A Common Divide

by Anya Van Wagtendonk

Student tours of sites holy to both Jews and Muslims impact tensions in a partitioned Hebron.

Each year, thousands of Israeli schoolchildren are handed bagged lunches, packed into school buses, and sent on field trips around the country. They recall biblical stories at the edge of the Red Sea, study ancient history at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and learn about the formation of the State of Israel at Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall. These trips are meant to unite students over their national heritage, like a visit to Washington D.C. for American students. But in a country whose heritage includes territorial disputes, a newly proposed program to finance trips to holy sites in Israeli-occupied Hebron has left some wondering whether a deeper political agenda is at play.

Hebron is one of four cities holy to both Judaism and Islam, and each faith reveres the city for one reason: the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is believed to be the burial place of their common ancestor Abraham. Today, the site is both a synagogue and mosque, the only such shared house of worship in the world. But rather than signifying their shared heritage, Hebron has instead become a symbol of the historical divide between Jews and Muslims. The city is split between Palestinian and Israeli governance. Jews recall the 1929 massacre and expulsion of the city’s Jewish population, while Arabs recall the 1994 slaughter of unarmed Muslim worshippers. And a Jewish settlement in the center of the Old City, sprung up in the wake of the 1967 War, invites some of the strongest sentiments on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

No wonder this ancient city has withered in recent years. Although Israelis can easily access the historic Old City by bus or car, few find reason to do so. The once-bustling downtown area is largely deserted. Hundreds of homes and shops stand vacant, their boarded windows littered with anti-Arab graffiti. The shuk, or marketplace, was permanently shuttered in 2001 when Israeli soldiers found a teddy bear containing an explosive device outside its gates. Down the center of the main street runs a concrete barrier separating Jews from Muslims.

The Cave of the Patriarchs is one of many sites holy to both Muslims and Jews in Hebron. (Courtesy wikiCommons)

The Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC) seeks to revitalize the ailing city and welcomes any visitor. “Hebron is a tourist area without tourists,” said Walid Abu Alhalaweh, HRC’s public relations director. “When more people start to come and visit the city… it will develop the commercial life, which is very needed.”

Israel’s new plan to fund field trips into Hebron for elementary school students, proposed by Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar, aims to emphasize the historical, cultural, and emotional importance of the Tomb of the Patriarchs to Jewish visitors. “Most Israelis consider [the Tomb of the Patriarchs] a Jewish heritage site,” said Eddie Fraiman, an advisor to Knesset member Yossi Peled.

The concern, then, for Alhalaweh and his colleagues, is that these field trips will focus so exclusively on the area’s Jewish heritage that its young visitors will leave without considering the lives of the thousands of Palestinians who also live, work, and pray in the Old City.

Others fear that these field trips will bolster sentiments sympathetic to the city’s controversial Jewish settlement. “The [Israeli] government is now bringing students and children… to build the settlements,” said Arafat Abu Ras, who works in the Palestinian Authority’s office of public affairs. Every new emotional connection built between a young Israeli student and this land, Abu Ras maintained, strengthens the roots of a community—one which many blame not only for Hebron’s economic stagnancy, but also for its human rights abuses.

“Soldiers in Hebron often have to work just as hard at keeping the Jews away from the Muslims as keeping the terrorists away from the Israelis,” said one former Israeli soldier, who wished to remain anonymous. Israeli human rights organizations, such as B’Tselem, report frequent instances of settlers abusing or harassing Arabs.

Salah Abu Laban, a freelance journalist and blogger from Bethlehem, believed the field trips will also increase security measures around the city. “We [already] must wait for hours at the checkpoints,” said Abu Ras.

But that security must be in place because of Hebron’s unique structure, argued the anonymous Israeli soldier. “Hebron is the only place in the West Bank that has Jews and Arabs live across the street from one another. Every other town or village is either Jewish or Arab. It’s the reason for more security [in Hebron] close proximity means danger.”

At the crux of the debate, and the city itself, is the Tomb of the Patriarchs, whose walls and monuments were built around the caves believed to hold the remains of Abraham and his family. Passed between Christian, Muslim, and Jewish hands for centuries, the tomb was a mosque for 700 years, off-limits to all non-Muslim visitors. After falling under Israeli control in 1967, the building was opened to Jewish visitors for their High Holy Days.

The controversy surrounding the building’s new structure was enormous, culminating in the infamous 1994 massacre, when a fundamentalist named Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque and opened fire on Muslim worshippers as they prayed. Twenty-nine were slaughtered; the resulting chaos led to the tomb’s closure for months. When it reopened, heavy security separated the mosque and synagogue.

Today, worshippers from one religion cannot enter the other’s section, and the building dedicated to two people’s common link is unparalleled in its tension. Elisheva Goldberg, an American college student who has visited the tomb on multiple occasions, spoke of this divide: “You can’t talk to [those across the barrier] or interact with them, but they’re there, and you know that.”

Goldberg also pointed out the effect that the message of the field trips and the tour guide’s agenda, rather than the mere fact of the field trips’ occurrences, will have on the debate. When Goldberg visited the tomb on a tour organized by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli human rights group that collects soldiers’ testimonies about the Palestinian territories, the tour guide argued that Israel’s presence in Hebron strained military resources. “Breaking the Silence shows what it means to militarily occupy a place,” she said. “[It left the impression that] the settlers shouldn’t be there because it burdens the army.”

By contrast, when Goldberg took a tour sponsored by “Hebron Tours,” a settler organization, the guides discussed the metaphysical importance of the land and Jews’ biblical claim to the tomb. They emphasized the 1929 massacre of Hebron’s Jewish population and argued that the Goldstein massacre had been preempting a terrorist plot.

So when Israeli students are bused to the tomb, the choice of who leads them around the ancient building will be crucial to their experience. But extricating the political from the spiritual and historical is not an easy task: If the Sa’ar field trips only describe the biblical history of the tomb, omitting the problems of military occupation and the Palestinian perspective will appear political. But including these topics also invites the possibility of a narrative that is biased toward one side or the other.

Dan Jacobson, a father of school-aged children living in the Gush Etzion settlement outside Jerusalem, believes students will be able to study the tomb’s history while saving the political discussion for the classroom. When his children completed their studies of Genesis in school, they held a celebration in Hebron, where much of the book took place. “The goals [of those celebrations] were not political,” he pointed out, “just religious and cultural.”

“In Israel, 7-year-old kids walk around in school discussing political issues,” he said. “Things strike very close to home. But there’s a way for people… to be balanced and nuanced in their thinking, rather than dogmatic.”

“The politics need to be discussed and will be discussed,” he added, but that discussion can take place elsewhere. “A person who politically thinks that the settlements are a bad idea… but nevertheless understands that Hebron is a critical part of Jewish history can say, ‘Tomorrow we are going on a trip that means a lot to us and our heritage. Yesterday we discussed the politics, but tomorrow we are studying the culture and religion,’” he said.

Despite the controversy surrounding the field trips, the program will likely commence this autumn. One hopes that, where the purview of the tours focuses on Jewish religion and history, the trips will invite considered and nuanced discussion of the area’s tenuous political landscape.

A long wall divides the tomb’s synagogue from its mosque. Windows pepper these walls, allowing worshippers on one side to see into the other. One Jewish visitor recalled the first time she peered through a window and happened to catch the eye of a Palestinian woman. The woman waved. She waved back.

Anya van Wagtendonk ’12 is an English major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at anya.vanwagtendonk@yale.edu.