In 1992 I visited Hebron for the first time since the 1967 war and was immediately impressed with how, of all places under Israeli occupation, it was clearly waiting to explode. That it did so on 25 February is surprising only in that a massacre did not take place earlier, although on 14 January the Army, using anti-tank missiles, destroyed a student house and killed three young Palestinians.
It is difficult to describe the sensation of entering the mosque, which, even more than Jerusalem’s al-Haram al-Sharif, is guarded with great visibility by Israeli soldiers. The entrances of the Haram are hundreds of metres away from the two mosques, al-Aqsa and Umar; at these doors, it is Palestinian security men, doubtless under Israeli supervision, who let people in and out. In the case of the Hebron mosque all visitors – Muslim or Jewish, local or foreign – enter via an Israeli security post situated right at the door through which people enter the mosque’s main area of worship.
Just inside the door there is a large table around which several Israeli soldiers sit, some of them with their feet up, all of them quite heavily armed. What one feels is that a Muslim holy place is being deliberately violated. It isn’t only that a foreign power is using its arms to dominate a lesser people, but that one of the monotheistic faiths is forcibly intruding itself on the religious practices of another.
In the mosque’s main hall of worship stand the tombs of Abraham, Jacob and Rebecca, sacred to Jews and Muslims. Before 1967 a small rabbinical school, located at the back of the mosque, had been unused for generations: after 1967 the Israelis reopened it, built a library there, and re-excavated some more Old Testament tombs (those of Leah and Isaac). The problem about the Jewish school is that you have to walk through the Muslim prayer area in order to get to it. All this makes for an uncomfortable – and very volatile – mix, with Orthodox Jews jostling pious Muslims, to say nothing of miscellaneous visitors and soldiers, in a place that covers only a few hundred square metres.
Just outside the mosque, overlooking both it and the souk (closed because of a Hamas strike the day we were there), you can see a few post-1967 settler houses. In fact, as recently as 26 January a new group, This Is Our Land, whose aim is to double the number of settlements in the West Bank, as well as to escalate tensions between Arabs and Jews, began yet another settlement in Hebron.
With Arabs and Jews intermingling in a space barely larger than a football field, and in a town which already had particularly ugly memories of inter-racial murders and riots, violence was only to be expected – not just because of the closeness of the two communities but because one has imposed itself on the other. I recall feeling extremely uncomfortable in Hebron. A general Palestinian exodus had partially emptied the place, making it seem quite desolate. But that wasn’t all: with its unarmed Palestinians and armed Israeli settlers and soldiers, Hebron is a symbol of raw religious competition quite unlike any other.
There has been a great deal of talk about political Islam in the Western media and among policy-makers. Very little attention has been paid to the equally problematic resurgence of political Judaism, surely as powerful to its adherents and apologists as Islam is to its enthusiasts. Of all the many commentators in the West who had something to say about the Hebron events, only one, David Shipler of the New York Times, made a connection between Baruch Goldstein, political Judaism and Zionism itself. All of them, he said correctly, are aspects of each other: they can’t be broken up into smaller, separate units called ‘single deranged extremist’ or ‘mainstream Zionism’. Much of what Zionism has been long telling its supporters is that Zionism and Judaism are one and the same; both speak of Palestine as the land of Israel; and both regard Arabs on ‘the land of Israel’ as aliens and barely tolerable intruders. Above all, Zionism sees itself as redeeming the land whose natives have called it ‘Palestine’ for a millennium and a half. Zionism redeems this land for the Jewish people as against non-Jews.
It is important to remember that the doctrines of all three great monotheistic religions include essentially intolerant, not to say hostile, views of so-called ‘others’. Islam and Christianity have much in common with Judaism; they have shared principles of humanity, mercy, etc, though each religion puts more stress on some qualities than on others. But all three regard people who stand beyond their boundaries as outsiders for the simple reason that monotheism itself is exclusive, jealous of its territory. This is not at all to say that all Jews, Christians and Muslims are necessarily paranoid and anxious, but that so all-encompassing are the claims of each faith that only with conscious planning can tolerance prevail. Historically, I believe that Islam has had a better record than the others in this respect, but recent trends in the Islamic world suggest a definite change for the worse.
The point today is that religious passion of a specifically monotheistic variety affects all three religions adversely and equally. The growth of religious fanaticism in Israel must, I think, be connected to retrograde Christian passions in Lebanon, Islamic emotions in Egypt and elsewhere. I am not interested in determining which of the three religions is less tolerant, but it is a historical fact that Israel, founded in 1948, is the first quasi-theocratic state in the Middle East, providing in its treatment of non-Jews an example of monotheistic xenophobia, exclusivism and intolerance that has not been good.
