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Hebron, a City of Conflicting Narratives and Religious Passions

Visiting Hebron, a City of Conflicting Narratives and Religious Passions, was exciting, intriguing, and troubling. [Cross posted on Rav Blog]IMG_4707

Because of the complexity of the security situation, it has been a few decades since I last visited this Biblically significant site. So I jumped at the chance to visit Ma’arat HaMachpelah (Cave of Machpelah), the traditional burial site of our biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.

Anticipation and slight anxiousness vied for ascendancy as I contemplated visiting the place where the Bible says Abraham first purchased a piece of land in Eretz Yisrael. Of course seriousness quickly set in as we passed through the Etzion Interchange, a checkpoint where moments before an attempted stabbing took place; which sadly ended with an IDF solider being mistakenly shot and killed in friendly fire.

Reform Rabbis in Israel on Leadership Convention

Our guide from the Jewish Community of Hebron, explaining the connection to this place, outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs

We were forty Reform Rabbis from North America who chose to explore the complexity and nuance. I felt particularly compelled, as Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which hosted this gathering as part of our Israel Convention, and an oheiv Yisrael (lover of Israel, making my 14th trip to Israel), to explore multiple perspectives and to hear – really listen to – some of the complex conflicting narratives which make up people’s connection to the city.

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Our guide from “Breaking the Silence,” explains the emptiness we see in the streets

We met with two guides: Ishai, spokesperson for the Jewish Community
of Hebron, a community which asserts its biblical right to live in this holy historical city, and Nadav, a guide from Shovrim Hashtika (Breaking the Silence), a group of veterans who are exposing the indignities of everyday life under the occupation. Mixing humor and seriousness, they wove their narrative in compelling but measured tones.

Competing Narratives about Hebron

This one says Jews are only in 3% of Hebron; Palestinians control the rest. The issue is blown out of proportion.

That one says that 48% of the homes in Hebron are now empty as Palestinians could not live there or sustain life there under the security regime.

That one says the randomness of army control in Hebron over the lives of the Palestinians is untenable and we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing anything especially nice or moral.

This one says Hebron is my history and/or my religious inheritance and in either case we are causing minor dislocation on its own and especially compared to what happened to us under Jordanian control and before.

The Competing Indignities are Vivid

Imagine not being able to walk out your front door, or open your business in its long established location, as some Hebron Palestinians cannot.

Imagine being locked out of parts of a city that is central to your religious/historical past as Hebron Jews are.

Imagine being responsible for creating a separation between two peoples, lowering the friction, as the soldiers are, which leads you to have to “lord” over tens of thousands for the safety of a thousand.

The Bottom Lines are Parallel and Poignant

This one says this is my country. I love my country and we are here to stay. 

That one says this is my country. I love my country and the occupation cannot continue. 

And these don’t even include the perspectives of Palestinians who live there.

Leading by Listening

It is easy to form opinions from afar, especially when we listen only to news and perspectives that reinforce our own biases. But in a world of conflicting narratives, we strive to retrain our ears to hear multiple perspectives. Only then can we see the humanity, wrestle with the nuance, and open ourselves to possibilities and hope.

Most everyone agree that the occupation needs to end. Yet how to get from here to there, and where “there” is, is complex. There are no limit to the creative solutions being floated – some enticing, some offensive. Is there a will? The complexity of this situation defies easily identifying the way.

To paraphrase the Talmudic passage, eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim – these and these are the (narratives of people who aspire to understand the will) of the living God. But who knows what God really wants from us?! Clearly though, we leaders necessarily must listen the stories from everyone.

So the day ended. The complexity persists. Our heads are spinning. The status quo remains untenable. And we return home with much to process.


Note: Thanks to Rabbi Daniel Gropper of Rye, New York for his insights and collaboration on this post.

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