Interview: Jewish Community of Hebron


My first interview yesterday was with David Wilder, a spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron. A bit of background before I begin with the details of the interview.

Hebron is the second largest city in the West Bank with an Arab population estimated to be between 100 to 150 thousand and a Jewish population of about 800 people including some 90 families and 200-350 yeshiva students. When including the neighboring Jewish town of Kiryat Arba and other smaller settlements, the Jewish population numbers about 10 thousand in total. This makes it the only city remaining in the West Bank in which both Arabs and Jews reside.

Following the 1997 Hebron Agreement, control of the city was divided into two areas, H1 where the majority of Palestinians reside including 80% of the territory of the municipality, and H2 on the eastern stretch of the city where the Jewish community resides as well as an estimated 30,000 Palestinians at the time. H1 is entirely under Palestinian Authority control while H2 is controlled by Israel.  Conflict, property disputes, and violence between the two communities have long been rampant, and are far too frequent and complex to detail here. As I will most certainly be returning to Hebron in the near future for tours from the perspectives of both the political left and right, I will reserve them for another post.

Included in H2 is the old Jewish quarter, from which Jews were mostly driven out in the 1929 Hebron Massacre in which 67 Jews were murdered, 60 more wounded, and Jewish synagogues and homes were ransacked. Some returned two years later but were mostly removed by the British in 1936 at the beginning of the Arab Riots. The few that remained fled the city in 1947 in anticipation of the UN Partition. In 1968, after the capture of the West Bank by Israel, a group of Jews tried to resettle in the heart of the old Jewish quarter. As a compromise, they were moved by the army to the neighboring hill, now Kiryat Arba. In 1979, a group of Jews took over the old Hadassah Hospital, now Beit Hadassah, and the Avraham Avinu Synagogue. Today there are four Jewish “neighborhoods” in H2, Beit Hadassah, Avraham Avinu, Beit Romano, and Tel Rumieda.

Also found in the H2 is Ma’arat HaMachpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the traditionally held burial place of the Jewish Patriarchs and Matriarchs: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah (and according to some Adam and Eve). This is the second holiest site in Judaism after the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and is also revered in Islam as al-Haram al-Ibrahimi. The structure itself dates back to the rule of King Herod(roughly from 30 BCE to 10 CE), but has undergone various structural renovations and alterations since under Byzantine, Persian, Muslim, Crusader, Mamluk, and Ottoman control.

The space is under the de facto control of the Waqf, the same Muslim authority which administers the Temple Mount, but since 1967 is a shared space in which both Jews and Muslims may worship. The Tomb of the Patriarchs is also infamous as the site of the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslims and another 150 at the hands of Jewish Hebron resident Baruch Goldstein. Most Israelis regard the massacre as an unforgiveable act of terrorism, although there is a small minority who believe otherwise.

His motivations are still subject to a great deal of debate, but it is certain that this murderous act left an indelible imprint on the conflict and the regulation of the space. While previously it was open to worshipers of all faiths, the tomb is now divided in two with exclusive Jewish access to about 20% of the building and Muslims exclusive access to the remaining 80%. 10 days a year, Jews are allowed access to the whole of the building while Muslims are not, and another 10 where Muslims are given access to the whole structure and Jews are not.

All of the background is important to highlight the incredibly contentious nature of Jewish residence in Hebron as well as the deep historical roots of the conflict found here. Turning now to the interview itself, I asked Mr. Wilder why there should be Jews living in Hebron at all. He argued that Hebron is the first Jewish city in Israel according to the biblical narrative and Jews have lived here continuously for 1000s of years. With the burial place of the Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs here, it is in Hebron where the roots of the Jewish people are planted if not all of the major monotheistic traditions.

Jews were banned from entering Judaism’s second holiest for some seven centuries prior to 1967. Giving Hebron over to Palestinian control would only guarantee that the ban would be reinstated, “so our neighbors tell us”. This he contrasted to the (relatively) free and open access to the Tomb of the Patriarchs now enjoyed by all religions and peoples under Israeli control. Just as with Jerusalem, Hebron, he argued, is one of the roots of the Jewish people. Likening peoplehood to a tree, if you remove the roots, the whole tree will surely die. So too if Jews were to cut themselves off from Hebron. All the more so, then, should they not do so voluntarily in a peace agreement. His feelings on the subject, which are in my experience quite representative of the Jewish community as a whole in Hebron, are further summarized in an article he recently posted to the community’s website. Read it here.

While the community justifies its existence on largely religious and historical grounds, the question of security is often raised. As was often argued with regard to Gush Katif in Gaza, why should the Israeli army deploy so many soldiers to defend so few Jews living amidst so many Arabs at such a high cost to the state? In response to this question, my host told me a short story. After Israeli forces withdrew from H1, Palestinians regularly shot into their homes from the hilltops. On numerous occasions his children were just missed by snipers’ bullets.

