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Commonweal: September 24, 1999

The Last Word: The Promised Land

by Jake Halpern

Our bus has inch-thick, tinted, bullet-proof windows, which make our journey through the West Bank both quiet and dim. We take a tunnel beneath the Palestinian-controlled city of Bethlehem to avoid stone throwers or other trouble, and stop briefly in the walled-in Jewish enclave of Kiryat Arba. Pulling into the old town square in Hebron, I sense that we have arrived at the front line.

I have caught the ride to Hebron on a tour bus with an entourage of American Orthodox Jews who are making a religious pilgrimage. Our guide is David Wilder, a fortyish former American who is the spokesman for the embattled Jewish community in Hebron. I am here to interview Wilder, but first we embark on a walking tour of Hebron's scattered Jewish neighborhoods. Being a secular Jew, I stick to the back of the tour, unsure whether I am comfortable or even welcome.

The streets of Hebron have an eerie and ubiquitous tension about them, as if at any moment trouble might erupt. The place is infused with a strange mix of religious fundamentalism and Wild West gunslinging. There are men in white turbans-members of the Muslim group, Hamas- standing poised on street corners, religious Jews walking past, holsters and pistols on their belts, nineteen-year-old Israeli soldiers operating roadblocks, and masses of seemingly unperturbed Palestinians busy shopping at a market protected by a stone-proof mesh canopy.

The highlight of our tour-and the centerpiece of Hebron -is the enormous shrine that sits above the town's square. The shrine was built above the "Cave of Machpelah" where Abraham the Patriarch is buried. Over the last thousand years it has served as a temple, a mosque, a church, and a monastery. Today most of the tensions in Hebron revolve around this tomb.

Abraham is revered as the forefather of both the Jewish and the Muslim peoples, and both hold his tomb sacred. Over the centuries there has been an ongoing feud over who should control the tomb and the shrine that sits above it. Currently the shrine is divided evenly into a synagogue and a mosque. This partition was installed in 1994, after an Israeli named Baruch Goldstein, dressed in his military uniform, entered the mosque and opened fire on Muslims at prayer, killing twenty-nine.

When I visit the Jewish half of the shrine, I am drawn into one of its inner chambers by the sound of crying and howling. After making my way through the second metal detector, I enter a small room where I see a man praying before an open Torah in an emotional outpouring, spitting and trembling. I stand here at the very epicenter of Hebron's intensity, gaping at this man with another tour member, a teen-ager. Though the teen-ager is Orthodox himself, he seems more shocked than I am, and when we leave the tomb he exclaims, "I never knew Jews prayed like that."

On the street outside the tomb, as I wait for the other members of the tour to finish their prayers, I talk with our other guide, a woman who lives in Jerusalem but likes to come to Hebron on weekends. She introduces herself as "Rose," a Canadian from Montreal, but quickly insists that I call her by her Hebrew name, "Haiya." Upon discovering that I am Jewish, she reveals that the turmoil in Hebron is really the result of Jews not being observant enough. "God is punishing us," she tells me. When I ask her what the best-case scenario for the future is, she answers, "the coming of the Messiah," and then laughs.

David Wilder, on the other hand, strikes me as surprisingly practical. A thin, soft-spoken man with a graying beard, he looks thoroughly tired. "There are a hundred thousand Arabs here in Hebron, and just five hundred Jews," he tells me, and then pauses, as if this were all that need be said. He reiterates that the situation in Hebron is messy, but that the Jews of Hebron are committed to peaceful coexistence with the Arab population. "We want peace, but we're not leaving," he says. "We're here to stay."

This pledge spells out the dilemma most clearly to me when I sit in the office of Mustafa Natshe, the mayor of Palestinian Hebron. Natshe, a well dressed man with a few combed-back white hairs, tells me that there will never be peace in Hebron until the Jewish settlers leave. What's worse, according to him, is that most of the settlers are immigrants from the United States. In fact, I have not been in Hebron long before I meet my first American settler, Sarah Niskin. A native of Florida, she graduated from high school two years ago and now lives in Hebron. She is quite "lucky" to be here, she says, because space is so scarce. Wilder himself moved to Hebron only this year (from Kiryat Arba) when a rabbi was murdered and one of the community's few apartments opened up. "They won't let us build," Wilder tells me. By "they," he means the Israeli government.

As our tour group-flanked by Israeli soldiers and receiving curious looks from Palestinians and settlers alike-walks along a trash-littered street, the tomb of Abraham again comes into view. I have not noticed, but I am walking next to Haiya. "I find it so refreshing to come here," she says.