Michael Walzer
The Utopian (Blog)
July 20, 2011 - 12:00am

Last week, with a few friends, I visited Hebron, taken there by one of the leaders of Breaking the Silence, the organization of ex-soldiers that aims to educate Israelis about the meaning and character of the Occupation. (Its collection of “testimonies” about IDF conduct in the territories has recently been published.) Toward the end of the visit, while my friends took a quick look at the Tomb of the Patriarchs—I have an aversion to religious shrines—I sat with our guide, drinking coffee in an Arab shop. Settler kids warned us not to sit there; the owner wasn’t a Jew. A young Arab joined us and asked me where I was from. “The USA,” I said, and he responded with, “I don’t like President Bush.” “Bush isn’t president anymore” said I. “Bush and Obama are like this,” he replied, bringing two fingers close together. I wanted to say, “No, they are not,” but from the middle of Hebron, the two-finger image isn’t implausible.

The middle of Hebron is a wasteland, a ghost city, with shops on the main market street boarded up and apartments deserted. There are small clusters of Israeli settlers, maybe 800 or 900 altogether, living in blocks of houses near the Tomb in the old city center. In order to protect them from the Arabs (there have been many terrorist attacks), and the Arabs from them (the Baruch Goldstein massacre took place in the mosque in the Tomb), the two groups have been separated. There have been no killings since the IDF imposed the separation, so that is a success of sorts. But the price for the Arabs of Hebron has been very high. They have been excluded from about a fifth of their city or allowed to live and move about within it only under severe restrictions. Israeli Jews are excluded from the remaining four-fifths of the city, and some of the zealots complain about that, but they are in fact where they want to be and very much in control there. (The Tomb itself is divided into a mosque and a synagogue; both Jews and Muslims worship there on an everyday basis, and each group has an equal number of “exclusive” days.)

The settlers in the city come from the farthest right of the Israeli political spectrum, which extends pretty far in that direction these days. Their politics is suggested by the graffiti on the walls of the deserted buildings: Gas the Arabs, Death to the Left, Revenge. The last word is the one most commonly scrawled. There was an old Jewish community in Hebron, dating back perhaps as far as the eleventh century, religious, pre-Zionist, and in the early twentieth century entirely disengaged from the Zionist movement. Nonetheless, in the Arab uprising of 1929, sixty-nine Jews were massacred in Hebron, and the community destroyed. After the 1967 war, there was a clamor for return (that’s when the settlement of Kiryat Arba, just outside the city, was established), and then, from the religious Right, a clamor for a re-occupation of the old Jewish neighborhoods near the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It was the zealots of the far Right who led the re-occupation, and they are the ones who have moved on since to a politics of revenge. They have had some help from zealots on the other side—Hebron was, until the separation, the bloodiest place in the occupied territories. Now there is no blood, but the settler kids harass the remaining Arabs, encouraged by their parents and rarely stopped by the army.

After the Goldstein killings, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wanted to move the settlers out, but didn’t have the political strength, or perhaps the political will, to do it. Now there is a government that supports the settlers and may help them expand their numbers. They have had little success in recruitment in the last decade or so, but that could change. Any expansion of any settlements anywhere in the occupied territories is bad for Arabs and Israelis alike, but Hebron is a special disaster for it is the breeding ground of a very ugly politics. Breaking the Silence brings busloads of young Israelis there to show them what the occupation is like at its worst—and where it is heading in other places too if the government’s policy isn’t radically changed. The guides aim to persuade, obviously, but they are not propagandists. You just have to see, they say, what’s happening here.

It’s been happening for a long time now, through the Bush years, and through the Obama years, and that’s why, from Hebron, those years look pretty much the same. But if Hebron’s Arabs blame the Americans, Israelis know that the blame lies closer to home.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017