Dispatch From Hebron: A Gentile Finds Jewish Redemption Amid Brutality

I suppose that the revolutionaries are those who are capable of coming to terms with the brutality of the world, and of responding to it with increased brutality. — Michel Houellebecq I just finished working on an article about the … Read More

By / May 21, 2008

I suppose that the revolutionaries are those who are capable of coming to terms with the brutality of the world, and of responding to it with increased brutality. — Michel Houellebecq

I just finished working on an article about the Jewish community (or settlement, if you wish) in the West Bank city of Hebron for a Swedish magazine. It was originally meant to be a simple interview with the community spokesperson David Wilder, but once it was finished, my editor wanted me to "balance" the piece with a "voice from the other side." Allowing a Jewish settler to speak unchallenged would create the impression that his views were somehow endorsed by this magazine, heaven forbid.

And what are his views? Simply put, David Wilder believes that Jews have the right to live in Hebron, just as they have the right to live in any other part of the Land of Israel. We don’t really discuss it, but it is obvious that this right has had to be maintained through continued sacrifice. During the last 40 years, 103 Jewish civilians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been murdered by their Arab neighbors, simply for being Jewish. At times, the Jews have responded in kind: On February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein stepped into the Mosque by the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and gunned down 29 Muslims before being beaten to a pulp.

In Zionist theory, Hebron can be said to be the logical end point of the argument. People who otherwise agree with the basic Zionist tenet that Jews have the right to live in Israel will be hard-pressed to concur that this right extends to Hebron. That is probably why there are fewer than 1000 Jews living there, with at least 100 Arabs to every one of them. Hostility long ago reached the point at which the IDF had to enforce a separation between the populations, effectively destroying any semblance of normal life for thousands of Arabs. H2, the area where the Jews live, is a ghost town. The Arab shops have been closed for years and a lot of people have moved out. It is an ugly sight, I can assure you — yes, brutal. It is perfectly understandable why people feel reluctant to take their Zionist claims all the way to Hebron.

But this is where it all started, the idea that God gave a piece of land to a certain
person and his descendants. It is repeated every day in the morning prayers: "…and You established the covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanite, Hittite, Emorite, Perizzite, Jebusite, and Girgashite, to give it to his offspring; and You affirmed Your word, for You are righteous…" God gave the land with an obligation to conquer and expel, as one rabbi phrased it a few years before he was murdered outside of his settlement together with his wife.

It is not an easy thing to stomach, and most people don’t. Just like they rush through their morning prayers without thinking about the words they utter, they claim that they are Zionists without giving much thought to the fact that every square inch of this land is soaked in the blood of Jews who died defending it and that there is no foreseeable end to this struggle. Maintaining a Jewish civilian presence in Hebron might require brutality, yes, but that’s increasingly true for the rest of Israel as well. The neighborhood has always been rough, and it is getting worse.

Coming from a completely non-Jewish background, this is the Judaism that I am
exposed to in Israel. My secular Jewish flatmate in Jerusalem is increasingly concerned about the amount of time I spend in my West Bank Yeshiva. "Why don’t you move to New York?" she almost pleads and assures me that there is Jewish life there, too. "Residual Judaism," I reply with a smile. "There is absolutely no life in it."

"But it is so much nicer…" she tries, before realizing that "nice" is obviously not what I’m looking for.

So what am I looking for? I think my life took a decisive turn about eight years ago when I first encountered the writing of the French author Michel Houellebecq. In between reports from the Second Intifada that had just broken out in Israel, his words were etched into my conscience: "In the midst of its natural barbarity, humankind had (not often) managed to create areas of love and warmth; small, protected zones where love and inter-subjectivity thrived."

Today I think that I have found one of those zones, perched on a hilltop in the West
Bank. I think I have come to terms with the brutality of the world; I have yet to respond to it, beyond moving here, which for some is brutal enough, but I am not sure if it qualifies me as a revolutionary. I suppose this move is a way to graphically express the fact that I have given up on the world in a sense, a consequence of the fact that I can no longer, as I used to, claim that it is redeemed. Israel, as a state and as a concept, is in itself another expression of this for me, an expression of the obvious, undeniable fact that we live in an unredeemed world. Israel is the last outpost, mankind’s last attempt at redeeming itself; There is nothing beyond it, and all the evidence seems to suggest that things are going straight to hell. It is, to once again quote Houellebecq, an expression of the general impossibility of things.

Photography by Paul Widen

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