A journalist visited his home where Mr. Wilder showed him the many bullet holes in his walls and windows. The journalist asked, “If it is so dangerous, why don’t you leave?” He responded that he had considered moving to Gilo (a suburb in Jerusalem) but that Arabs were shooting into the neighborhood from Beit Jala as well. He has also considered moving further into Jerusalem, but he could not be sure that the buses would not be bombed. Perhaps too he could move to Tel Aviv, but could he go to a cafe or a discoteque and be safe there? In fact, could he guarantee his safety anywhere in the state at all? He knew that there was one place where there hadn’t been any terrorist attacks yet at all, in the Mediterranean. While the sea is certainly very pleasant, it is very cold in the winter.

The answer, he said, is simple. If you acquiesce to terror and grant it a victory, it will simply follow you. The goals of the enemies of Israel, he asserted, are not just Hebron or Jerusalem, but the entirely of the state. It makes no difference whether you are living in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. While people may complain that there is an unnecessarily large military presence in Hebron to protect so few Jews, he believes this argument is specious at best.

First, the Jewish community is only so small because the government will not allow them to build or buy new property into which they can expand. Note the recent controversy over Beit HaShalom. Second, the soldiers are in Hebron as much to protect its Jewish residents as they are to protect the many many tourists who visit every year and the state as a whole. When the army withdrew from H1, it became a nest of terrorism from which many attacks during the second Intifada originated. Where Israel withdraws, catastrophe follows. Here he pointed to rockets out of Gaza following the disengagement and the outbreak of the Second Intifada following the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

The next argument which remains critical in the conflict is the demographic one. If Jews are such a tiny minority surrounded by a large Arab majority, what is the point of remaining? Mr. Wilder suggested that supporters of this argument are quick to highlight the few Jews who actually live in Hebron compared to the massive Arab population, but they ignore neighboring Kiryat Arba and other settlements in the immediate area. Yet even in this expanded definition of Jewish Hebron, this leaves a demographic balance of about 10:1 in favor of the Palestinians.

If this is the logic of where Jews have a right to live, he argued, why should Jews be in the Middle East at all? There are over 20 Arab states, and no more than the Palestinians of Hebron, they don’t want Jews to live in the region nor for the state of Israel to exist. Shalom Achshav’s position, he insisted, is not based on a concern about demography but a belief that Jews should not be living in Hebron at all. The hovering threat of demography is simply a means to justify that position.

So, he noted, “we are establishing facts on the ground.” From the 1970s and 80s to now, the Arab population and housing developments have expanded tremendously. He argued, “They did not need building permits but we did.” Now when they try to build a house or buy a property, the government throws them out. But, Hebron is part of Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael and more people on the ground will help prevent another expulsion he believes. Had there been more people in Gush Katif, the disengagement would not have been possible. They aim to make this the case in Hebron as well. This, his insists, is a perfectly legitimate activity, especially given that he sees the Palestinians doing precisely the same thing.

From here, our conversation turned to larger questions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a future Palestinian state, of which my host is a firm opponent. Relating to the geopolitical tensions which face Israel, he asserted that Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran all pose existential threats to Israel. Jordan is politically stable but there is no telling how long this will last, and no one knows what will be in Egypt after Mubarak dies. From this point of view, he does not believe that it makes any sense to take a “big chunk” out of this country and give it away to “another enemy.”

He sees two possibilities for Palestinian statehood: Abu Mazan might be serious about peace but he no longer wishes to be president of the PA. When he steps down, who knows who will take over? The alternative is that when Israel withdraws, Hamas will take over. Everyone knows, he asserted, that it is Israel that is propping up the PA in the West Bank and without Israel’s support, it would fall. With a sovereign Palestinian state under the leadership of a rejectionist, fundamentalist regime, Israel would be only further threatened.

As he sees it, Palestinians should choose one of three options: 1) stay and accept the legitimacy and rule of the Israeli state, 2) leave, or 3) stay and fight. If they choose to stay and fight, however, they cannot expect that Israel will not fight back. In response to those on the right who are suggesting citizenship for all Palestinians, his answer was rather to the point. Democracy can be seen either as an end in itself or a means to an end. If democracy is a means to Israel’s destruction, then he would choose Israel over democracy. There are no other democracies in the Middle East, so why should Israel be held to this standard? If this is the price of survival, he argued, than this is it.

Posing the dilemma of needing to choose 2 of 3 options: a Jewish state, a democracy, and retaining the Land of Israel, I noted that many people with whom I had spoken on the left had said they would prefer to sacrifice part of the land in order to secure the other two. Coming full circle to the beginning of our conversation, he argued that there cannot be a Jewish state without the Land of Israel. “You cannot live but take out your own heart; without Eretz Yisrael there is nothing.”

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