The story unteller of Jerusalem

In early September a couple of years ago, I spent the night in Jerusalem with a friend who was visiting Israel for the first time. It was the same night on which I experienced the haunting, liminal ceremony of sleeping on a roof in the Old City and being woken at 4.30am by the Fajr adhan from the al-Aqsa mosque. It was also the night that my friend and I met Fayek, upon whom we stumbled as he was curating the one open shop amid the Old City’s shuttered facades. Appearing at first as a lone, featureless figure sitting on a low stool, Fayek’s voice drifted out to greet us in the gloom. We approached, and then followed him down into the ‘Holy Cave’, as he had named his store, neither of us aware of the tales he was carrying inside his chest. After brief introductions the three of us sat down and Fayek began to talk; as the night wore on, his stories became more and more fantastical, unfeasible, desperate, crossing continents, decades, eras. From his monochrome introduction as a shadow backlit by the solitary light of his shop, Fayek – surrounded by a lifetime’s-worth of collected ephemera – transformed into a vivid mouthpiece of magical realism, unable to stop the tales tripping out of him, like an organ grinder who has lost control of the music they are playing. Many hours later, as my friend and I walked back to our hostel through streets submerged in the navel of the night, I asked her if she thought that any of the stories were true. “No, of course not,” she replied. “But that’s not the point…”

Neither of us knew at the time that we had been in the company of a dying man. A year later, almost to the day, I was on a bus from San Francisco to Los Angeles when my friend messaged me to tell me that Fayek had died. The sense of disorientation was acute: I was in the process of escaping westwards when invisible reins suddenly yanked me back to the East. I began to see Fayek’s storytelling in a different light, then – not as pure performance, but rather as necessarily overflowing with vitality and imagination in order to keep the illusion of life going, to keep death at bay. I thought of Scheherazade, extending her life stitch by stitch with every story that she wove. A distant echo of Israel and Palestine and their truths – that I was searching for and running away from – sounded in my mind, then drifted away again. As time passed following the news of his death, Fayek became a memory and a regret; a chapter that closed as abruptly as it had begun.

Half a year later I unexpectedly found myself back in Israel long-term, my own dislocation reversed (not knowing what roots feel like, they took me by surprise). As my soul seeped further into the soil here, while killings spiked, war loomed and incitement lit our tinderbox society, my mind turned again to stories, but stories of this land: those I told myself, those I heard and believed and over time dismissed. And I began to think of Israel, locked in the blackest night, spinning tales over and over again in order to distract from the destruction it uses to forge ahead and that follows in its wake. I thought about the opening lines of ‘there was no other way to found the country’, of ‘we did what had to be done’, of ‘all will be well once we leave the territories’. These tales are told against a backdrop of forests, parks, tunnels and new towns, whose cries of redemption mask the foundations atop and beneath them, and which have turned this country into a giant palimpsest.

And as Israel paves its own road with its own stories, it has stolen the stories of others. “[Colonialism is] a war that captures dreams and re-dreams them,” wrote Arundhati Roy, and so we have captured the dreams of Palestinians. In this context, dreams are potential portraits of the future, and in razing their past and imprisoning their present, Israel is withholding a future from the Palestinians. What dreams can one have, when the reality that they could be converted into is locked away, out of sight and out of reach? The dreams of Palestinians have been subordinated to our dreams; their story has made way for our story; our developing chronology has truncated theirs. With the altneu combination of settler-colonialism and nationalism – diseases of the old world and new world, respectively – Israel’s stories carry with them the weight of history and the drive of progress. Yet the longer these stories persist, the more they decompose before our eyes and the eyes of the world, like an ancient book that crumbles in your hands as you hold it, pieces of the pages weeping onto your chest as you read. For it is not only the Palestinian story that is being obliterated by the expansionist fairytales of the Israeli government and its right-wing supporters; pre-1948 Jewish history, too, is being distended and mutated. In the customary formula for the creation of nationalist myth and identity, the facts of Jewish history are being continually submitted to the abuse of a Procrustean bed. And yet the stories thrive, in the mistaken belief that they are banishing death from our door and strengthening our spirit.

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I can no longer remember the particulars of Fayek’s stories. But I remember their tone, their reach and scope, their atmosphere, their flavour. I remember that time seemed to stop as he was speaking, and then slowly move backwards as the night crossed its halfway point, finally plunging me into a millennial trance at the sound of the dawn adhan that rolled around Jerusalem’s darkened valleys. I remember that compression of time lasting until I arrived back in Tel Aviv the following evening, at which point it sprung back out like an accordion, pulling my perceptions open with it. I’m not sure what it was in Fayek’s words that set off such a chain reaction in me, but more than two years later I am able to pinpoint that as one of the key moments when the stories of this land in which I had placed such faith and emotional trust started to unravel. It was an unexpected and (perhaps) unintentional gift, this exogenous introspection, which though it led to many agonising and disorientating months of self-examination, brought me far more strength and community than can be expressed in words.

