the people who beat me were not from the Jewish settlement in Hebron. My stepfather suggested that I contact attorney Isaac Herzog. Last Thursday, [chairman of Hebron's council of Jewish settlers] Noam Arnon called and said that they wanted to resolve the issue quickly. He said he was sorry, that what happened `is awful,' and that now that they know who I am, `this is very serious, and hugely embarrassing.'

"I wouldn't want to think I was getting special treatment because my stepfather is Dov Zakheim, but unfortunately that's the only way to understand it right now. I want to be reimbursed for the equipment I lost, equipment I bought through my own hard work ... I want them to pay the hospital bills and I want to be reimbursed so that I can buy new photography equipment. I am still interested in photographing my project in Hebron."

Why? "I never imagined the Hebron Jews would hit me, and that the situation could be so revolting. I know there are extremists on both sides, and in my mind they are in the same category. There is no reason that I should give up my ideals as a photographer because of these people. I am still in shock, and I feel a little dried out and out of ideas, but I'll recover. Hebron, in my opinion, is still a special place, despite the cycle of violence that over the years has never let up. Each side remembers the massacres that befell it at one time or another, but Hebron is the metaphor of the conflict. I'm not quitting now with my tail between my legs because a few bullies beat me up."

We don't know who assaulted him," says Noam Arnon. "To the best of my knowledge, no one from our settlement in Hebron took part in the incident, and as you know we tried to enable him to do his work in the city. To my dismay, he got into a situation that was not planned in advance, and over which we had no control. I assume that if the evidence exists, whoever attacked him will be brought to trial. We have no responsibility over the matter, but nevertheless, although we are not legally bound to do so, we are prepared to assist him with partial financing of the equipment he lost, and we are now in a process of dialogue with him."

Very personal sorrow

Benjamin Lowe was born in New York. His father, Joshua Levy, is the child of Jewish immigrants from Poland, and was born in New York. Levy lived in Israel for a few years, and did his residency in internal medicine at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. Upon his return to New York he met Deborah Bing, a textile designer. They married, and in 1979, Benjamin was born. The marriage ended in divorce, and when Benjamin was about 12, his mother married Dov Zakheim, himself a divorcee and father of three.

Zakheim is a religious man, and Lowe's mother also follows the Jewish tradition. He himself is secular. "I don't believe in organized religion. I stopped going to synagogue after my bar mitzvah. I said that it wasn't for me and that I am not going, period. Where was God during the wars in Armenia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, the Congo and Colombia?"

After his mother's marriage to Zakheim, he lived for a while in Washington, D.C. The Zakheims were very religious, and Lowe did not strike down roots in the family. Lowe says that his stepfather is modern Orthodox and that his mother is a "logically" religious person who wears pants and no longer wears a wig. Eventually he left Washington and went to live with his father in New York, where he attended high school.

He knows a thing or two about American Jews. "American Jews are stubborn. When I was in Hebron on the day of the funeral, I saw some adult American Jews there. They thought I was part of the hostile media, and said to me: `You people are bad, because you give a bad name to Jews and to Israel.' One of them said that families of suicide bombers should be executed. I walked away from them, because I hate these kind of conversations."

He heard similar statements at his stepbrother's wedding. "There was a woman sitting next to me with a baby in her arms, who knew I'd been beaten up in Hebron. I told her that a 14-year-old girl had been killed that day, as well, and the woman said, `That's terrible,' I mentioned that the girl was Palestinian, and she said, `Great - one less suicide bomber.' I hate that mentality. Only in computer games do you find black-and-white characters - bad guys and good guys. In real life, it's a bit more complicated. American Jews with right-wing views are not prepared to make any compromises when it comes to the territories."

