Two Visits to Hebron

A week ago I moved to Jerusalem for the next five months.  Over this perios of time I hope to share ocassional posts about my experience here.  This is the first.

In November 2008, I organized a tour of Hebron with Shovrim Shtika (Soldiers Breaking the Silence) that challenged my core beliefs. On Monday I visited Hebron again this time joining a Health  Human Rights Project delegation.

On my first visit over a year ago, we walked down Shuhadeh Street and saw the deserted part of the Old City of Hebron, with a line of Palestinians stores that were forcibly closed by the Israeli military.  This area of the city,  that once bustled with life and was home home to 30,000 Palestinians,  was now almost a ghost town.  The streets were empty, the stores were bolted shut, many with Jewish stars and other graffiti smeared in black paint on the metal doors.  In some of the houses that were still occupied children peered at us from a porch totally enclosed by a metal grate to protect them against objects hurled at them by the settlers.

The Israeli military had designated the street we were walking a “sterile street,” a street on which only Jews can walk!  The Palestinians who lived on the street could not leave their homes through their front doors which were also bolted by the Israeli military.

The physical experience of walking down that “sterile street” shocked me to my core.   This town is deserted, the Palestinians are not allowed to walk on their own street because a few hundred very religious (“religious”?) Jews, supported by the overwhelming power of the Israeli military, have created several settlements in the heart of a Palestinian city.

As an ex-South African, I could not help but think about Apartheid.  Apartheid was a travesty, a huge crime committed against millions of people, yet even under Apartheid, there were no “sterile streets.”  The experience made me confront the fact that this ethnic discrimination and brutality was being done not only  in the name of Judaism, by religious Jews, inspired by Jewish sources, texts and beliefs; but it was also made possible and fully supported by Israel, the state that speaks in the name of the Jewish people.  The walk down that street, a little more than a year ago, changed my life.   Having seen with my own eyes the effects of the discrimination, having walked with my own legs down that street, I could no longer avoid confronting the racism that was at the core of  Israeli government policy, at the heart of Zionism, and in parts of my own religious tradition.  I could no longer just ignore, avoid or easily reinterpret those ideas in our the sacred texts that inspired these settlers: the ideas of a Promised Land, an exclusive covenant and about destroying the peoples of the Land of Canaan.  I could also no longer ignore the privileging of the rights of Jews over the rights of non-Jews that was at the core of Zionism.

Michael Manikin, our tour leader and one of the founders of Shovrim Shtika, Soldiers Breaking the Silence, pointed out that Hebron was no different from all the other settlements on the West Bank.   The entire settlement project is based on the fundamental belief that the rights and lives of Jews are more important than those of the Palestinians.  For him as a religious Jew, this reality was far more than just a political issue, it was a profound spiritual issue, that challenged the core of his beliefs.   His Judaism was not about discrimination, it was about justice and equity.  His courageous work in Shovrim Shtika was a spiritual witness and an inspiration to me.

Two days ago I went to Hebron again and this time the tour leader was Hisham Sharabati, a Palestinian human rights activist and journalist, who was born in 1967 and  has lived under the Occupation in Hebron all his life.

We met in an open space in the town with alleyways leading into the market on all sides.  Most of the stores around us and in the streets were closed.  Hisham told us that 512 Palestinian stores have been closed by the Israeli military “to protect the security of the settlers” and countless others are closed because the of the devastating economic consequences of living under Occupation.  The stores that are forcibly closed are marked with red or black dots.

As we stood in that open space in front of us there was a metal gate and huge concrete blocks, guarded by Israeli soldiers heavily laden with military gear often with their hands on their guns ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.

On several of the nearby roofs there were Israeli military posts.   Towering above the Palestinian homes was a Yeshivah  with the words from the Torah “Kiryat Arba is Hebron.”  The settlers derive their legitimation directly from our sacred text.

We met for lunch in what was once a store front and home but like so many others was now empty.   As Hisham told us his story he mentioned that Israeli soldiers routinely walk through the town in groups their hands on their guns and stop Palestinians, often young boys, asking for their identity cards.  They then often force the children to stand against a wall with their hands above their heads while they pat them down, sometimes they take them off for interrogation.  Sometimes it is a few minutes of humiliation, other times it may last a few hours.  As he is talking, he points out that behind us the soldiers have just stopped a group of kids.  We go to watch this scene, as these soldiers in the most advanced military gear, take the identity cards of three kids and then take them one by one behind the metal gate, force them to stand against the wall and  pat them down.  It feels like a game of cops and robbers, but this is serious.