Fayek, dear, I hope you are resting in peace. My debt to you is ongoing.

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Jerusalem: Against the dying of the light

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“Do not go gently into that good night.”

I am sitting in an archway in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, taking a break from guiding a friend who is visiting from the UK. He is smoking a cigarette, and I am photographing the street sign across from us. We are on Misgav Ladakh Street, and as with all street signs in the Old City, the name is written in Hebrew, Arabic and English. On this sign, however, the Arabic has been completely covered by two identical stickers featuring a slogan in Hebrew, which translates roughly as “The lives of our soldiers come before the lives of enemies.” On a doorway across from the sign, next to us, the same stickers have been used to spell out – also in Hebrew – “The Lord is King.” The phrase about soldiers’ lives became popular during the summer, when the country shrouded itself in brute nationalism during Israel’s latest attempt to cripple the Gaza Strip. This message, and many others like it, appeared on posters, banners and bumper stickers throughout the country. What surfaced on social media was even less palatable.

The stickers, and their obscuring of the Arabic lettering on the street sign, are a most violent revision by the simplest means. They are a perfect distillation of how oppression against Palestinians works in this country: cover, conceal, remove, rub out. Build a house, knock down a house, plant a tree, place a wall, place a sticker. Aside from the most recent cycle of ruination in Gaza, nowhere is this methodology currently more evident than in Jerusalem. The city – particularly the East – is under a series of slow-burning sieges that are gradually reaching the end of their fuse: official government settlement plans; unofficial settler takeovers of Palestinian property; the entire ethos of Elad, Ateret Cohanim, the Temple Mount movement and their ilk; street-level thuggery perpetrated by fascist groups such as Lehava; house demolitions; racist vandalism; night-time round-ups and arrests, including of children. Two attacks on or near the Jerusalem light rail, which left four dead, and the attempted assassination of Yehuda Glick – a leading figure in the Temple Mount movement – by, respectively, Abdel Rahman al-Shaloudi, Ibrahim al-Akri and (suspected) Muataz Hejazi resulted in the killing of all three men by Israeli security forces, sparking demonstrations in East Jerusalem. The city’s totemic position as the final resting place of Jewish history is cloaking it in an ever-thickening smog, under which the streets are seething: the soundscape of the city is now pockmarked with helicopters and gunfire; Israeli security forces are amassed at every corner; and a tautness hangs in the air, clinging to one as if walking through cobwebs. Jerusalem is gradually being blinded by its own unreachable significance, and it has the capacity to blind the rest of the country, too.

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“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Jerusalem has grown on me like a second skin. There is something about the city that opens and closes me; I am not always consciously aware of it, but it is in the soles of my feet when I walk, in my mouth when I speak, and behind my eyes when I think. When something snags at this new layer to draw my attention to it once more, I find myself able to focus on little else. My heart is torn and mended each time I am there, and often when I am observing from afar. All the conflict and contradictions Jerusalem contains provide the epitome of an earlier musing I had about living in this land: that being here is like walking on broken glass in a cave of wonders.

So it is on this afternoon under an archway in the Jewish Quarter that I gaze on a crude, obstructive slogan and feel a dark cloud settle over the extraordinary light of this city. As I am busy digesting this familiar crushing sensation, a small group of people appears next to the street sign. My friend and I hear the tour guide translate the Hebrew slogan into English, explain how racist it is, and then finish with the words: “As a Jew, I find this deeply offensive.” Then he peels off both stickers and the Arabic is visible again; a most profound reparation by the simplest means. A crack of light, and my heart hurts less.

Later, my friend and I are making our way back down from the roofs of the Christian Quarter, after bathing in the cross-weave of multiple calls to prayer from the minarets that encircle us. The sun has set, but there is still enough light to be able to see a sticker on an electricity box that we walk past on St Mark’s Lane. It reads, in Hebrew and Arabic (addressed to a man): “Don’t even think about going with a Jewish woman!” It is a slogan of the above-mentioned fascist anti-miscegenation group Lehava, which actively works to prevent and disrupt intermarriage between Arabs and Jews – specifically Arab men and Jewish women. We have already seen this sticker countless times during our day in Jerusalem; on this occasion, however, someone has already tried to tear it off. I think about the tour guide from earlier, and take courage once again from how the smallest act of decency from an enlightened individual can pierce the fog. Jerusalem seems to be paralysed under endless black skies, but there may just be enough humanity and history in the city to make its heart beat again.

