Friday, March 12, 2010

Missing Out on Guarding Hebron

My unit has spent two shabbatot on guard duty in Hebron in the last month. I have yet to join them, avoiding both weekends for two very different yet equally disingenuous incidents. While blurring the truth is nothing to be proud of, I would be less than honest if I failed to admit that standing guard in Hebron is something I do not mind missing. Guard duty, of course, is something most any soldier is happy to miss. It is the Hebron location, colored by my past visits to the town, that left me content with having painlessly avoided (for now, anyways!) returning to the town as a soldier in the IDF.

I first visited Hebron for shabbat when I was nineteen and spending the year learning Torah at a yeshiva in Israel. The weekend was Parshat Chayei Sarah, the shabbat every year when huge crowds of religious Jews visit to commemorate the weekly Torah portion's discussion of Abraham purchasing a burial plot in Hebron for his wife Sarah. Later I visited again, to appreciate a shabbat in the Jewish community minus the huge crowds and security of Chayei Sarah weekend.

I came away from both visits awed and yet deeply saddened. On the one hand it is deeply moving to pray by the Me'arat HaMachpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs [lit. Cave of the Double Tombs] where the forerunners of my faith are traditionally buried. I found everything about the thousand year old stone sanctuary that covers the underground burial caves fascinating. The art and cultural details of the sanctuary intrigued me just as much as the political divide that splits the space between Jewish and Muslim worshipers. The mystery of the caves, especially the locked metal grate in the Muslim prayer area that leads down to the caves themselves, awakens my inner Indiana Jones and rekindles pride in the thousand-plus year history of my people. Hebron, with all its ancient and modern ties to Jewish heritage, is a space I cannot imagine not playing a role in the Jewish state I visualize in this land.

And then there was, and remains, the deep sadness. On both visits to the ancient town, residents of the Jewish community brought me into their homes (in both Tel Rumeida and the Avraham Avinu neighborhood) and enlivened my shabbat with rich melodies and warm conversation. Beneath the shabbat civility, however, I encountered a grim hatred for their neighbors. It was a hate that suffused and contaminated the peaceful Shabbat atmosphere. It was a hate with cause, for the stones and bullets that have claimed the lives of Hebron residents have come from their neighbors. My sadness lies in part with the reality that those stones and bullets have not only moved in one direction (in recent years, Arab residents have in fact been the target for most of the stones and bullets fired in Hebron). My sadness grows and swells regardless of who is to blame, and what outrage predates the latest indignation. The grim reality is that otherwise good and sweet people are, by their decision to live in such a dangerous and fundamentalist space, creating an atmosphere--and raising families!--of toxic pride and vengeful hate. If the trade-off for retaining Hebron is losing our people and values to such hate and pride, then it simply is not worth it.

An army is no place to enforce political loyalties and so I would serve wherever I was asked, defending any settlement with the same commitment I would defend my parent's home in Jerusalem. Nevertheless when a double dose of disingenuouty prevents me from six hour guard duty shifts in benighted Hebron, I will readily accept my fate.

There were costs to my missing out on Hebron. I was held back from the second assignment as a punishment, the penalty keeping me on base for shabbat so I could stew on my failings while my peers were on the front lines. Missing the first assignment meant I failed to see how the guys in my platoon would react to being in a largely Arab setting for the first time. Leading up to the weekend deployment, many of the guys had noted that they had never crossed the 1967 border, never spent any time in any Arab areas outside Israel proper. Coming from a very different background I did not quite share this fear of the unknown. But I was deeply curious how boys raised far from the seething heart of Israel would react to this first encounter with the Other. Though I missed this first encounter, I have no doubt many more await in the months and years of service to come.

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