Journey to Hebron: Nightmares and Hope

Yehiel and I met Elliott at the appliance repairman’s shed on a side street in South Jerusalem.

Elliott Horowitz, a historian at Bar-Ilan University, had already paid for the almost-new washing machine, with cash that friends have pledged to repay. We wrestled the heavy white hunk of metal into the back of Yehiel’s undersized station wagon, and set off – three guys with skullcaps and graying beards driving to Hebron with a washing machine for a Palestinian stonecutter.

It was Elliott’s idea. Nearly two weeks ago, he read an article by Gideon Levy, describing an incident in Hebron. The short version is that Ghassan Burqan, a stonecutter living in the Israeli-controlled side of Hebron, saved for months and bought a washing machine. Since he’s not allowed to drive a car to his home – Palestinian vehicles are banned on that stretch of street – he parked nearby and carried it on his head. With him were his wife and five kids and his brother, who has been psychologically “impaired” since an attempt to study in the U.S. ended in culture shock. Border Police – the paramilitary cops responsible for keeping order in the occupied town – stopped him and asked to see what was in the box. His brother got upset; men in uniform poured into the area; Ghassan ended up in jail, badly bloodied and accused of trying to steal a gun from the Border Police. The extremely unusual part is that a military court, and then an appeals court, ordered him released on bail. A Palestinian accused of attacking security forces normally doesn’t get bail. The judges didn’t like the prosecution case at all.

But the washing machine had disappeared.

Usually when you read something like this, Elliott said afterward, all you can do is get depressed. But this time the washing machine was missing. He was thinking of that a few days afterward, in the crowded funeral hall in Givat Shaul, listening to eulogies for Gerald Cromer.

Gerald, among other things, was Elliott’s faculty colleague, a criminologist at Bar-Ilan, an Orthodox peace activist who spent his career seeking to understand the secret mechanics of violence and extremism. He was also a founder of Kehillat Yedidya, the progressive Orthodox synagogue to which Yehiel and I belong, and an activist in more efforts for human decency than I will try to list here. At age 63, he was diagnosed with cancer and died within a few weeks.

Let’s buy a washing machine in Gerald’s memory, Elliott suggested to me. It seemed like a good way to honor him, because if Gerald were around he would have done it himself. I sent out an email to several dozen friends from Kehillat Yedidya, offering them the chance to contribute, and quickly ran into a problem unusual among fundraisers: Too many people wanted to give. I had to close the list. Yehiel, who works for Rabbis for Human Rights, offered to drive the washing machine down.

So we found ourselves on the road to Hebron, driving past the checkpoints, and the orchards and vineyards on the ancient terraces carved in the green hills, and the yellow stone-faced apartment buildings of the settlements, packed together like protesters at an immense demonstration against a reasonable future. At the checkpoints, the soldiers surely assumed we were three settlers. We did not stop to disabuse them of their stereotypes and explain why we had a washing machine in back.

We came in via Kiryat Arba, the settler town crowded up against Hebron. Kiryat Arba is a quietly nightmarish place, an inside-out place. Elliott, another calm man who has carefully documented and footnoted the history of violence, had his camera, and we stopped at the park dedicated to Meir Kahane, described in an inscription as one who loved Jews, with no mention of his volcanic hatred of Arabs. Inside the park is the grave of Baruch Goldstein, physician and mass murderer, who gunned down 29 Palestinians as they recited Ramadan prayers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs-Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994. The gravestone describes him as having “clean hands and a pure heart.” Kiryat Arba is a place where light has been transmogrified to darkness, darkness to light, where faith in He who created all in His image has been reversed, rendered into its photo negative.

Musa and Ghassan met us in front of the Tomb-Mosque. He had to walk; the road is closed to Palestinian cars. That segment of Hebron is held by Israel for the safety of the small community of settlers within the city – people known among other settlers for their extremism. On top of the Palestinian store across the street from the tomb is a square concrete army emplacement with narrow slits at the top. On the lawn near the Tomb stands a Border Police emplacement. On walls and metal shutters of closed Palestinian shops, settlers have scrawled “Death to Arabs” in Hebrew.

Musa and Ghassan crowded into the back seat with me, not easy because Ghassan is a big man and also because piled between the seats, we had bags of hametz – bread, flour, noodles, the leavened food a Jew removes from his house for Pesah – that we’d brought to give Ghassan. The streets were empty. We drove to his house. He pointed out the checkpoint a couple of hundred meters away where he’d been stopped by the Border Police. As we got to Ghassan’s building a jeep pulled up, and a Border Policeman asked us what we were doing here. “We’re on a family visit,” Yehiel said.