The light here is ancient, and it will not go gently into the night.

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Quotations taken from “Do not go gently into that good night” by Dylan Thomas

The 76-year weekend (Palestine to Vienna)

In the early afternoon of 15th May 2014 I am in a car with two companions, driving through the West Bank, occupied Palestine. It is Nakba Day and we are on our way to Beituniya, a Palestinian town next to Ofer Prison, in order to attend one of several demonstrations being held in memory of the ethnic cleansing of 1948. As we drive through those hills and mounds that always remind me of piles of smashed terracotta, the occasional cloud of smoke can be seen rising up in the distance. Pink Floyd looms out of the car’s speakers. An army jeep drives past us; I turn round to watch it disappear, and I have a sense of driving through a tunnel that has no return route. I am acutely aware of my Israeli nationality, and I feel as if I’m trespassing.

When we arrive in Beituniya, we – three Israelis – dislocate ourselves, shrugging off our nationality and slipping on another citizenship (real or imagined). We speak English, and let our outsiderness bring us inside. The scene is familiar: tear gas, smoke, flames, cracks and small explosions, running youths, running soldiers, kneeling soldiers, heard-but-not-seen soldiers, jeeps, cat-and-mouse, stones and bullets. Flags and helmets. Keffiyehs and guns. Palestine and Israel. And something less familiar, at least for me – a different-sounding crack, more of a pop. People scatter, and then gravitate back towards the soldiers. More popping, and scattering; demonstrators near the front of the protest beckon at something unseen, and an ambulance that has been idling behind me flies towards them. People continue walking back from the front line. The ambulance hurtles back past us, and people’s heads turn to follow it before looking again in the opposite direction. A young man, gas mask perched on the top of his head, and his t-shirt, hands and arms covered in blood, is walking in the middle of the road away from the soldiers. He is screaming and shouting, turning round every now and again and gesturing, before eventually collapsing against a wall in tears. A friend who was walking with him crouches alongside. People gather, paramedics run over. He is in shock; the blood is someone else’s. Out of the impenetrable wall of discussions in Arabic happening all around, I hear someone say in English that the Israeli army had shot live bullets, as a wound from a rubber bullet wouldn’t bleed so profusely. We drift back in the direction of the shooting, amid talk that the person who has been shot is young, and now in a very grave condition. Standing by, watching and listening, my blue ID card burning a hole in my bag, I suddenly understand Israel rather better than before: the extent of its hysterical paranoia, its red lines, its constant reliance on hatred for strength. This demonstration and the army’s response cry out that the fundamental founding reality of this country is one that Israelis are distantly aware of but cannot bear to face, like someone who has stepped on broken glass and dares not lift their foot to inspect the damage. We would rather kill than look.

But there is no time to reflect on this in Beituniya, because we are back in the car on the way to Jerusalem. We do not know at that time that a short while later a second Palestinian teenager will be shot dead. Our identity carousel spins again as we drive away: Muslim prayer beads swing from the rear-view mirror and Arabic music plays on the stereo. Eventually, after a traffic jam caused by road closures in Ramallah, we approach the entry back into Israel. The checkpoint is the site of another demonstration. We drive through the flames of burning tires and our adopted identities melt away too; the music is switched off, the beads tucked into a compartment under the stereo. We are Israelis again, with an appropriate story prepared for the soldiers at the checkpoint – we were visiting friends in a settlement. If you can’t beat them, join them (temporarily). In the shared taxi on the way back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, I read on my phone that a Palestinian teenager shot during the demonstration in Beituniya has died. I cannot stop my brain from drawing the undeniable line between what I saw and what I have just read. For the rest of the day, I’m not sure what I am, and not because I shuffled the deck so many times.

Eighteen hours later I am in the air, flying to Vienna for a memorial honouring members of my family who were killed in the Holocaust. I feel Jewish again, in a way that I don’t (or can’t) when I’m in Israel. I think to myself that identity is merely sleight of hand, or perhaps drag. Two days after, surrounded by my family from around the world, and other people’s families from around the world, I listen to the daughter of my great-grandmother’s brother describe to us all the last time she saw her father, before he was taken to a concentration camp in 1938. A survivor herself, she pays tribute to all those who were lost during the Holocaust, and tells us: “I want to say that their lives weren’t taken in vain, but they were. And today, the atrocities continue in other countries.”