I notice that I feel ashamed.   I am a rabbi.   These soldiers are acting in the name of the Jewish state to protect some religious Jewish settlers.  What is my connection to them as a Jew?  What is my responsibility for this violation?  Why am I and my community so complacent in the face of this urgent moral crisis that threatens the very core of our spiritual tradition and is causing so much suffering to so many people?  Yes, many of us oppose the Occupation but do we really act as if it is a mater of critical moral urgency?  Do we act as if it is a matter of life and death?

Later in the day as we were walking through the market we saw another group of soldiers who had three young boys pinned against the wall with their hands above the heads.  This time the soldiers were aggressive and I saw one of them kick the child.  I and several others in our group stood and watched and the soldiers angrily told us to move.  We stood our ground and just watched.  One of the soldiers came up to me and said Lechu mipo/Get out of here and then “Let me do my job.”   What is his “job”?  To make sure that the residents know that he is more powerful, to humiliate and inflict suffering on thousands of Palestinians to protect the “right” of Jews to settle in Hebron.  After a few minutes they let the kids go.  I realized how important our presence in this situation.  I don’t know how much we changed the outcome,  but our presence definitely made it less likely that there would be more violent abuse.

Israel understands this and that is why it acts to prevent international human rights activists and observers from being on the West Bank.  Israel is threatening not to renew the mission of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH).  It also regularly threatens the courageous folk in the Christian Peacamaker Team who uphold the human rights and dignity of the Palestinian residents.

Both incidents that we witnesed were relatively mild in the scheme of things.  No one was physically hurt and yet it was so profoundly shocking.  This is the daily experience of these kids.  What effect will it have on their life?  Will they one day respond with violence?  Their only experience of Jews and Judaism is the settlers and the soldiers. What do they think of Jews and Judaism?   Will they develop a hatred for all Jews?

And what about the soldiers?  They are also just young boys given a grossly inappropriate amount of power over other human beings.  While I don’t want to equate the experience of the Palestinian children, the victims, and the soldiers, the experience damages the lives and souls of both the victim and victimizer.

The rest of the afternoon we move around the town crossing checkpoints, seeing the dramatic effects of the settlers on the town including the vile debris, stones, metal, foul water that the settlers throw upon the Palestinians.

We visit the home of Hashim al Aza, who has the misfortune of living right next to the Tel Rumeida another settlement, home of some of the most violent of the Hebron settlers.  Settlers have vanalized his house on several occasions, attacked , his wife and children, destroyed his vineyards, all with the complicity of the Israeli military.   He invites us into his home to show us videos of settlers rampaging through his home, attacking school children and their teachers.  Some of these videos were part of the Betzelem camera project. The soldiers in the videos just watch as the settlers violently attack people and/or property.

We see other areas of the city that are blocked by cement blocks and fences and various checkpoints.  On one road Hisham shows us a red line that indicates that Palestinian pedestrians must stop and wait for a soldier to come check them before they can continue on the road.

Towards the end of our tour we climb on a roof to look down on the part of Shuhadah street that I walked down more than a year ago.  This time I see the rear of the houses with the passage way on the roof and the fire escape ladders that the residents use to get out of their house as they can’t exit the front door.  If they want to go shopping, go the doctor, or if God forbid they have to bury a loved one, they have to climb to the roof and then down the ladders!

This city of 200,000 people is completely devastated by the presence of about 400-600 Jews.

I leave the trip shaken to my core.  Hebron was one of the first Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and it demonstrates the urgent moral crisis of the Occupation, now more than forty years long and with no end in sight.    I would prefer to avoid the  issue of American aid to Israel, of boycott, sanctions and divestment but it might be the most effective way to shock Israel into making change.   It may be the most effective strategy for non-violent change.  We could avoid facing this difficult challenge, especially for those of so connected to Israel,  if the situation was not so dire, so desperate.  But the situation is desperate for all who care for justice and all these measures must be considered.   To avoid them, or to prevent discussion of any measure is to accept the situation as it is and as it has been now for over forty years.   And for those of us who are religious Jews, Hebron calls on us to carefully examine the teachings of our faith and to challenge the use of our sacred tradition to oppress and humiliate a whole people. As it says: “The Task is great and  the time is short.”


