A trio of Californian-American-Jewish novelists, whose religion is liberalism, have recently discovered the ancient biblical city of Hebron. But they demonstrate little fondness for the city that houses the revered burial place of the Jewish people’s patriarchs and matriarchs, the city from which King David ruled before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. Nor are they concerned with the destruction of the centuries-old Jewish community of Hebron in 1929, when 67 innocent Jews were brutally slaughtered by rampaging Arabs. Their focus, predictably, is the plight of “occupied” Palestinians.
Back in 2009, aspiring novelist Ben Ehrenreich wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times entitled “Zionism is the Problem.” The Judaism that he inherited from his Marxist Jewish grandparents and secular liberal Jewish father led him to conclude that Zionism was an unwelcome “distraction” from the class struggle. Worse yet, it flagrantly disregarded the prophetic obligation to defend the oppressed and “cry out against the oppressor.”
Ehrenreich’s “deep sense of what it meant to be Jewish” eventually led him to “Planet Hebron.” In The Way to the Spring (2016), he described his chosen base in the Youth Against Settlements House. Located adjacent to a tiny Israeli-controlled neighborhood of the old city of Hebron, where 800 “particularly zealous” Jews live among 30,000 Palestinians, his outrage over Israeli occupation and Palestinian victimization was palpable.
Curiously, Ehrenreich had virtually nothing to say about the 80 percent of Hebron under full Palestinian control. With a Palestinian population nearing 200,000, it is a thriving center of West Bank commerce. Its modern apartment houses, two universities and multi-story shopping malls along a thriving commercial avenue have no place in Ehrenreich’s narrative of Israeli oppression. No Jews may live there and Israeli military personnel are permitted to enter only with a Palestinian security escort. But Palestinian prosperity in Hebron does not fit Ehrenreich’s narrative of Israeli oppression, so he ignored it.
Israeli occupation and oppression in Hebron are no less compelling to The New York Times. Two Jewish novelists — husband and wife Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman – ventured from their home in Berkeley to Hebron, where “cruel absurdities” are more “intense” than anywhere else in Israel’s “occupied territories” (otherwise known as biblical Judea and Samaria).
Palpably misinformed, they recently wrote (January 28): “In the center of this city of some 200,000 Palestinians, a group of 800 Israeli settlers occupies heavily fortified positions, guarded by 650 Israeli soldiers. To manage this inherently combustible situation, the Israeli military has turned swaths of the central city into ‘sterile zones’ in which Palestinians are no longer allowed to drive.”
Like Ehrenreich, Chabon and Waldman seem oblivious to the reality that no Jews – none – live in “the center” of Hebron. Known as “H1” under the Oslo II Accord (1995), it is inhabited solely by Palestinians. The “800 Israeli settlers” whose presence so upsets them are confined to “H2,” the eastern fifth of the city, where they are vastly outnumbered by 30,000 Palestinian residents. Their homes – notably Beit Hadassah, which, before 1929, was a clinic that provided free medical care to Jews and Arabs, and adjacent properties once inhabited by Hebron rabbis and their families – were restored to Jewish habitation after the Six-Day War.
Jewish homes in Hebron hardly are “heavily fortified positions.” (I know; I have enjoyed the welcoming hospitality of residents.) The presence of Israeli soldiers is the response to repeated Palestinian attacks, most tragically in 1980, when six young Jewish men were murdered by terrorists while entering Beit Hadassah for Shabbat dinner. When I visited, there was a solitary guard outside. The nearby Avraham Avinu synagogue, beautifully renovated half a century after its 1929 destruction, was unguarded.
None of this, to be sure, is to be found in the Chabon-Waldman narrative. In fact, their mislabeled Israeli “sterile zones,” confined to the ancient Jewish quarter outside the bustling modern sector of Hebron, are inhabited by many more thousands of Palestinians than Jews. Evidently, the only Hebron resident worth interviewing – and the centerpiece of their column – is Issa Amro, co-founder of Youth Against Settlements who is “engaged in a creative, nonviolent campaign against the Israeli occupation.” They effusively laud him as “a particularly appealing and visible spokesman for his people” and “the best hope of peace for Palestinians and Israelis alike.”
For now, however, Issa Amro is the exalted beneficiary of two American Jewish novelists whose Hebron spin is welcome in the Times. In New York as in Los Angeles, the Hebron story line is molded by Californian fiction writers. Readers, beware.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).