We walk through Vienna’s streets under a grey sky, going from one house to another in the old Jewish district of Leopoldstadt in order to memorialise former residents who were taken and killed by the Nazis. It is raining, and we are on the other side of the solar system from Beituniya and its burning roads. The volume on the Nakba Day reel in my head dials down, and the cracks and explosions and tear gas fade away. Then a woman, speaking about a member of her family being remembered that day, ends her speech with “Am Yisrael Chai” (the people of Israel live), and a young man with a blood-stained shirt and a tear-stained face escapes from my memory and slips into my mind’s eye. Banquo in Leopoldstadt.

The carousel revolves again. In this seventy-six year weekend, I am standing in the street where a teenager is shot dead for remembering, killed in my name, and standing in the street where my family were rounded up and eventually killed for their name. A strange wind blows from one memory to another, one people to another, one history to another. They are two tragedies that dare not speak each other’s name, and they will forever be our shadows.

Their lives were taken in vain.

DYKE, GO LIVE IN GAZA

This directive was sent to me yesterday afternoon through Facebook, from a complete stranger. A little while later another message arrived, with an attached picture of the body of a murdered child, still lying on the floor of his bedroom –  the crime scene – with blood all around. A mezuzah is fixed to the doorframe in the foreground of the photo. The picture was accompanied by the sender’s suggestion that I am in favour of the killing of Jews.

I assume the two messages were sent by the same person, as although they had different names their profile pictures (of two men standing side by side, grinning) were exactly the same. I cannot say with absolute certainty what provoked these messages, as I immediately reported and blocked the sender(s). I am confident it is not connected to the articles I write, as I go by a different name on Facebook (for precisely the reason of trying to limit where and how much hatemail can come my way). Based on past experience, and the timing of the messages, I am fairly positive they arrived in response to my posting in public forums (regarding open positions at the company I work for) while having a profile picture which states ‘Not in My Name’ in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Given the current assault on Gaza, it is fairly obvious to what this slogan relates.

That’s it. No overt side-taking, no public declaration that I consider the Israeli army’s operation in Gaza to be a massacre, and my government to be in the process of committing war crimes (of a far more egregious nature than those of Hamas and Islamic Jihad), although I am taking the opportunity to state these opinions now. Simply a timid, almost platitudinous phrase. ‘Not in my name’ is the epitome of pulling punches; it is my feeble, small attempt to try and create some distance between myself and the thick smog of nationalism and uncontrollable racism blanketing this country. It is a hint at the fact that even as I am woken up in the morning by explosions in the sky above my home, and I check my phone with a pounding heart and a foggy head to confirm the rockets were intercepted, the muted flicker of relief is stamped out by shame and confused despair at the accompanying headlines of the latest heavy artillery rampage in Gaza. It is my subtle way of telling the world that living under regular rocket fire for two weeks has given me the fraction of comprehension needed in order to weep in vicarious terror while watching shelling in Shuja’iyah, and that this video scares me far more than sirens in my own city. ‘Not in my name’ is an acknowledgement that while I deplore what is taking place, I am nonetheless part of a society which is staggering around in a bloodshot-eyed war frenzy, screaming for death and revenge – and that I therefore bear some responsibility. It is an admission that as much as I wish it weren’t, this bloodshed is very much happening in my name.

In the Israel of today, such thoughts and stances are sedition, treason, heresy. To the rightwing here (very much in the majority) I am betraying my (read: our) country, people, history, heritage, religion, land. I am betraying the concept on which this country was founded, and on which it is gradually being torn apart: the united Jewish people, in their united homeland, forever and ever, amen. In this nation which eats, sleeps and breathes its past sufferings, it is our patriotic duty to place every new conflict in the continuous narrative of attempts to extinguish the Jewish people; it is the ethos of the State of Israel that those who live must re-live, mourn and struggle, memorialise and fight. In this mindset, any aggression is merited under the banner of self-defence and survival; to believe otherwise is to forget, and to forget is a crime (unless you are Palestinian, in which case to remember is a crime). We are prisoners to our past, and we have made an entire other nation prisoner to our past, too.

What holds true for the rest of the world holds true for Israel and Palestine: when people attack others for their beliefs or identity, they are not attacking individuals – they are attacking ideas. In any episode of political or ethnic violence, categorisation is a key component; the label replaces the individual’s name. It is an effective tactic. To define is to reduce, for what potential is left in the categorised? A name is more human, more familiar and more expansive than any label can ever be. It is something that everyone in the world has in common. We all have a name, and it is the beginning and end of ourselves, even as we too often forget that the same is true for every other human being. It is what makes naming the dead on ‘the other side’ in wartime such a powerful, transgressive act; it undermines our narrative and the fragile fortress of self-belief and moral righteousness we construct during times of conflict in order to justify the lives we take away and the sacrifices we make. It is why the Israel Broadcasting Authority banned an Israeli NGO’s radio advert listing the names of the children killed by the Israeli army in Gaza.