  1. myfriendsue says:

    Thank you for you witnessing and reporting. I will share your posts with other people here in Cleveland and beyond. I know that we as Jewish people are capable of facing the reality and taking action to change the norm if we will look at reality and into our hearts at the same time. I want people to wake up not only to the pain of occupation but also to the fact that it is unnecessary. I will be looking in your posts to hear reports about the goodness of people and about of what is working in the West Bank. People need to learn of the healthy parts of Palestinian society that are ready, given the opportunity, to step forward and lead.

    1. rabbibrian says:

      i hope to write a post about my stay at the home of Palestinian family ealier this week that was very inspiring. They are truly an amazing people. I was also really moved by Hisham and his really positive and even, jovial personality. He wasn’t bitter, even though he spent significant time as a young man in jail. His niece Lubna also helped with the trip and she was a source of hope to me. A twenty year old Palestinian woman – smart, compassionate and committed to justice.

      1. myfriendsue says:

        Thanks for reading my words. I have posted your blog to my facebook and mailed out to 48 people here in Cleveland today. Yes (to hearing positives stories about the people you are staying with and meeting)! I look forward to posts like that which really bring home the possibility of building a future with people with whom we would comfortably build a future.I also think it would be great to have stories of Jewish peace makers.

  2. Joan Broadfield says:

    Dear Brian,

    Your presence there is so important. I was there in 2008 for a short day, and saw some of what you saw. The fear of the soldiers – worried so I suppose about suicide bombing – is so much a part of the problem-and unseasoned youth has its own level of general understanding. As you point out, they are so empowered by training and a country that lives in such fear that they take on ‘uber-power’ mentalities. Such militarized solutions will possibly make some feel safer, but they make the world a less-safe place.

    So THANK YOU for being there and posting these important messages.

    1. rabbibrian says:

      Thanks, Joan, for your kind comment. I fear that the soldiers have to repress any of their natural feelings of compassion and empathy in order to do their “job.” Ending the occupation is the most urgent moral/spiritual task facing the Jewish people at this time.

  3. Larry Snider says:

    Dear Brian,

    As you may know I coordinated the interfaith journey that Joan and others took under the auspices of the Compassionate Listening Project in March 2008. We spent an afternoon with David Wilder, visited the Governor of Hebron and then spent the night with Palestinian families in and around Hebron. But for me my first trip to Hebron in March 2001 will always haunt me. We went to Hisham’s home and heard his story and walked the streets of Hebron from the Tomb through the Palestinian marketplace and up the hill to the graveyard of those killed in 1929. I saw much of what you saw with eyes even less accustomed to the horror. One of the people on our 2001 journey was an Israeli living in Canada who happened to be the grandson of the Rabbi of Hebron in 1929. He was afraid to join us in Hebron and stayed in Jerusalem. Those of us who were Jewish said Kaddish at the Rabbis grave. I am overcome each time I think of Hebron by the cruelty and directness of the outcomes of the occupation. It remains on the cutting edge of all that is to happen be it positive or negative. G-d bless your pursuit of peace!

    1. rabbibrian says:

      What a moving story. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Hello!
    Your narrative is one of so many that i have read, and the occupation being compared to Apartheid. I am currently writing a book on the Shoah through Muslim eyes, and it is a book i hope that Muslims will read in the hope of accepting the Holocaust as a fact. When I was in Israel in 1995, things were different perhaps less oppressive and people had hope, what do you think is the emotional climate for the Palestinians except for fear and hopelessness, and same for the Israelis?

    Thanks for being a witness. I pray for peace and social justice every day inshallah.

    1. rabbibrian says:

      I am so inspired by your note and work. I imagine you face some resistance in your own community and I honor your courage in telling the truth. I know there is a Palestinian who has created a Holocaust museum in his town. Just as it is important for us as Jews to challenge our community’s denial of the suffering of the Palestinians, it is important for Palestinians to understand that although Israel is the oppressor, Jews as a people have suffered mightily.

      As regards hope, I have only been here a week but there is not much hope on either side. I think there is a chance that Americans may be able to play an important role in opening new possibilities.

