By Charlotte Kaufman
Content warning: description of anti-Palestinian violence
Our bus pulled in from Ramallah to the place that people told me I should not go: Hebron, the formerly thriving capital and largest city in the West Bank of Palestine. Even members of my immediate family warned me it could be dangerous for an American Jew.
This past May, I decided to go on a trip called Birthright. It is a free opportunity for young Jews to travel to Israel for around ten days. I was skeptical going into the program, since it is mostly privately funded and has a radical pro-Israel agenda. I will not dwell on my experience at Birthright because unfortunately little was gained. The bonus for me, however, was the possibility to extend my trip and travel to Palestine in an effort to gather a balanced perspective. I was held accountable to this by my good friend who had studied in Jordan for two years prior. He speaks Arabic and had done his research, so I trusted him to plan our trip and show me what I needed to see.
Upon descending from the bus in Hebron, my expectations were not met. I was immediately struck by the colors, movement, noises, smells … and most of all, the smiles at me—a foreigner. People wanted to engage, and, correctly assuming I was from the United States, began asking me about my politics. One man approached me without an introduction and asked, “Do you believe what they tell you about us?” I imagine he was referring to the media in the US, or perhaps to some of our political representatives, as both sometimes portray Palestinians negatively.
Consumed for some time by the glorious chaos, we finally arrived where we needed to be: Hostel in Hebron. In fact, it is the only hostel in Hebron. It was launched one year ago by a young man who I will call Fareed for the sake of privacy. He leads informal tours through Hebron. As soon as we arrived at the hostel, we were out the door again, this time with him. I admire Fareed a lot, and I am grateful for his dedication to spreading awareness about the situation in his home city.
Back on the bustling main street, we walked one block, turned the corner, and suddenly the noises died down. There were fewer people, and an overwhelming feeling of discomfort was in the air. We had hit our first barrier.
Little did I know that Hebron has been divided into two sectors since 1997: H1, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, roughly 20% of the city, which is controlled by the Israeli military. This division is carried out along strategic lines through the means of checkpoints which obstruct the economic and cultural flow of the city.
Fareed explained that only certain citizens of Hebron are able to cross the checkpoints depending on their identification number. Fareed grew up on the other side of the barrier, yet he no longer has the right to walk the street he once called home. Beyond unwelcoming, these checkpoints are unsafe. Just a few months prior, a Palestinian woman was shot for refusing to remove her head covering. This first barrier we saw was one of many throughout the day. In a matter of minutes, we reached another.
We came across a gate wrapped with barbed wire that blocked what used to be the main market street in the Old City of Hebron. Years ago, the street would have been filled with shops and merchants. Now, it is filled only with garbage because Israeli settlers who have occupied the top floors of surrounding buildings throw their trash down below. Fareed uses the word “settlers” because most of them are Jews from the US who moved to Israel, gained citizenship, and get tax breaks from the Israeli government, as well as land courtesy in Hebron.
We walked around these barriers onto smaller streets that had a few barely-subsisting remnants of the old market. Settlers also occupy the top floors of these streets. With little money, the Palestinian merchants of the market have had to buy mesh wiring to protect against garbage being thrown down on them. As we walked past one man’s table, he pointed to a bottle filled with urine that someone had recently thrown into the mesh wiring. Though the merchants displayed their artisan crafts beautifully, the uninviting feel of the market was undeniable, further hindering their livelihoods.
Despite these obstacles, Fareed continued to graciously guide us through the streets with ease. Barriers are, after all, his everyday reality, and he has become savvy at maneuvering them. Still, he has no control over the barriers that the Israeli military closes without warning at random parts of the day. This is why, when we reached the gate to the sacred Ibrahimi Mosque, we were unable to get through.
Fareed explained that since the Israeli occupation, the Ibrahimi Mosque has been physically divided. The entrance to the mosque on the Palestinian side is blocked by a checkpoint. We waited at this checkpoint for 30 minutes before being able to enter. It did not seem to matter to the Israeli soldiers that it was time for prayer. There was no explanation given. Perhaps most surprising to me was that no one complained. After all, this inability to control the flow of everyday life has become a norm for the residents of Hebron.
We finally got through and were excited about exploring the beautiful mosque, or at least, the divided section of it that Palestinians have access to. We exited the space, and Fareed suggested that we keep walking. I was curious to see what he would show us next, but after only ten steps, he stopped us again to say, “This is where I leave you.” He pointed to the blue-and-white-striped pole. “I cannot go any further.”
Fareed told us where we could go and what direction we should walk in before meeting back up with him in Palestinian territory. He explained to us that his grandmother used to live just up the street, and yet she is denied the right to even walk on it. In this case, there is no physical barrier besides the pole. Perhaps this makes things worse. There is simply the blue-and-white stripes marking the gateway to an empty street. It is a window into the waste of space in his city, the graveyard for its culture and history—now erased in plain sight with no right to reclaim it.
We walked the empty streets for a few minutes, but it felt wrong. Birthright had funded my trip on the basis that I have a right to return. What did I do to earn this right? I feel no connection to these streets. But Fareed and his family do. How is it that my “right” trumps theirs? Even worse, it felt like I was walking a ghost town. In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that despite the 3,000 Israeli soldiers defending the occupied territories, there are only 1,000 Israeli residents in Hebron—a striking ratio, to say the least.
Lining the streets of the Israeli-controlled H2 sector are signs that read “Arabs killed the Jews.” No mention of the crimes against humanity being committed against Palestinians in the present only a few blocks away.
After a lonely loop and a brief conversation with some soldiers who claimed to be bored on the empty streets, we finally reached the Cave of the Patriarchs—the Israeli-owned part of the Ibrahimi Mosque. This is arguably the most contested part of Hebron. The divided prayer site is the oldest continuously-used intact synagogue in the world.
Unlike the Palestinian side of the site we had seen earlier in the day, this side was well-maintained and pristine. It was as if we had walked into an alternate universe. One where barriers, checkpoints, and certainly bottles of pee did not exist. The people we saw there were happy and grateful to have arrived at such a sacred location. They must have been completely in denial of the implication of its existence beyond the barriers.
As I left the sacred space to meet up with Fareed and his brother for a delicious homemade meal, I could not help but stare at the adorning Israeli flags. They feature the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism. It is the same one my grandmother gave me on a chain around my neck during my Bat Mitzvah. It is the same one I associate with happy holiday memories. It is the same one on the mezuzah affixed to the doorframe of my home. This familiar symbol has become complicated in my eyes. To me, it is representative of the strong Jewish values with which I was raised; but in Hebron, it is a clear symbol of oppression. It marks the spaces where my new Palestinian friend, Fareed, cannot enter. I feel a disconnect. I know within my heart I am Jewish and that makes me proud. But what does the occupation of Hebron have to do with my faith? What has my role been in perpetuating this incongruity? Should I be part of the remedy? And how ironic is it then, that, in both Hebrew and Arabic, Hebron is derived from the root meaning of “friend”?
Charlotte Kaufman is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) at Wellesley.
From November 2017 issue