Our names, I believe, are our greatest hope. As Salman Rushdie has suggested, true freedom is the freedom to reject, and he is right: only with complete independence and security is it possible to cast off the definitions that form the boundaries we use to prop ourselves up. It is my profound hope that there will come a day in Israel and Palestine when enough mutual security will be felt in order to unshackle ourselves from our competing categorisations, because the labels that surround and define us – that everyone here is tripping over, choking on, blinded by – have become too burdensome to keep carrying around. For my part, I don’t really belong in Israel/Palestine; I’m not from here and will never understand what it is like to have been born and brought up here. But it is my home and where my heart and mind thrive, and that ambiguity is the source of my privilege here: being on the margins of society offers an easy escape from labels and boxes. All I really brought with me from the UK was my name, and it is therefore in that name that I refuse to step in line behind a massacre masquerading as an existential and moral crusade. It is in that name that I stand against the occupation of 1967, and the ethnic cleansing of 1948. And if in response to these statements one will call me a traitor, an extremist, a leftist, a dyke, a kappo, an anti-Semite, a self-hater – I will respond with my name. If I am called a Jew, a goy, a half-caste, a foreigner, an immigrant, an outsider – I will respond with my name. I have no need to be free of my name, for it is my whole person, and it encompasses all of what I am, of who I am, who I have been, and who I ever will be. And it is for that reason I say, again: not in my name. It may be a small, cowardly stand in the face of such violence, extremism and injustice, but it is a stand that no one else in the world can take.

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“He who believes his birthplace to be his homeland suffers. He who believes all places could be his homeland suffers less. And he who knows that no place can be his homeland is invincible.”

- Chrétien de Troyes

A ballroom in the Middle East

During my last few weeks in the UK before moving to Israel, a little under two and a half years ago, a vivid scene repeatedly played over in my head. I saw a ballroom, filled with waltzing couples, young, dressed in regular clothes but wearing masquerade masks. The ballroom looked as you would expect: wooden floors, plush furnishings, elaborate lampshades on the walls – except that two perpendicular walls and the ceiling were missing, and all that lay beyond were black space and stars. Still, the couples kept up their waltz, seemingly oblivious to – or ignoring – the fact that they were dancing at the edge of the world.

This vision presented itself frequently until I arrived in Israel, at which point it stopped. To this day I haven’t been able to fathom where it came from, but I thought then – as I still do – that it was a rather fantastical metaphor for life in Israel/Palestine, and its society (or societies) that remain perched on the edge, its inhabitants either ignoring or resisting the abyss around their feet and above their heads. Now, as rockets spill and words detonate, as shootings and beatings mount, as fissures gape open in Jerusalem and Gaza is stripped to its bones in a futile mission whose only certainty is that there will be blood, I find myself returning to that scene from two and a half years ago. In the black hole that opened following the murders of three Israeli teenagers and the torturing to death of one Palestinian teenager, boundaries and limits apparently disappeared, sucked in by rage and the desire for revenge. Incitement, mob attacks, civil unrest – all have burst far and wide in the past month, and now we have a grim, one-sided war unfolding before us, crushing the fragile introspection that had begun in the wake of the violent racism unleashed by the kidnappings and murders. The Gaza conflict provides the latest distraction to keep everyone occupied, either mentally or physically; Israel, at once exploding and boxed in, is exercising its power and avoiding exorcising its demons. In turn, the walls and ceilings around us are crumbling, not only figuratively but literally – and with devastating frequency since the start of the Gaza operation. Once again the tense, impossible arithmetic of this land, of 48 plus 67, has been overrun by blood and the tears that follow. We are on the edge, with the ground beneath our feet but a void above and around us. It is time we look into it and start to work out where the boundaries are to be re-established, before we get swallowed up completely.

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A few days ago, following an evening of dull thuds and booms that rattled my office building, the midnight walk home from work was quiet – under my sky, at least, not that other sky in the south, still crowded and wailing. Ahead of me, a few young people were ambling along in good spirits; pausing before crossing a road, they turned their heads to check for oncoming traffic and for the first time I saw their faces – or rather I didn’t, for they were wearing masquerade masks. The blackness and the stars hung above us, watching, waiting, as we all are during these days. In my head, I remembered young people, masked, carrying on as normal amid an oblivion. In a waltz, as others flee.

