A guest post from Elliott Horowitz
On a chilly morning in March I boarded a bus in Jerusalem that had been chartered by a group called Shovrim Shtikah (“Breaking the Silence”) which, among its other activities, provides weekly guided tours (in English and Hebrew) to Hebron and its environs in order to show those who are unaware how difficult the lives of local Palestinians are under Israeli military occupation. The group was organized by Israeli young men who have served in the occupied territories and felt a need to “break the silence” about the activities of both the army and the settlers – especially in Hebron itself, where the freedom of movement and economic opportunities of nearly 200,000 Arabs have been severely curtailed in order to accommodate the “needs” of several hundred Jews.
The tour I had signed up for happened to be in English, and many of those waiting with me for the bus were young Europeans. I did befriend two young Israeli men who were also waiting for the bus, one of whom discovered to his consternation that I, like his parents, had voted for Meretz in the last election despite the party’s support for the war in Gaza. He was more sympathetic when I explained that I had started out in the Mafdal (National Religious Party), moved to Labor, and then (in 2006) to Meretz. None of the other people waiting for the bus showed any external signs of ever having supported a religious party. I myself exhibited no such signs either, having donned a baseball cap that morning to provide the warmth that my dwindling hair can no longer provide.
After we arrived in Hebron, however, I decided to wear my customary kippah so that both local Arabs and the police who guarded our group (from potential attack by Jewish settlers) would see that there were also religious Jews who were critical of the occupation. As we made our way by foot, accompanied by dozens of riot police (from the elite Yasam unit) down the once bustling Shuhada street, all of whose shops have been shuttered since 2000, a young bearded and befringed settler approached and began to film us with a video camera. He continued to follow us, from the other side of the street, with his camera on – as if to say, “we keep records of who you are and what you do here.” Needless to say, none of the dozens of police present thought that he was causing a provocation or disturbing the peace.
My spontaneous reaction was to take my own digital camera and cross the street, where I began taking snapshots of him from a safe distance of at least two meters, as if to say “and we keep records of who you are and what you do here.”
The young settler responded, as might be expected, by saying “you people are the worst,” but I was more surprised when some of the police ordered me to cross the street and return to my group. I protested, saying that I like the video photographer was an Israeli Jew, and like him I had both a kippah and tzitzit – which I promptly pulled from under my shirt. A policeman, whose name for the record was Kfir Levy, called me an “idiot,” to which I loudly protested that I was not an idiot, but rather a university professor. (Though, as a friend reminds me, these are not always mutually exclusive.)
I was then pushed by Kfir and one of his colleagues to a wall, and asked to show my ID card. I responded, with more cheekiness than now seems possible, that I would not surrender my ID card until I received an apology for having been called an idiot. By doing so I had unknowingly broken an Israeli law which requires showing one’s ID card upon any policeman’s request (readers beware). This infraction evidently “made the day” for the two policemen who had pushed me to the wall, and they proceeded to drag me, while twisting both my arms behind my back (a move that is evidently frequently rehearsed in their unit’s training) to a police van that was waiting 20 or 30 meters away. In fairness I must add that they agreed, after my kippah had fallen off, to stop halfway and wait for one of their colleagues to return it to me.
The first police station to which I was brought was the one adjacent to the parking lot of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Kfir commanded me to enter one of the interrogation rooms, but I refused to enter unless his mild-mannered partner (whom I shall call Yossi) entered as well, sensing that Kfir would not hit me in his presence. I was given a seat in the hall, and from that time on was treated with respect, both in that station and the next one, by every police employee with whom I had dealings. Even Kfir calmed down eventually, smiling when, after he asked for my address (although he could have gotten it from the police computer) I replied: “Abraham Avinu Street 3, Kiryat Arba.” The point of my ironic reply, he correctly understood, was that although I lived in Jerusalem, I had no less right than the settler video-photographer to walk the streets of Hebron with camera in hand. Earlier his partner Yossi had brought me water upon my request, and one of the employees at the station brought me coffee as well.
Kfir had asked for my address because it would be needed for my summons to court. But I refused to sign his handwritten charge sheet, demanding to see a more senior officer, to whom I could explain my refusal to leave the side of the street occupied by the settler who was photographing us. I also insisted, half-seriously, on being interrogated in English, my native language. Kfir’s partner asked me in what language I taught at my university. I replied that I taught in Hebrew unless I ran into words I did not know in Hebrew, and then used English. As an example I gave the word “democracy” – demokratia in modern Hebrew.
I then turned to the other police officers who were hanging around and asked them rhetorically: Why was there a word in Hebrew for kibush (occupation), but no word for democracy? Why did not our revered Patriarchs who are buried in Hebron speak of democracy?
It is very rare to be able to discuss these complex questions over coffee with uniformed policemen, especially some who had less than an hour earlier twisted your arms rather painfully. But my visit to Hebron and its police stations afforded a rare opportunity to hear an important component of the “voices of the occupation” – not the Palestinians (some of whom I had already visited on previous trips – see Gershom’s blog reports here, here and here) or the ex-soldiers of Shovrim Shtikah, but people who go home to their wives and children after keeping the peace (or their version thereof) on the streets of occupied Hebron.
At the next station to which I was brought, in Givat Ha’avot adjacent to Kiryat Arba, one of the Yasam policemen turned to have been an alumnus of the same paratrooper brigade as one of my sons. Another offered me one of the bananas he had brought back from lunch. Although they had seen both leftists and people with kippot brought in for “disturbing the peace,” they had evidently never seen someone who belonged to both categories, and this was a bit of a treat. While we were chatting amiably, some of the officers at that station – to which I had been brought in order to see a plain-clothes “interrogator” – asked me if I had ever heard of Lombroso. Since one of my academic fields is the history of Italian Jewry I happened to know that Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909) was a pioneer criminologist, but I knew little about his theories. It was somewhat disconcerting to learn that his theory linking cranial size with criminality was being taught to Israeli policemen a full 100 years after his death.
As chance would have it, a big-headed though small-minded young settler had been sitting next to me at the same station, also waiting to be interrogated. Although the policemen had by then opened up to me and we had discussed, among other things, what car I drove (they grossly overestimated its size), the settler refused even to reveal which high school he had attended. And when one of his similarly clad neighbors passed by on his way out and offered me a cigarette, the big-headed guy said: “Don’t give him one, he’s a leftist.”
The “interrogator” turned out to be a friendly fellow of Yemenite background who was amused that I had made some corrections in his Hebrew after first demanding to be interrogated in English. He also smiled when I pointed out that the sign on the wall, informing the person being questioned of his right to have an interpreter who spoke his native language, was in Hebrew only. While we were speaking the phone rang, and when Amittai (his real name) handed it to me I heard the voice of Lea Zemel, the Israeli human rights lawyer, on the phone. She had been contacted by a friend in Jerusalem who had heard of my arrest. The same support network saw to it that I was later picked up by car at the police station and brought back to Jerusalem, since the Shovrim Shtikah bus had already left.
Amittai then typed away while I dictated my lengthy response to the charges against me. I concluded my remarks by expressing the hollow hope, which he dutifully typed, that Arabs who were brought in for questioning received the same polite treatment that I received. The officer who read my statement released me on a surety bond which prohibits my return to Hebron for seven days on the grounds of “danger to the safety of person/public/state.” A small price to pay for an illuminating experience.