      Thanks so much for your courage. It is so wonderful to connect with Muslim partners and to work together for justice and peace.

      May God bless our efforts!

  5. Armen Hanjian says:

    Dear Brian and family, We think of you each day. Thank you for taking us with you a year ago to Hebron. Thank you for going back. Thank you for being upset with the injustice. Thank you for your faith and courage in speaking out against. With love and respect, Armen

    1. rabbibrian says:


      Thanks for your kind comment. It was a privilege to share the trip of Israel/Palestine with you and Vicki last year.

      I pray that my difficult words will open hearts and above all inspire us to act with a sense of urgency. I fear what may happen if we don’t.

      Many Blessings,

  6. Ellen Cantarow says:

    I may be mistaken but I think Hebron is not the first Jewish settlement in the West Bank. I believe that “honor” goes to Gush Etzion. I believe the settlement at Hebron began in 1979. I was a young journalist and I was interviewing settlers at Kiryat Arba for a long report I published in The Village Voice. The wife of Rabbi Moshe Levinger (head of Gush Emunim, the ultra-right-wing spearhead of the settlement movement) was engaged in a “squat” or sit-in, at the Hadassah Hospital in Hebron. She said they (all members of Gush Emunim), would be there to stay. — And they did. You have written a very good report. It paints a situation that should be (but isn’t) an international outrage. I was in Hebron briefly in 2007 and the change from what I had seen in the 1970s was appalling. I am sorry to say that the mental comparison I made, having read about what the Nazis did to the Jews in the early years of Nazism, was with it. It’s all too similar: economic terror, vigilantism, brutalization, public humiliation of the “untermenschen” (“arabushim”)painting swastikas on Jewish buildings to assert German supremacy. All of this pre-dated “the Final Solution.” No Israeli Jew much younger than their 80s has any memory of Europe during the destruction of Europe’s Jews, so it takes imagination and historical research to understand the horror the settlers have created. Most of it seems rooted in literalism about the Torah: my understanding is that Jewish supremacy is “biblically” rooted. I am of Jewish background myself.

    1. rabbibrian says:

      You are correct in pointing out that Hebron was not the first settlement. It was one of the first, starting with Kiryat Arba adjacent to the town of Hebron, and then gradually the settlers overcame Israeli government resistance to establishing a Jewish settlement in the heart of the town. Thanks for the correction.

      Your comparison to the situation of Jews in Germany in the 1930’s is truly frightening. It is clear that one aim of Israeli policy, not only in Hebron, is to make life so unbearable for Palestinians that they emigrate. People here refer to this process as voluntary transfer. It is this goal that explains the denial of permits for building by Palestinians, the policy of home demolition, the restrictions on residency and many of the realities of the Occupation and within the Green Line as well.

  7. rbarenblat says:

    Thank you for bearing witness.

    When I was in Jerusalem two summers ago I went to Hebron for the day. It was a powerful and heartbreaking experience for me. (Those who are interested can read my account of that day here:

  8. Bob Tomashevsky says:

    Thank you for your moving words of peace.

  9. leslie sah says:

    Thank you for your work.

  10. YBD says:

    Racism? Ethnic discrimination? Apartheid? Do you think that is the reason for the heavy IDF presence in Hevron? NONSENSE! The reason for this is the security situation, pure and simple.
    You call it “racism” when Jews want to live in Hevron and “anti-racism” to drive the Jews out and leave the city purely Arab. Do you know that Jews have lived, more or less continuously for 4000 years in Hevron, far longer than have the Arabs? Do you know that in 1929 there was a massacre, carried out by the Arabs of Hevron against the ancient, unarmed NON-ZIONIST Jewish communtiy there. Something like 70 were murdered and the rest of the community (which I believed numbered a couple of thousand) was DRIVEN out of the city.

    Your claim that “the presence of 400-600 Jews completely devastates the lives of the Arabs of Hevron” is simply nonsense. Only a small percentage of the city is under IDF control, the large majority isn’t (but I guess it is okay to exaggerate in the name of the “cause”, isn’t it?). What do you think would happen to the Jews of Hevron if the IDF security presence were to be withdrawn. A repeat of 1929-that’s what would happen.