“Go massive. Sweep it all up, things related and not.”

Throughout the last 18 days, as the search for three missing teenagers kidnapped in Gush Etzion stretched out, a couple of sentences have kept popping into my head. With report after report barrelling into the news of the Israeli army’s rampage through the West Bank – the raids, shootings and arrests that were ostensibly a part of the search for the three youths – the words of Donald Rumsfeld to a Department of Defense staffer in the immediate wake of 9/11 flashed through my mind repeatedly: “Go massive. Sweep it all up, things related and not.”

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(Ignore the mis-transcription of ‘Go’ as ‘So’. See here for the full explanation of the briefing by Rumsfeld and context, and here for the full set of notes along with the Department of Defense letter accompanying the notes, which were released under a Freedom of Information Act request. I came across these notes a number of years ago while researching the Taliban.)

Now, as the (perhaps) inevitable outcome of this tragic event has arrived, we are going to see another example of how governments with immense military capability react when their civilians are attacked. Three lives have been criminally cut short, and an entire people will bear the brunt of the collective punishment. As the families of the boys grieve, and Israelis call for blood, the security apparatus will be sizing up its list of targets – related and not. We are in this for the long haul.

Dysfunction and dislocation in Hebron: “The wake of the departed has settled over the city like dust”

While ‘ghost town’ is the most consistent epithet found amid all that is said and written about Hebron, it is not an entirely accurate depiction. Certainly, it is disorientating to arrive at the city’s centre and find the streets almost deserted, the shops shuttered, the air stagnant. Much like walking around the grounds of a school at the weekend, the emptiness and quiet are disconcerting rather than relaxing. Just as a school must have pupils and teachers, a city must have people, commerce, movement – in short, life. The absence of the very thing the place was designed for renders it haunted. Yet the desertion is not absolute, or uniform. The people are there, but concealed, barricaded, shifted, locked in and locked out. The silence and stillness are pregnant, not dead. And as for the vast numbers that have left the city – their ghosts have been bottled.

It is near-impossible to deliver an adequate potted history of Hebron. One of the four ‘holy cities’ of Judaism, it is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque (wherein the bodies of Judaism’s founding fathers and mothers are said to lie, and which is also holy to Muslims due to the presence of Abraham’s tomb), and the site of consistent blood-letting over the right to claim the area as Arab or Jewish. It represents a microcosm of the broader Palestine-Israel question, and any attempt at resolution is undermined by the same foundational quandary faced by those struggling with the peace process: as long as there is no agreement as to which point of Hebron’s history to start from, there will be no hope of concluding the open conflict. One will hear of certain twentieth-century events time and again – the 1929 killing of dozens of Jews by Arab rioters; the British Mandate’s transfer of almost the entirety of Hebron’s Jewish inhabitants out of the city, for fears that their safety could not be guaranteed during the Arab riots of 1936; Israel’s occupation of Hebron from 1967 onwards; the sporadic arrival of settler families in the 1960s and ’70s, leading to Israel’s formal approval of Hebron as a site for Jewish population; the 1994 murder of 29 Arabs at prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs by the right-wing extremist Baruch Goldstein (now a hero to settlers, and whose actions lit the slow fuse of segregation in the city); and the 1997 partition of the city into an Israeli-controlled area and a Palestinian Authority-controlled area, respectively labelled as the aseptic ‘H2′ and ‘H1′, following the Oslo Accords. (I was unable to visit Hebron’s crammed H1 locale, as Israeli citizens are forbidden to enter by the government.) In practical terms, this saw Hebron’s Arab populace become subject to increasing curfewsrestriction of movement and use of excessive force by the Israel Defence Forces, and violence, harassment and  intimidation by Jewish settlers.

As the violence of the Second Intifada swept through Hebron, the killing of its Jewish inhabitants by Palestinians participating in the uprising led to further entrenchment of military control orders over the city and recriminatory IDF attacks which left many Palestinians dead. The demand for the ‘sterilisation’ of Hebron’s Arab centre, ostensibly to protect the settlers, has extinguished its once-active market and left a significant number of H2’s dwindling Palestinian population unable to leave their houses through their own front doors. Those that remain in the H2 area have also been forced to protect their windows with mesh and wires, against stones, eggs and other missiles that settlers pelt at them, with little-to-no protection from the Israeli police or IDF. The human rights violations inherent in the maintenance of such a regime have been starkly described by former IDF soldiers who witnessed and participated in such events during their army service in the city. Violence against journalists has also been observed, and tours organised by human rights or left-wing organisations are frequently heckled and subjected to settler stone-throwing (both of which I can confirm first-hand).

These events and situations are stitched together by two parallel threads. As with the rest of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, Hebron sits between the historical ties and millennial yearning of Jews, and the very real and lived-out connection of Arabs to the land. The city’s frequent mentions in the Jewish holy texts, including the anointing of David as King of Judah, are cited as justification for the occupation of the city – by everyone from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, to current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the broader right-wing national-religious camp (although these convictions are not exclusively held by the religious, nor are they restricted to Hebron). Today, in 2014, Hebron continues to have its reality shaped by biblical diktats.

I have been to Hebron three times – twice with Breaking the Silence and once independently – and this is what I saw.

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Shuhada Street, upon where most visitors’ first steps in Hebron fall, embodies the concept of apartheid with surgical precision. The road is physically separated into a side for Israelis and a far-narrower side for Palestinians, with the discrepancy in width due to only Israeli vehicles being permitted on Shuhada Street. Progressing down into the old city centre, the signs of a dislocated populace accumulate. The shuttered shops and crumbling facades strike first, but it is the snatched glimpses, acquired on closer examination, that give a truer (and more tangible) picture of disappearances: a gap in a wall, a hole in a metal shutter, a window in a fortified gate. Cowering in the gloom behind stale entrances are chests of drawers with their guts spilling out; bathroom sinks with their necks broken; doorways collapsed in a heap. Contorted staircases brace over piles of shattered glass while rent ceilings expose messes of useless wiring and infrastructure. Sun-bleached signs for vanished businesses watch over proliferating expanses of rubbish. The repetition of these scenes, of the evidence of a city that has had its heart scooped out, cloaks Hebron in a sickly, muggy atmosphere; consequently, each time I time I go, I am reminded of a long-ago visit to Vukovar, a Croatian town that was flattened during the Serbo-Croat war and remains snared between ruin and renewal. Hebron appears as a warzone and, as with Vukovar, walking through it feels at once transgressive, voyeuristic, stifling.

At once contrasting with and complementing the decay, signs of the gradual unpicking of Hebron – via the filtering of its history and the appropriation of its future – bubble to the surface through its street art. Trickling along roads, down walls and through buildings, expressions of messianic fervour and settler ideology abound throughout, punctuating the underlying ethos of the city’s Jewish inhabitants. A wall inside a deserted housing unit features a rudimentary depiction of tablets calling for the settlement of the West Bank – referred to by the biblical ‘Judea and Samaria’ – and which name-checks the Halamish settlement, whose inhabitants have taken over the spring of Nabi Saleh, a nearby Palestinian village. A store’s sealed-off doors bear the mark of Meir Kahane, a fascist ideologue whose political party Kach (of which Baruch Goldstein was a supporter), and its offshoot Kahane Chai (“Kahane Lives”) are both banned in Israel and considered terrorist organisations by the US and ­­­the EU (Kahane was assassinated in 1990 in New York by an Egyptian immigrant with terrorist connections). A plain, innocuous-seeming notice posted on an old bus stop turns out to be a quasi-messianic call-to-arms in support of Mitzpe Avichai, an illegal outpost near Hebron that the Israeli government has demolished on numerous occasions. Time and again, Hebrew graffiti lays claim to Hebron as ‘the city of our ancestors’, as if there were not three Abrahamic faiths, but one alone. Bright military emblems – rendered by the pro-Israel outfit Artists 4 Israel – appear here and there, including on a wall surrounding the city’s main army barracks. Further on, past the barracks, are fully-fleshed scenes from Hebron’s Jewish history which decry the perceived desecration of their way of life (not without cause in the case of 1929) and eulogising the city’s central place in Judaism. Looming behind them are water towers, complete with Israeli flag decals and the customary ‘city of our ancestors’ trademark. Close by, a guide to ‘Hebronis’ decorates the doors of a chicken coop, rendering the various characters seen in Hebron as chickens (and relying on offensive stereotypes of Palestinians in the process). Most threateningly of all, ‘tag mechir’ (price tag), the trademark slogan for attacks by settlers against Palestinians (and occasionally reprisals against the IDF if they are deemed to have harmed settler interests) has been scrawled next to stone steps leading up to an Arab neighbourhood. The meaning of the ‘price tag’ label – that you will pay the price for opposing Jewish settlers, who usually retaliate via arson, destruction/theft of crop trees and other acts of vandalism – may have found its purest, most comprehensive expression in Hebron: its Palestinian inhabitants have been so thoroughly dispossessed and shoved to the fringes that there is little left for settlers to destroy.

