Town Without Pity

Hebron has funneled into itself the Jewish trauma throughout the generations. This was another hard week in the life of this tortured town

Daniel Ben Simon
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Daniel Ben Simon

Rabbi Shalom Aberjil from Petah Tikva came to Hebron this week to discourage the soldiers from bursting into the homes of the barricaded settlers. With a plastic bag on his hat to protect it from the rain, the rabbi approached a group of Border Police soldiers who were about to spread out through the streets of the city. "I want to bless you," he said, and stretched his arm above their heads. One of the soldiers removed his head from under the rabbi's arm.

Rabbi: "What is your name?"

Soldier: "Sami."

Rabbi: "Druze?"

Soldier: "Jewish."

Rabbi: "Are you sure? There isn't a Jewish name like that. What is your family name?"

Soldier: "Dahan. Shmuel Dahan."

"Rabbi: "They mustn't call you Sami because heaven forbid people could think you are Druze."

After he gave his blessing, the rabbi headed for the Tomb of the Patriarchs to pray. "There are a lot of Druze who are called Sami and Yossi," he whispered as he climbed the broad stairs, "and you can't tell who is Jewish and who is Druze. When I'm looking for a prayer quorum among the soldiers, I always ask who is Jewish, so heaven forbid some Druze won't butt in."

Four days a week the rabbi receives disciples, weirdos and seekers in the Jospeh's Tomb compound. This week he came to Hebron to try to prevent Jews from being expelled from their homes, "the way it happened, alas, on the holy soil of Gush Katif," as he put it. He sees Hebron as a holy place where Jewish blood was spilled like water. "This is the first place in the world where there is a free museum that shows 1929," he says, "how they devoured Jews and spilled their blood, may the Arabs' name be eradicated."

There is no other town where Jewish blood has such macabre, sick significance. On every street, at every street corner, on every wall is inscribed the memory of the Jews who were slaughtered in the 1929 disturbances, "only because they were Jews," Noam Arnon, the spokesman of the Hebron settlers, will explain to foreign journalists who try to understand their clinging at any price to the piece of land where they live.

Hebron has funneled into itself the Jewish trauma throughout the generations. Here, they talk about the past as though it were right in front of them in all its cruelty. The Israeli sovereign is depicted as a foreign and merciless enemy that must be fought to the death. It suffices to see the expression of hatred on the faces of the youngsters of the place to understand what has grown up here. A great gulf gapes between the state and Jews who feel they are living under Israeli occupation. No wonder that at times of confrontation the young people covered their heads and faced the soldiers as though they were from Islamic Jihad. Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish between them and the Palestinians who are struggling against the Israeli occupation.

Reminiscent of the ghetto

This Jewish community, with the feeling of siege that envelops it, is reminiscent of scenes of Jewish life in the ghettoes: no aesthetics, no charm, no efforts at maintenance. The inhabitants are carelessly dressed and the residential neighborhoods look like a random and temporary collection of buildings. The shops in the market, which until not too long ago served the Palestinian merchants, have changed their function and have become classrooms and apartments for Jews. The new complex, the wholesale market they invaded, is named after Shalhevet Pas, the baby who was murdered by a Palestinian sniper from the Abu Sneineh neighborhood on the other side of the main road.

This is what the sign on the facade of one of the shops says: "The profound shock and the terrible pain have led us to the decision to arise and establish a study house in her name, close to the place where her blood was spilled." In one of the classrooms, 6- and 7-year-old boys sat around their teacher and read aloud a chapter from the Book of Isaiah. They moved their bodies back and forth and grimaced, with the inner devotion of preachers. Overly large skullcaps covered their little heads. "They are our future," enthused Baruch Marzel, a resident of the place. Noam Arnon boasted that they study like this, all day long, all year around, apart from one day. "On the Tisha B'Av they don't study," he explained, "because the Torah delights, and on Tisha B'Av it is forbidden to be happy."

Opposite the soldiers, mounted police and border police were positioned in a frontal line, as if prepared to attack at any moment. "Provacteurs, idiots, you should be ashamed of yourselves," Arnon shouted at them. "This is a war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness." The haggard man who has become a symbol of Jewish toughness in this barricaded settlement and looks older than his age stared at the soldiers with hatred.

