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Behind the Headlines: Hebron’s Jews Seek Support Through Tours of Community

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Not prepared to let diplomats decide its future, the Jewish community of Hebron is once again on the offensive.

In mid-September, just a week before widespread clashes between armed Palestinians and Israeli soldiers left dozens of people dead and hundreds more wounded, the community launched a major public relations campaign to win new supporters.

Hebron, widely regarded as a litmus test of Israeli-Palestinian relations, is one of the issues expected to be discussed at this week’s summit meeting in Washington, D.C., called by President Clinton to find a way to move the peace process forward.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he would uphold the agreement to redeploy Israeli troops from most of this West Bank town, but wants to negotiate modifications that would take into account the security needs of Hebron settlers.

Under intense pressure from critics who view the settlers’ presence in Hebron as an unnecessary obstacle to peace, the community — 52 families and 200 yeshiva students — are trying to prove otherwise.

In addition to underscoring their right to remain in the city, which has 120,000 Arab residents, the settlers are trying to convince their government that any Israeli troop redeployment will result in yet another Hebron massacre.

For the Jews of Hebron, the word “massacre” relates not to the 1994 killing spree by Kiryat Arba settler Dr. Baruch Goldstein, but to the murder of 67 Jews by Arab rioters in 1929.

Working on the assumption that most Jews and Christians would support their cause if they knew more about Hebron’s history — as well as the settlers’ precarious security situation — the community says it is trying to “educate” the public.

“What many people don’t realize is that we’re not just 50 families living in Hebron, but the representatives of all Jewish people who believe Jews have a right to live here,” says Shani Horowitz, a mother of seven children.

“Anyone who really wants to understand our plight and mission must see us up close. You can’t learn about Hebron simply by reading about it in the newspapers.”

In the year since the signing of the Interim Agreement, in which Israel formally pledged to redeploy its troops from most of Hebron, the community has openly encouraged Israelis and tourists to visit their city on day trips, weekends and Jewish holidays.

Although the campaign did in fact attract thousands of sympathetic or merely curious visitors, the settlers say a bigger push is now needed.

Unless more support, financial and otherwise, is generated, the settlers fear that the Israeli army will indeed redeploy, a move they believe will endanger their security.

Just before the recent violence in Jerusalem and the territories, the community placed “Visit Hebron!” ads in the Jerusalem Post and other daily newspapers.

Promising “an enlightened and captivating tour,” the ad stated that “all security precautions are scrupulously observed.”

When this reporter and eight tourists took the tour in late September, these precautions were absolutely essential.

The evening prior to the visit, and on the day itself, sporadic street fighting, which later intensified into armed clashes, broke out in Hebron.

Riding at all times with an armed guard, in a bus with shatterproof windows, the tour participants felt no imminent danger.

At only one time, during a visit to Hebron’s tiny Jewish enclave of Tel Rumeida, was the tour temporarily halted, due to rioting a few streets away.

Had the tour taken place a day later, when Israeli troops and Palestinian police exchanged fire outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the experience might have proven very dangerous indeed.

Stressing Judaism’s roots to the city, tour guide Moria Zeira took the five Jewish and four Christian visitors to Hebron’s four Jewish enclaves, and to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is now a shared mosque and synagogue.

In explaining why a mosque stands on the site, Zeira said, “In the year 632 the Arabs came and said, `Jews out, Christians out, now it’s ours.’ The Arabs built a lot of things around the holy places and built a huge mosque.”

Sitting in the domed room that Jews use as a synagogue, she pointed to a locked door.

“Jews and Arabs used to share the room on the other side, but since Baruch Goldstein, the guy from Kiryat Arba who killed 29 Muslims while praying here, Jews have prayed in this part.”

This was one of the only references to Goldstein or his actions during the five-hour visit. During a 15-minute film presentation, the 1994 Hebron massacre was never mentioned.

Instead, the film and overall tour focus exclusively on Jewish history, from the time the patriarch Abraham purchased land in Hebron and King David’s sojourn there, to the 1929 massacre of Jews and Hebron’s “liberation” during the Six-Day War.

A small museum, housed in the Beit Hadassah Jewish enclave, situated right above the Arab Casbah, depicts the victims of the 1929 massacre.

The tour’s emphasis is on the danger to Jewish interests in Hebron, past and present.

Although some of the tour’s participants may not have shared their hosts’ political views, all said they came away with a better understanding of Israel’s political predicament vis-a-vis the disputed city.

“This tour showed me that the Jews are sitting ducks, really vulnerable,” said Yehuda Herman, a tourist from New Jersey.

“I have a subscription to `Hebron Today’ on the World Wide Web, but until you actually come to Hebron and see the Jews in the valley surrounded by Arabs, you can’t get the real picture.”

When asked whether he thought the tour’s presentation was balanced, Herman said, “No, it’s one-sided. There’s no Arab opinion, and I would have liked to hear both sides. Still, I’m glad I came.”

Another tourist, who asked that her name not be published, said, “This tour really got me thinking. I came with the feeling that if the Jews here are an obstacle to peace, then maybe they should leave. Now I’m not so certain.”

Among the tour participants were Thea and Bernhard Hessellund, a Christian couple from Denmark.

“We have been to Israel many times but had never been to Hebron,” said Thea. “Our position is pro-Israeli but not anti-Arab. This trip just confirmed our view that it will be extremely difficult to find a solution.”

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