In keeping with its outpourings of messianic zeal, Hebron is also pockmarked with references to the coming of the Third Temple. A cursory knowledge of Jerusalem’s layout and history (and by extension that of Judaism and Islam) is enough to understand how extreme and provocative this idea is; nonetheless, one of the city’s largest murals is a vibrant voicing of the desire for the Third Temple’s imminent construction, also created by Artists 4 Israel. More cryptically, a nearby wall has been stamped with a cave art-style animal, accompanied by the Hebrew word ‘parah’ – a reference to the red heifer (‘parah adumah’) whose biblical role in ritual purification has made it one of the symbols of the Third Temple movement. To position these images in an ongoing political context, a unilateral bill to discuss Israeli sovereignty of the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa compound, which is currently overseen by the Islamic waqf, was introduced in the Knesset at the end of February 2014. The bill is sponsored by Member of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin, a member of the ruling Likud party and endorser of the ‘Kahane was right’ maxim, which is frequently seen around the streets of Jerusalem (and has recently appeared in Tel Aviv).

One solitary pocket of sanity, somewhat removed from the gridlocked tension below, sits above Hebron’s centre. Situated atop Tel Rumeida, past Abraham’s Spring, and amid olive trees and livestock and shepherds, the Youth Against Settlements volunteer centre appears as Hebron’s noble sanctuary, though it is not free from arbitrary incursions by the military. There is graffiti here, too, as combative and political as that in the city centre, but which presents instead the consequences of the settlers’ hold over Hebron. References to Palestine, Shuhada Street and the occupation dot the outside walls of the building, while tucked in next to a patch of earth is a defiant-but-poignant response to the price tag attacks: “They can pull out our trees but we will always plant more.”

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A footnote must be added to these observations. In spite of the abundant evidence of all that has been wrenched away, and remarkably for a city which is on the frontlines of the segregation experiment, the signs of abutment between Jewish and Muslim history and culture in Hebron remain widespread. Separation barriers feature stencils reading ‘Free Israel’ and ‘Free Palestine’ spray-painted next to, or even on top of, one another. Graffiti Stars of David (alongside the notorious ‘death to Arabs’ slogans) appear on the boarded-up shop fronts that were once the livelihood of Hebron’s Palestinian inhabitants, their Arabic-inscribed plaques still hanging above the welded doors. Mezuzot are fixed to gates that still bear old Arabic street signs. A painted scene of bucolic idyll, in which a young man in a kippah and tzitzit plays a pipe while watching his flock, squats under the raised arm of a minaret. At the appointed hours, a cascade of muezzins’ calls tumble into streets that are empty save for scattered IDF soldiers and the odd tourist. Inside the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque, an ark and its eternal light upstage glazed tiles with ornate Arabic writing. It seems, in a paradox redolent of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work on memory and forgetting, that the very act of trying to prise these entities apart has served only to stitch them closer together.

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One need not question what drives Hebron’s would-be masters. The guiding lights are few, fierce and transparent: faith, mythology, fanaticism. Why else subject oneself (and one’s dependants) to an approximation of reality so unwholesome and dysfunctional? In the push to reap ancient legends, moderation is capitulation and the truth is crippled. A cult of martyrdom is also at work here: gates, houses, and military posts all memorialise those who have perished in conflicts and terrorist attacks. Angry, red-lettered signs demand the ‘return’ of the city to Jews. It at times appears to be more of a shrine and a museum than a habitat; as with the accidental, leftover clues from its Arab population, Hebron’s Jewish residents have cultivated a presence of loss in their environment, and the wake of the departed has settled over the city like dust. And ceaselessly, systematically, furiously watching over it all, alternating between brute presence and concealment, between zealous enforcement against Palestinians and brotherly apathy towards settler aggression, is the Israeli military: the ‘most moral army in the world’, and the unblinking eye at the centre of the city’s panopticon.

This is Hebron, the city of lesions whose name comes from the Semitic root for ‘alliance’. Dissonance prevails for now, although attempts to staunch the imposition of a singular Jewish identity on the place are faltering, and any sense of normality has been swept away by a tidal wave of settler ideology realised as military operations. Yet for all its creeping, queasy intensity, the muffled atmosphere of the city makes it feel as if the explosion happened elsewhere, and Hebron’s inhabitants are simply riding out the shockwaves. One senses that it is a satellite of a fanatical dogma whose locus is in Jerusalem. This, surely, provides the overriding concern: that the mentality is metastasising.