“A family visit?” the man in the dark green uniform said. He clearly could not put this together. Yehiel told him we had come to give away our hametz. This made even less sense. The jeep stopped at the end of the street so the men inside could watch us while we unloaded the washing machine and the bags of food. I wonder what they are thinking this evening, and whether they told of this weird event when they returned to their base.

We went up to the small apartment where Ghassan lives with his wife and 5 kids. On the living room wall is painted a large simple image representing Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Ghassan’s two and a half year old daughter came in and bashfully greeted each of us by taking a hand in hers, kissing it, and touching it with her forehead. Hebron, explained Musa, is a very traditional town.

Ghassan brought out cold drinks and apples and cucumbers. He spoke to us with Musa translating. Musa told us that several years ago, after four settlers were murdered in a terror attack outside Hebron, settlers rampaged in the town, and Musa pointed to a window with a crack in the glass. It had been hit with a stone hurled from the street.

Elliott explained that we had brought the machine in memory of our friend, and that we came because we were religious – not despite being religious – because this is what we believe Judaism requires. He looked a bit uncomfortable. It shouldn’t be necessary to explain this. But in Hebron madness is presumed, and sanity must be explained.

Yehiel, Elliott, Ghassan and Ghassan\'s daughter

Yehiel, Elliot, Ghassan and Ghassan’s daughter

Ghassan brought out his legal papers, which I photographed with Elliott’s camera. There was a transcript from a hearing where the military prosecution asked to have him held till the end of legal proceedings. Ghassan, lacking money for a lawyer, represented himself. The judge noted that a charge of attacking soldiers is normally reason to keep a suspect locked up. He also noted that the police had failed to bring testimony from any witnesses, and that the police themselves only claimed that Ghassan had slapped a Border Policeman’s arm, and that it was quite possible that Ghassan was in fact only defending his brother. The judge ordered him released, and the prosecution appealed. The appeals judge not only upheld the lower court’s decision, but ordered that the transcripts of the hearings be sent to the Department for Investigating Police.

I’ll note that these hearings were not trials; the judges couldn’t rule on guilt or innocence. But military courts are not normally friendly places for a Palestinian without a lawyer. The implication of those transcripts is that the military judges believed that the proper suspects in this case wore uniforms.

I’m not claiming that bringing one washing machine will bring peace, just as I wouldn’t claim that a donation to charity will end poverty. But as Rabbi Tarfon said, “You are not expected to finish the task, and you are not free to refrain from it.” I’m sure Gerald would be glad we brought the machine to Ghassan, and I’m grateful for friends who helped.

We traded phone numbers, and suggested ways that Ghassan could get a lawyer, and said goodbye. And the we drove through the terraced hills back to South Jerusalem.

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25 thoughts on “Journey to Hebron: Nightmares and Hope”

  1. kol hakavod. thanks for doing this, and thanks for sharing the story. if there are other opportunities to take similar “direct actions” and to support them financially, do spread the word. judging from my own reaction, i believe there is an untapped reservoir of good will waiting to be tapped.

  2. This morning I was writing to a friend who said she often feels guilty for her good fortune. I said I thought guilt was a normal response to the realization that we live in a massively unjust society, and that most of the injustices are ones we are close to powerless to end. Sometimes one could do something, but often we sit paralyzed by guilt and don’t act.

    I think I’m going to send this around to people just to have an example of something a person can do–a personal good deed that can be like a lever. Not that it could bring down an unjust system, but that it can unjam something in individuals, more than one, and help us keep going.

  3. Great story. Yes, one washing machine won’t change the world, but one has to start with something. What you wrote reminded me of David Shulman’s great book “Dark Hope” and the activities of Taayush. Small, basic good deeds. We need much, much more of them to make any big political solution not only viable but even credible.
    I’ll be visiting this blog often 🙂
    Hag sameakh.

  4. Gershom, that was a beautiful thing you, Elliot, and Yehiel, did in Gerald’s memory. May I suggest that you let some of the activists of the younger generation who are working in the Hevron area (e.g., Bne Avraham (Yehuda Shaul’s Hagit Ofran, etc.)know about this.


  5. Yasher koach! That is the best way I have yet heard of dealing with chametz.

    As for the washing machine: justice requires not just punishment of offenders (halevai), but restitution. Since neither the police nor the state will replace that washing machine, it is especially important that Jews do it.