Zakheim, interviewed by telephone, was not willing to talk about political matters. Instead, he referred me to his friend, US Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, who was among the wedding guests. Nizin Jamjoum, 14, was killed, I said. A 9-year-old boy was stabbed, 15 Palestinians were injured and policemen and soldiers were hurt in the rioting. Yet only a single person was under arrest. Zakheim, in fact, resented the characterization of what happened during the funeral procession that day by Moshe Givati, adviser to Public Security Minister Uzi Landau, as "a pogrom against the Arabs of Hebron, without any provocation by the Palestinians."

"I'm not ready to use the term, `pogrom' and I don't want you to say I used it," said Zakheim. "I'm not giving you a political interview. To me, the whole subject is not political, it's personal. My wife's son suffered at the hands of people in a way, and I stress, in a way that no one should have to suffer. Personally, I am sorry for Benjamin and for my wife, that he suffered so much. He is a sensitive guy, and an idealist, and it caused us a great deal of sorrow on the day of the wedding. There's no way to measure the amount of sorrow it caused. I can't forbid him from hanging out in Hebron, a city that I have never visited. He's an adult, and all of the photographers risk their lives. It's a high-risk profession. We worry about him, and parents always worry, but we support him 100 percent."

Has this violent event changed your attitude toward the Jewish settlement in Hebron?

"Personally, I have said what I said, and have nothing further to add."

Not exactly the black sheep

In February 2001, Lowe got his first assignment as a professional photographer. It was shortly before he completed his studies at the School of Art at Washington University in St. Louis. He says he realized that his art was "too self-centered" and that "I have to contribute something to the world." He went to Paris on vacation, and in January, when his money ran out, tried to find work as a press photographer. During an interview at the offices of Newsweek in Paris, the photography editor learned that her photographer in the territories had been shot in the leg. "She asked me if I knew Arabic and Hebrew. I said I did, and got the job. I arrived in Israel. I know a little Hebrew, but I had no idea where to start or what to do."

He became friendly with a few other photographers from Japan, England and Italy. "We became a sort of team. Every morning we would choose another destination." So it was that Lowe soon found himself in Ramallah and Gaza, and was hit on two occasions by rubber bullets fired by IDF soldiers. Eventually he developed a greater interest in the people behind the conflict, and less so in the straightforward news. It was in Gaza that he saw a body for the first time. "It was the body of a boy, about 8 years old, who was shot by Israeli soldiers. An 8-year-old boy is an 8-year-old boy, and it matters not who he is or where he was born. An 8-year-old boy who is killed is 10 times worse. The visit to Israel left a strong impression on me, and when I went back to St. Louis I joined the crew of an ambulance that goes through the poor areas of the city, rescuing the wounded."

Following his visit to Israel, he realized that conflict situations speak more to him than any other subject. "I am interested in documenting how these situations break out in complicated and conflicted environments." As part of his final project, he moved into a shelter that houses the dregs of society - recovering addicts, former murderers, AIDS patients, etc. For four months, he lived in a tiny room, with a common bathroom at the end of the hall, and took pictures of the occupants. Subsequently, he worked as a freelance photographer for a local St. Louis newspaper, and took a course offered by the Associated Press.

This past April, Lowe decided that he had to return to Israel. "I came back to Israel to look for my roots. I felt an obligation to make a comparative photographic survey in Hebron about the lives of two communities living in the specific reality of the city. Under the constant tension, a person's identity is pushed to its maximum, and his true essence is bared."

The American government warns U.S. citizens not to go to dangerous places in Israel.

"My parents worry about me a lot, especially my mother. After I was attacked in Hebron I decided to go back home, but then I realized I had to stay here. My mother was stunned, and objected. I explained to her that if I ran away, I would never be able to come back to Israel because the fear would subdue me. I knew that running away from Israel would also make it impossible for me to document other areas of conflict. My mother understood, and said that I was right, and that I had her full support. I am a journeyman photographer. I have no permanent home. I'm homeless. I'll never be a politician because I don't have the patience for it. I'm not exactly the black sheep of the family, but I do see things differently."n



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism