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by Simone Zelitch
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THE NIGHT BEFORE the Christian Peacemaker Team interfaith delegation left Jerusalem for the West Bank, a late-arriving Philadelphia delegate was detained at Ben Gurion airport. You could say he was targeted for “davening while black.”
I first met Wilbur in 1994, when I’d moved back to my hometown of Philadelphia and realized I’d reached a point in my life where I was ready to join a synagogue. I’d heard that Brian Walt had founded a congregation that took risky positions on Israel and Palestine. It was somewhere in the western suburbs, but I was determined enough to take the train. A few seats over, I spotted an African American wearing a kippah and a Jewish star earring. His name was Wilbur. He was heading in the same direction, to Mishkan Shalom. We’ve been friends ever since.
When Wilbur arrived at Ben Gurion airport, the agent at Passport Control noted the kippah, typed something on her computer, and gestured him towards a corner room. An hour later, he was interrogated at length by another agent. What was he doing in Israel? (Touring the Holy Land with a group of Christians and Jews). Is he Jewish? (Yes). Did he convert? (You know you’re not supposed to ask me that.) It’s my job to ask you that. (Would you ask me that if I were white?) At one point, they asked Wilbur what was in his bag, and he pulled out his prayerbook and copy of Pirkei Avot. Another agent asked, “Do you know Queen Mother Esther?” which might have been a reference to the Hebrew Israelites. Wilbur had no idea what she was talking about.
Over three hours later, Wilbur emerged, outraged and exhausted, the kippah still defiantly on his head. I’d woken up to the news, and could hear Wilbur’s distinctive baritone voice carrying over from the sitting room. We had known that this might be a risk; I’d shared an article I’d found through Facebook about African-American Jews detained two weeks before. Part of me wished he’d followed my advice, played it safe, and taken off the kippah, but that wasn’t in Wilbur’s nature.
Two days later, Wilbur took off the kippah. He was asked to do so. We were in Hebron.
He was also in the process of taking off his Jewish star earring, and was anxious that the hole might close up if he couldn’t find a placeholder. He looked as though he was in pain, but he cooperated. But I pushed the question: After all, we were a delegation of Christians and Jews. Wasn’t part of the point to let people in Hebron know that not every Jew in America is a settler? At first, I was told that no Jews were allowed in the Old City; we later learned that wasn’t true. The Hebron Protocols designate that in district H2, under total Israeli military and civil control, Jews have utter, arrogant freedom of movement, far more than Palestinians who’d lived there for generations.
Then I was told that only Jews who are settlers are permitted in the Old City. The truth is probably closer to this: If someone wears a kippah in the Old City of Hebron, even if he’s black and wears a Jewish star earring, he will be seen as a settler who happens to be staying in the guest apartment of CPT-Palestine.
Hebron certainly is populated by very visible men in kippahs. They’re white, and well-armed, swaggering around the shuttered streets surrounded by their settlements. Their kippahs are enormous, actually looking almost like Muslim skullcaps, and from them emerge wild sidelocks. A lot of them are American, just like us, and in the fortress-like Shuhada Street or hillside compounds where they’ve staked their claims, their signage is in unapologetic English. They’re guarded by IDF soldiers who seemed — to our eyes — to be primarily Jews of color, skinny kids who don’t look thrilled to be there.
All told, there are around four-hundred Jewish settlers in the Old City of Hebron, drawn by the proximity of Abraham’s tomb, but perhaps even more by the prospect of avenging the 1929 Massacre of Jews in Hebron; certainly it was those two elements that led to Baruch Goldstein’s rampage in the mosque on the site of that tomb in 1993. After that rampage, part of the mosque became a synagogue, and the two halves are divided by bullet-proof glass. What really got to me, though, were the two prayer-roads, divided by a high green fence. One side is for Palestinians, the other for anybody else. The Palestinian side is strewn with garbage.
THE MORNING WE ARRIVED, a family of settlers was staging a sit-in outside a house they hoped to claim, pending a final Israeli Supreme Court decision. The Palestinian owners were inside. A few kaffiyeh-wearing folks from the International Solidarity Movement kept guard on the porch. Apparently, the night before, the settlers had started singing, and the Palestinians and ISM folks tried to out-sing them, leading to a kind of Battle of the Bands that would be funny if there weren’t so much human suffering involved. Settlers expropriate these homes if they stand empty for any length of time, or they use a straw-man to make a purchase, or they simply forge documents. Neighboring houses are then expropriated by the IDF to keep the settlers safe.
[caption id=“attachment_39507” align=“aligncenter” width=“300”] “Sit-in” outside Palestinian home as settlers try to get a jump on pending Israeli Supreme Court decision. CPT staffer Mona speaks with International Solidarity Movement volunteers (note their keffiyehs).[/caption]
The Christian Peacemaker Team office is right next to just such an IDF compound, through a courtyard full of chickens — some in cages, and some roaming free and eating rotten pomegranate halves from the nearby juice-cart. Because the compound blocks the way for neighbors, they routinely take a detour through the CPT office on their way home. We stayed in the back, in a grim apartment with a kitchen stove that never worked. The actual staff apartment seemed only marginally less grim, though it did have a working coffeemaker. When they remembered, they’d unlock the door and let us use it.
I developed a kind of collective crush — totally unrequited — on the CPT Hebron staff: Mona, a Palestinian whose family was expelled from Jaffa in 1948, who filled us in on a previous night’s IDF “shit show” night raid in a matter-of-fact, sardonic drawl; Rachel, a beaming, super-sweet American Midwesterner whose mother was part of our delegation; Yousef, a Hebron native who was recruited by CPT when they found him leaping from rooftop to rooftop with his enormous camera; and Cody, a chain-smoking, dangerously charismatic Palestinian cowboy from Michigan who slouched his way through the Prayer Road patrol where we watched for human rights violations. Cody would answer every question with the phrase, “Well, to be perfectly honest.” It was Cody who laid out the routine of life in the Old City, where Israel provides no infrastructure, crime and drugs are rampant, and everyone had a prescribed role: IDF, border patrol, international groups like the CPT, Palestinians, and even settlers. The encounters feel ritualized and routine, until something disrupts them. A new IDF battalion rotates in; a settler decides to play with that M-16 he’s been dragging around the Old City; a Palestinian boy throws a stone. That’s when the “shit show” starts. Cody explains it all to us, “to be perfectly honest.”
So when these CPT heroes, who live in what I can only compare to a Freedom House in Mississippi, ask Jews who will be gone after six days to pretend they aren’t Jews, who are we to kick up a fuss? In fact, after my rather terse request, our delegation leader did make a point of announcing the group’s composition when we met with organizations. What did I want, to walk around with a big yellow star on my chest?
Perhaps. From the start, CPT put our group in touch with extraordinary people who were doing what Freedom Movement people call “spade work,” scrambling over the scrap-heap of Hebron resources, writing grant after grant to NGOs, and struggling to revive life in the Old City, prepare crumbling kindergartens for the start of a school year, put cameras into the hands of Palestinians (“our M-16s”) so that human rights abuses are immediately recorded and sent out on YouTube at the Human Rights Press. We met with Laila Slemiah, who leads the collective Women in Hebron, who cooked us the best meal of the trip — an overturned pot of fragrant rice and chicken which is apparently called Maqloobeh. She led us up the stairs of her 800-year-old house to a steep roof, where a few of us fought vertigo and we all felt a rich, whole-hearted welcome and acceptance.
The acceptance felt real. These people were our Virgils leading us through the Israeli occupation’s version of Dante’s Inferno. Their sanity, intelligence, and courage was beyond dispute. They all knew we were part of an interfaith delegation. But what would happen if I asked the kinds of questions Jews at home would want answered: for example, whether there was a connection between armed Palestinian resistance and the closures on Shuhada Street; or about the pervasive and constant firecrackers that mimic gunshots but seem to be Palestinian children’s favorite form of entertainment; or whether life in Hebron was actually easier before Oslo when West Bank Palestinians routinely crossed the Green Line; or even what it would be like if — say — somebody in a kippah walked politely into Leila’s shop and bought a pillowcase.
THAT SATURDAY MORNING, we were guided by a representative from the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee to get a better understanding of the strategic positions of settlements in the Old City. We went through a checkpoint that divides the Ibrahimi Mosque — known to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs or the Cave of Machpellah, the Biblical burial tomb of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah. Our guide apologetically reminded the Jews among us not to self-identify, as we entered the mosque side. I heard the sound of the Shabbat service coming through the wall and and wondered: What was I doing here? What was the purpose of entering this mosque under false pretenses? Would it help people in Hebron? Those Jews on the other side were praying, and while I don’t share their concept of God or their idol-worship of land, their casual violence or much of anything, I do share those words and melodies. I felt moved, nauseous, and confused: What was I supposed to do with what I was feeling?
THEN THERE’S WHAT THE CPT calls the “settler tour,” an obscene circus that shuts down several streets in the Old City. I watched as around forty Orthodox Jews took what I suppose was their traditional afternoon Sabbath walk as IDF soldiers invade Palestinian homes to stand guard on rooftops, cars were stalled, and shops were shuttered tight. I assumed that the “tourists” walked up a street through a series of tunnels and courtyards, and pointed out sites from the 1929 massacre. Palestinian boys, meanwhile, yelled and rammed their bicycles into the legs of us observers and asked us to take their pictures. All the while, what I really wanted to know was: Where was Hebron’s Jewish Quarter? What was life like there? Where was the butcher shop or mikveh or synagogue?
[caption id=“attachment_39509” align=“aligncenter” width=“300”] CPT staff and delegates at the August 8th Settler Tour. Note our red hats, IDF troops, and the distant white shirts of the Orthodox Jews who often come every week and -- we’ve heard -- usually don’t pay much attention to what the tour guide has to say.[/caption]
Then I realized: Who stops me from asking these questions? I stop myself. After that day, I began identifying myself as a Jew before initiating casual conversations with our guides as we walked from place to place. The answers were usually direct; Of course, Jews who aren’t settlers are allowed in the Israeli-controlled Old City. The Israeli peace group Women in Black is always there. No, not many Palestinians embrace nonviolence as resistance; frankly, they’re concerned with the hardships of life under occupation and don’t think on those terms, they just survive. Yes, Jews can absolutely enter Palestinian-controlled towns; what keeps them out isn’t a check-point, but a state of mind. Indeed, fireworks are a longstanding Palestinian tradition, especially for weddings. And indeed, for Palestinians, the Right of Return is absolute, even if it means displacing a Jew who lived in a home post-Nakba over seventy years ago.
A few days later, we toured Shuhada Street with one of its long-time residents, Hani from the Hebron Defense Committee. His family had lived in Hebron for many generations, and they’d been olive-oil exporters, among the wealthiest in Palestine. Now his home was hemmed in by settlements and army compounds, and his land — much of it expropriated as an Israeli archeological site — still contained charred trunks of trees settlers had poisoned before they’d set them on fire. At one point, he opened up space for questions from the group. Conscious that this was the first time I’d asked one of my pointed questions with the whole group listening, I said, “Was your family in Hebron during the massacre of 1929?”
Indeed, his family had been present. In fact, Hani said, they were mentioned in a book called Siddur Hebron, which lists households that sheltered and saved Jews. He also insisted that no one from Hebron itself could possibly have been involved in the massacre. The Jews were their neighbors.
At that point, one of the Israeli border guards who’d been standing nearby interrupted in very halting English: “What are you talking about?”
I said: “I asked him about the massacre in 1929.”
The soldier said to Hani: “You people killed them.”
“Why would we kill them? They were our neighbors? People don’t kill their neighbors,” Hani said.
Then the soldier’s English gave way, and for the next ten minutes, Hani and the soldier spoke in Hebrew. I am the product of at least ten years of actively not learning this language, and I would have given anything to turn back the clock, because Hani was too engaged to make more than the most cursory attempt to translate. He did make it clear that he thought it was impossible that any Muslim in Hebron would take part in the massacre, and that he had heard that it was a British militia who’d wrapped their head in keffiyehs. All the while, I stood there with my jaw hanging open, grateful that one of us was taping this for posterity, feeling like something important was happening, though I couldn’t say why.
ON OUR LAST DAY in Hebron, after a meeting with Youth Against Settlements in their office high above Shuhada Street — offices saved from settlers in an instance of Israeli High Court justice — the leader of our delegation got a call on her cell phone. There was something happening below; we needed to stay put for a while. Our group sat silently and heard what was, unmistakably, machine-gun fire. These were no wedding fireworks. It felt like hours passed, and I can’t guess what was going through the heads of other delegates, but I felt I kept thinking: This isn’t a video or article in Haaretz. This is where I am right now. I’d never felt so present in my life. What would it be like to live with this every day? What would it be like to be a child who only knew this? Could it ever become normal?
Then the phone rang again. A Palestinian had just been released from prison after fifteen years. The machine-gun fire had been in celebration.
Simone Zelitch is the author of four novels, most recently Waveland, which follows a Jewish volunteer in the Freedom Movement in Mississippi during the 1964 Summer Project and the years that follow. A new novel, Judenstaat, is forthcoming from Tor Books in the summer of 2016. She lives and teaches in Philadelphia. Learn more about the author at www.simonezelitch.com.