    Is it possible to think of more systematic ways that Jews (both in Israel and in galut) can contribute to projects of restitution? And because I can’t help but think prospectively, if such projects can work, then maybe a next step could be contemplated (I’m not saying planned, yet, just contemplated): what about a collective restitution project for Palestinians who were driven from their homes in 1948-50? Perhaps if something could be done about that, we could then raise the issue of compensation for Jews driven from the Islamic world during or just after the war.

  6. I think that one washing machine can, and did, change the world. Every time we do what is right with love, the world changes. Thank you for doing this.

  7. Andrew, the Magnes Zionist blog will have a post soon, called “Baka Lefties”, which will suggest something different.

    Basically, my suggestion is that an informal voluntary network be set up that will help locate, quietly and privately, the Palestinian owners of the properties in which members of the group live. Full compensation is a national issue, but the recognition that many of us are living in houses, or on land, that belonged to others and who were never compensated for it is morally troubling. All sorts of rationalizations or justifications don’t convince me. The fact that Jews were kicked out of their homes elsehwere is entirely irrelevant.

    What would this group do once the original owners, or their heirs, are found? I think that would depend on each individual member and each case. But I have heard of at least one case of an Palestinian owner coming to some sort of understanding with the current Jewish inhabitant. Even the recognition that compensation is owed, or that an injustice was done, would be a first step.

    If anybody has heard of a similar initiative, I would like to know.

  8. Jerry: Good luck in finding Jews who are willing to do what you want. I once read about a big Leftist activist who strongly opposed the Jews of Judea/Samaria. When it was pointed out that the Arabs who owned the land his Leftist Kibbutz was sitting on were languishing in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and they never sold their land to the Kibbutz, and that it was unclear why he was morally superior to the YESHA Jews, he grew indignant….he answered “what’s the comparison, they are thieves whereas we built our kibbutz in the name of soclialism and international brotherhood.” I doubt the Arabs in their refugee camp were comforted by his fine distinction.

  9. This is simple human decency. How sad that it is so unusual that it stands out so much in this place and these times.

  10. This story reminds me of an experience I had while living in Jerusalem. I had hired a Palestinian man named Ibrahim to move my belongings to a new apartment. I had bought a used oven, but I didn’t have the proper connection to the gas line, and Ibrahim offered to get one for me. Since I didn’t have a refrigerator, I asked if he knew where I could buy one, and he said he would think about it. A few hours later, he arrived back at my apartment with the gas pipe, and to my surprise brought not only a new refrigerator, but also gifts of food and several members of his own family. We had the loveliest time visiting with one another, and it is possibly my most cherished memory of living in Israel.

  11. Yasher koach!
    You did a good deed.
    Too bad you had to pollute the story by revealing your volcanic hatred of Meir Kahane.

  12. How you find real owner of property that was crucified by Roman or killed by this arab farther?
    History makes it’s own justice. May be, man who lives on property now is a distant successor of a legal owner. At least if it is just a Jew he has more rights to own subject property than a family of pogromtchiks who trryed to kill all jewish population in Palestine not as far as in 1948.
    I know, you’re antiJews, so you will never publish reasonable defence for jews coming home.

  13. I was shocked to learn of Gerald’s death — I’d known him for over 30 years, but was not in touch lately; the gift of washing machine and the blog are meaningful and appropriate ways to honor Gerald’s life and faith — Yasher Koach, Gershon, Yehiel, Elliot and Kehillat Yedidya

  14. Arkady, it’s Zechariah who suggests we not go up to the Land by might or by power–surely not an anti-Jewish sentiment? And assuming we except the War of Independence as something more or less imposed on Jews by the Arab League, there’s still a long Jewish tradition to illuminate the ethics of how Israel should treat Palestinians: we too were strangers in Egypt, as we were just reminded at Pesach. I agree that Israel (in particular the part of it that we can hope to hold without permanently destabilizing the region) is our Land–but we therefore have extraordinary responsibilities as well as rights. As a Jew who lives in a settler society (Canada), I also own land that used to ‘belong’ to someone else. I have made sure I do not buy land to which title is disputed by aboriginal groups, but only land ceded to the Crown by peaceful treaties. We can discuss how those treaties were negotiated, but a basic ethical position with regard to land and its ownership is surely not anti-Jewish either.

  15. Nice gift. But remember that all that police presence is in reaction to Jewish people being murdered by Arabs of this same community, as “after four settlers were murdered in a terror attack outside Hebron” is not a one-time thing, unfortunately. If Arabs could see Hebron as a legitimate place for Jews and Arabs to live in peace, and not as a reason to kill Jews, then none of this would be happening.

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