    You ridicule the “right” of Jews to live in Hevron—well, but by what right do Jews live in Tel Aviv? Remember the Naqba? The Arabs view the Jewish presence in both places the same way! (Recall that Tel Aviv is NOT an ancient Jewish community as is Hevron).
    There will never be peace until Jews are safe to walk around Hevron freely without the large-scale security presence just as Arabs walk around Tel Aviv freely.

    1. Larry Snider says:

      It is a sacred place for Jews and Muslims and Christians alike. I don’t think that the State of Israel has ever put forward a plan for the safe integration of the City of Hebron. Rabbi Levenger moved in in 1968 reaffirming the Jewish presence in the City and then the government of Israel reacted. It reacted again after the shooting at Abraham/Ibrahim’s Tomb by Baruch Goldstein and divided the City as you are well aware.
      There are those on each side that have committed and continue to commit atrocities whether to the drivers of a passing car or by virtue of the daily realities on Shuhada Street. It is obvious that no one wins and everyone loses in the war of attrition that continues to take lives on each side in this ancient Holy City as well as its surroundings.

    2. Jessica Bonn says:

      According to what I learned, most of the violence perpetrated in ’29 was by villagers living outside of Hebron, while a number of Hebron families gave safe haven to their Jewish neighbors.

      1. rabbibrian says:

        Thanks so much for your comment. Avram Burg’s writing about the experience of his own family supports your understanding of what happened in 29, half of his mother’s family were killed by Palestinians and half of them were hidden and saved. Alongside the brutal murder of 67 Jews, many more Jews were saved by Palestinians. Both are true, as far as I understand.

        The reasons for the massacre are hotly debated although all agree that Jews and Arabs lived in Hebron relatively peacefully prior to the massacre. It also seems that manipulation of the fears of the Palestinians about the intentions of the new Zionist immigrants was a major factor in the eruption of violence.

        While the scars of this terrible trauma must be understood and honored, I believe we must focus on the present situation and how to restore peaceful relations between Jews and Palestinians. The massacres of the past by both sides have damaged us all, but it is how to change the present reality that must be our focus.

      2. Y. Ben-David says:

        If you are going to make distinctions saying that not ALL the Arabs of Hevron were responsible for the massacre of Jews in 1929, then I would expect you all to be intellectually honest and not blame ALL the Jews of Hevron today for the acts of a small minority who spraypaint on Arab houses or who may yell epithets at them. It is also important to remember that there have been numerous murderous attacks on Jews in Hevron in the modern period, including stabbings, shootings (including a 1 year-old baby by an Arab sniper), suicide bombings and the murder of Rabbi Raanan in his home in Tel Rumeida by an Arab intruder. The somewhat onerous security situation in the Jewish part of Hevron is a DIRECT consequence of this violence. It is NOT a form of “racial discrimination”. If you want to talk about “racial discrimination” Jews are prevented by the Israeli government from buying homes in most of the ISRAELI-controlled part of Hevron.

  11. As I am preparing to interview a Holocaust survivor this Tuesday for my book, and read the posts here, i would like to say that as a Muslim, I know how my community can be anti-semitic, and biased against Jews world-wide. Perhaps if i can voice something that needs to be said in writing as simple as testifying for the Holocaust as a Muslim, Jews can too testify for injustices against Arabs/Palestinians. I still come with hope and believe that this can be resolved by the power of ordinary voices inside and outside of Israel/Palestine. Jews and Muslims are both at fault and both victimized, i see them both struggling behind barbed wire…

    1. rabbibrian says:

      It is my prayer that Muslims and Jews can join together to end the Occupation joined by a firm resolve to oppose all prejudice and hatred. I am so inspired by your courageous work challenging anti-Semitism in your community.
      In solidarity,
      Rabbi Brian

  12. Riaz says:

    Really glad I came across this blog via the jfjfp website. I shall regularly look in.

  13. Cotton Fite says:

    Thanks, Brian. Your experience replicates mine of several years ago. What used to be the souk looked like a war zone and the Palestinian children who roamed through there in small groups demonstrated the hostility they felt by lashing cords against the back of our legs. One of our Palestinian guides talked about the terrible distortion taking place among children who see their fathers as powerless, impotent to protect themselves or them from daily humiliation. We (as an American, I include myself as complicit) are sowing terrible seed that will destroy the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis for many years to come. We so desperately need to turn this around.

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