Abd al-Karim al-Jabari sat yesterday in one of the overstuffed couches that line the sides of his living room in Hebron. He has a square face and a graying mustache, and he spoke quietly, with a hint of a smile, as if apologizing for telling guests his troubles. On the cofee table were bowls of nuts and tiny cups of spiced coffee and plates of baked holiday treats whose names I don’t know.
Jabari’s house is near Kiryat Arba, the settlement that looks down on Hebron, physically and in spirit. He’s put up a wall around his house, with barbed wire at the top. It doesn’t help a lot. Between his house and the gate to Kiryat Arba is the so-called synagogue of Hazon David, a makeshift structure, more tent than building. Hazon David is an illegal outpost, which is to say illegal even in the eyes of the Israeli government. The house of prayer was built to seize land, to extend settlements more quickly and aggressively than the government would. It’s the rare outpost that has been taken down by the army and police – 32 times, I’m told. And put back up 32 times. And still there.
“Someone who’s religious, he brings his children to the syngagoue ,” said Abd al-Karim. He corrected himself, perhaps out of respect for those of his guests wearing kipot. “It’s not a synagogue. They say it’s a synagogue… He prays inside, and he tells his children to go throw stones.” And so the children throw stones at Abd al-Karim’s family. The pile of wood he had outside his house for construction was set on fire. The olive trees outside his wall are burned skeletons of trees. When he plants trees, they are uprooted.
Abd al-Karim’s house was our first stop. The men sat in the living room with Abd al-Karim; the women guests sat in another room with the women of the family. Hebron is an extraordinarily conservative town. We’d come down from Jerusalem, nearly 30 of us, to visit the families who’d suffered the most when settlers threw a pogrom after the army evacuated the Hebron building known as the House of Contention.
After the pogrom, I’d sent out an email to friends, mostly from Kehillat Yedidya, wondering what we could do about the desecration of God’s name. Yehiel and Elliot, my companions on previous trips into nightmare country, were ready to go on our own. But I got back a message that Bnei Avraham (Children of Abraham) and Breaking the Silence, two Jewish groups working against the madness in Hebron, were organizing a trip on Eid al-Adha, the holiday marking Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son. So we and our friend Yisrael joined the group. (On the bus, I met one of the Breaking the Silence activists, Michael, a thin guy with a black kipah. He’s a graduate of Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa, where my son is now studying. Yes, there are places where it is still possible to study Torah.)
Listening to Abd al-Karim, I thought of a story in Pesikta Derav Kahana (27:6), an early collection of midrash from the Talmudic period. It’s told to explain why you can’t use a stolen lulav to fulfill the mitzvah of waving a lulav on Sukkot. A highway robber once held up a Roman legionnaire. Later the robber was arrested. I’ll skip all the plot twists that explain why the robber thought the legionnaire would testify in his defense. Naturally, he did the opposite. “Woe to him whose defense attorney becomes his prosecutor,” people said.
Likewise if you steal a lulav: It testifies against you. All the more so if you build a synagogue on someone else’s land, if your children throw stones at the neighbors, if Shabbat is the day feared most by those who live nearby. Likewise if you think you are honoring the grave of Abraham – Abraham who showed that justice began by welcoming every human being into his tent – and you act like the people of Sodom, despising strangers.
I’m glad that some people on the right, including settlers, have condemned the violence in Hebron. But to treat the recent violence as exceptional is to delude oneself. Settlement in Hebron began with a confidence that law didn’t matter, and with a craving to show lordship over the Arabs of the city. (I’ve told that story elsewhere, and I won’t try to repeat the details in a blog. Books have a purpose.) Settlement in Hebron has stood out only because it has been the pure laboratory example. The settlement effort has created a photo negative of Judaism, a reverse Judaism. I once read about how the Iraqi-born Israeli novelist Sami Michael left the communist party when he realized in 1956 that it didn’t stand for the humanist ideals that led him to join it. Supporters of settlements who are shocked by what happened in Hebron should have the same courage.
From Abd al-Karim’s house we went on to two other familes, the last one next to the fence of Kiryat Arba. We came with bags of candies and toys for the kids, in accordance with holiday custom. The families were open and friendly and repeated over and over how happy they were that we came, and that they looked forward to peace, with Israelis and Palestinians each having their own state in this land. In the late afternoon, in a chill wind, below the fence of Kiryat Arba, Yehiel led minhah prayers and said kaddish for his father. Small children from the family looked at us pray, at first afraid and then merely curious.