Compromising For Peace

Despite Hebron's Importance, Israel Will Have to Give It Up

10.28.13 7:45 PM ET

Every week, on the Sabbath, Jews around the world read a portion of the Torah. This past Sabbath, we read a section known as Chayei Sarah, or The Life of Sarah. Poignantly, the portion doesn't deal with her life at all, but with her death and its aftermath. It was at that time that Abraham had to buy the first Jewish property in the land of Israel: a burial plot for his deceased wife. The plot, which became a tomb that would one day house all of the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs apart from Rachel, was in the city of Hebron.

Accordingly, it has become a custom among Israeli Jews of a certain religious and political persuasion to spend the Sabbath of Chayei Sarah in the city of Hebron and in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba—to pray, and to read the portion of the Law in the very spot in which Sarah was buried. Hebron has been on my mind lately.

Palestinian village (front) Israeli outpost (back) in the South Hebron Hills

Rachel Cohen

Palestinian village (front) Israeli outpost (back) in the South Hebron Hills

I have a dear friend from my student days called Melanie Ward. She has been working as a Human Rights Observer in the city of Hebron. Melanie is a principled, ideological, and ethical person. She didn't come to the conflict with a bitter anti-Israel bias. As a national student leader, she toured Israel with the Union of Jewish Students, and while holding a deep compassion for Palestinian suffering, she was, and is, well aware of the Israeli narrative as well. And yet, her time in Hebron, which she has documented most beautifully on her blog, has been nothing short of shocking.

The cruelty she has seen from settlers, and the complacency and institutionalized injustices she has seen from Israeli security and law-enforcement agencies, have been horrific in their scale and pervasiveness.

And yet, it was there in Hebron where the Zionist dream began. It was there in Hebron that the first Jew bought the first ever plot of land to be permanently designated for a Jewish purpose: the first Jewish cemetery, the first Jewish land-holding, and the first legal acquisition made by a Jew in his new homeland.

I feel strongly about Hebron. Like most people, I believe that no two-state solution will be viable unless the Israeli occupation of Hebron ceases, and unless Jewish settlements there are evacuated. I have had powerful religious experiences standing at the graveside of Abraham and Sarah, but I would rather have a thriving, prosperous State of Israel with no control over this holy cemetery than generations of bloodshed and war in order to hold onto it.

Melanie, along with most of the international community, is right to lament ongoing Israeli settlement expansion in the area. She was right, also, to lament Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent fawning letter to the settlers of Hebron on the occasion of the reading of Chayei Sarah.

Israel, I'm certain, is going to find itself on the wrong side of history when it comes to the occupation of places like Hebron. Please God, peace will come. Israel will live in peace and security alongside Palestine, and, over time, both nations will have to come to terms with the narratives of the other. Israelis and Palestinians alike will have to come to terms with the evils that they perpetrated during the years of bloody conflict. It has happened elsewhere, and it can happen there too.

But I never want us to regret our everlasting national connection to Hebron. The two-state solution is the best and, in my opinion, the only, political solution to our conflict, but both sides will have to compromise. Palestinians will have to give up on Jaffa. Jews will have to give up on Hebron. But if we don't even realize that we're making a sacrifice, then we're not really in touch with who and what we are.

We must condemn their habitual lawlessness and immorality, but if we look quizzically at the passion that some Jews have for Hebron, we have, I think, lost our souls.

I accept that the occupation can't be ended overnight. Unilateral withdrawal was a disaster in Gaza. Furthermore, the evils of the occupation weren't created by Israel alone. Melanie was shocked to see Israeli soldiers checking the school bags of cute Palestinian children. But she shouldn't forget the innocent-looking schoolchildren used, in the recent past, to carry explosives into Israel to kill and maim the innocent. The whole situation is horrific. But it wasn't created by Israel alone. Having said all of that, the occupation has clearly become a stain on our conscience.

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When peace finally comes, we will be able to be proud that Israel is a country that can house and protect its Arab minority; the Palestinians will have to reflect upon the fact that they weren't able to create a state until it was made Judenrein. If Jewish settlers stay in Palestine (even the most mild and moderate of them), they will not be safe. On the other hand, the Arabs that remained in Israel have, despite the racism and obstacles that stood in their way, been able to become high-court judges and military commanders.

Jews lived continuously in Hebron from Biblical times, right up until 1929. In that year, the local Arabs rose up in a horrific pogrom, killing men, women and children, and all but ending the historic Jewish presence in the town (despite an ill-fated revival in the 1930s). Had the Arabs won the Six Day War, the orphans of Deir Yassin would have returned and resettled (irrespective of what may have been prescribed by international law). It should surprise nobody that after the Israeli victory, Jews wanted to move back to Hebron.

And yet, as I've said, we have to give up the occupation of Hebron. The settlers who remain are, to a shocking degree, infected with xenophobia, violence, and a messianic zeal that threatens to make peace impossible for generations.

But, as Zionists, we also have to remember that Jews in the land of Israel are not imperialists. Zionism was not about colonization; it was about repatriation. If we forget our historical connection to the land—all of the land—then we stand to forget our legitimate standing as a nation entitled to self-determination, just as the Palestinians are a nation entitled to self-determination. The Palestinians will have to give up a great deal in the name of a two-state solution. To give up their claim to Safed, as president Abbas did (or didn't), should certainly break their heart; to give up Hebron should break ours. But broken hearts are better than the specter of eternal conflict.