Suddenly, as though from nowhere, a mysterious figure appeared before the soldiers. It seemed as though none of the young people in uniform recognized the "myth" of Hebron, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who dropped into the town for Passover night in 1968 and has remained there to this day. He and Yigal Allon changed the face of history in Hebron.

Levinger walked among the soldiers. "Those who have no soul use force." He repeated this sentence, which rhymes in Hebrew, again and again in a kind of whispered shout. "Those who have no soul use force," he continued to recite as he walked all around the soldiers. He completed his circuit and was swallowed up into the alleys.

A tour bus stopped across from the complex and from it emerged several dozen women who came to "strengthen" the Jews under siege. They came from Brooklyn, from a New York Jewish neighborhood, many of whose fanatic offspring live in Hebron. "I came to strengthen the Jews," said Evelyn Heis, "because it's ours." Her friend Rachel suggested reading the diaries of Moses Montefiore: "There it says who Hebron belongs to."

Here and there signs of normality were visible. Yitzhak Pas, the father of the baby Shalhevet, came out of his house in the Avraham Aveinu neighborhood for a breath of fresh air. He stood near the complex that is named after his daughter, dressed like the youngsters who come back from a trip to the Far East. He looked amusedly at the mounted police who had taken up positions near the complex. "They're shaking in their boots," he said. "In Sakhnin they were afraid of the Arabs so they came here to make an impression on the children; to feel like they're on their high horse."

Bolt of lightning

The action ended after the masked Jews filtered out of the settlement under cover of darkness. By the middle of the week no one knew when the evacuation of the nine families who had established a settlement for themselves in the shops from which the Palestinian merchants were evicted would take place. MK Benny Elon of the National Union came for a visit to the town to strengthen the "real heroes," as he called the masked Jews, "emissaries of the great ones of the nation." And he added in explanation: "Imagine how strong they have to be to face the hostile Israeli media and the Arab enemy. This is no simple challenge. Think about it."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's illness somewhat alleviated his fears. There is no other politician on the horizon, even the distant horizon, who will succeed again in pulling the ground out from under the settlers. "There isn't anyone who can do as much damage as Sharon," Elon explained, adding: "Nevertheless, his illness doesn't entirely set my mind at rest. Because you ask yourself; 'Is [Acting Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert capable of carrying out another uprooting of Jews? The answer is no. But I have no doubt that he, or someone else, will make a miserable attempt to imitate him to show the public that they are continuing Sharon's way."

A bit after Sharon revealed the disengagement plan, Elon, who was tourism minister at the time, happened to be at the Prime Minister's Bureau. "Do you know what your problem is?" he demanded of him. "You suffer from founders syndrome." This syndrome, Elon explained to Sharon, attacks founders who destroy their life's work with their own hands. "He laughed," Elon recalled this week. "It's a trick of fate that this man was certain he would live to be 120 to shape the permanent borders of Israel. I asked him what his hurry was. Let him leave something for others. He answered me that he had no one to rely on and that only he was capable of carrying out the mission."

Sharon's hospitalization has reinforced Elon's view of individuals' limitations in the face of the Creator of the Universe. "He didn't believe such a thing would happen to him," said Elon. "He was certain he was Pharaoh. Even after what he did to us in the disengagement, I have to admit he had powers only few in history have. Therefore, I am calmer now, even though there will be feeble attempts at imitation by his successors."

Another hard week in the life of this tortured town. A few hundred Jews who, for the first time since they came there, realized their evacuation is not an imagined scenario but a reality liable to strike them like a bolt of lightning.

"Maybe in the end it will happen," sighed Arnon, "because you relate to Jews like us as subhuman creatures. There is internal anti-Semitism in this country. What do you want from Jews who have returned to their land? You'd better know that all of us are living with a strong sense that there is no other place in the world where Jewish justice is as outstanding as it is in Hebron. You have the army and power, but we have faith." At that very moment the police horses that were positioned opposite neighed. Arnon felt as though he was about to experience a pogrom.

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