So far as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is concerned, what is communicated to Christian and Muslim Palestinians has been – as in the security arrangements for the Hebron mosque – Judaism’s glaring triumph over them as embodied in the Israeli Army and Israeli settlers, a leading one of whom, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, shot and killed a Palestinian boy in Hebron a few years ago and was given only a risible sentence of five months’ community service for his crime.
To all this there has been added over the past twenty years a particularly virulent and specifically American component as settlers from North America have come to Israel bringing as their contribution a deeply typical combination of ideological heedlessness and indiscriminate violence. Baruch Goldstein is not a particularly unusual case: a man steeped in long-distance fantasies of a Jewish revival. He was a disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a man whose calls to violence against Arabs were regularly broadcast in the US for years before he came to Israel in 1971. I happened to be a victim of such violence in the mid-Eighties when my university office was burned; the Jewish Defence Organisation, when asked about it, said that they didn’t actually know who did it, but added approvingly that it was the work of a ‘Jewish patriot’. And while it has become the habit recently to detach Kahane from ‘mainstream Zionism’ in the United States, and to try to prove that he wasn’t a ‘real’ Zionist, the fact is that Kahane was very much a product both of Zionism and of American culture, with its history of exterminations, and its blind arrogance towards people of the wrong or weaker races.
In Tough Jews, a book published in 1990, the American historian Paul Breines argues that a significant change took place in the self-image of the American Jew after 1967. Breines examined films, books and magazines in which American Jews had traditionally portrayed themselves as mild, bookish and wise human beings, not given to retaliation or unprovoked violence. After 1967 the Jewish self-image changed dramatically. Jews began to be approvingly portrayed as killers, karate experts, detectives and thugs, whom Breines refers to collectively as Rambowitz. What happened is quite clear: the post-1967 cult of Israeli military prowess, the occupation of Arab lands, the unbroken string of Israeli assaults on Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, gave rise to and amplified a view of the Jew as super-hero, capable of feats for which others were too squeamish, and which the rest of the world was either too weak or too indifferent to stop.
This image had its cultural as well as its intellectual equivalents in institutions and individuals who did not step out as far as Rabbi Kahane did but who shared, and indeed promoted, many of his values, while at the same time claiming to be different from him. Respectable magazines at the centre of American culture, magazines like New Republic, Commentary, Midstream, the Atlantic Monthly, have expressed views that are scarcely distinguishable from Kahane’s. Arab culture is violent and degenerate, Islam is a religion of terrorism, Arabs can neither be believed nor in any way trusted, the only way to deal with them is to keep them down: these are all notions that such papers frequently circulate.
Not a single major Jewish-American organisation has ever unequivocally opposed the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, nor has any major Jewish leader ever said a positive thing about Palestinian self-determination and freedom. The idea that Palestinians either do not exist or are terrorists is something for which American supporters of Israel bear a large responsibility. Israeli intelligence and military prowess are routinely praised by the American media and by scholars as well as clergymen; rarely does a journalist ask of Rabin or Sharon how it is that their past includes the ethnic cleansing of Ramleh and Lydda (Rabin in 1948) or the indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian refugee camps, hospitals, schools and orphanages (Sharon). There is a general consensus that Israeli violence is decent, moral violence, based on what is often referred to as ‘purity of arms’.
What makes all of this even more frightening is that such sentiments are produced at a great physical distance from Israel, with the same enthusiasm that two centuries ago produced the US Indian-killers and more recently gave us the atomic bombing of Japan and the devastation of Indochina. Distance from a complex reality, technological sophistication and moral righteousness: these are hallmarks of an American mentality grafted onto messianic Judaism and left to roam the Occupied Territories fully armed.
Support for the settlers of course comes from Israel (whose army, it was recently reported, never fired on them, even when they were attacking Arabs or pillaging their property) but it also comes from the US, whose vast network of Likud and settlement support groups provides recruits and tax-exempt funding in great amounts. I would also add that it comes from the mainstream Jewish organisations whose propaganda about Israel and Zionism – never successfully countered by the Arabs – promotes hatred, violence and bigotry against non-Jews, especially Palestinians and Muslims. All one has to do is to look at the editorial pages of the New York Times, the leading US newspaper, to read William Safire, who openly supports the settlers, and A.M. Rosenthal, who excoriates Arab ‘degeneracy’ on a regular basis.
For such people and the constituency they represent, the Oslo accord was an excellent deal precisely because it solidified Israeli power – the distinctions between Israeli and Jewish power are not always very carefully drawn – and left the Palestinians in a state of justified subservience indefinitely.
None of this exonerates the PLO, which signed the Oslo accord, one of whose main clauses leaves the settlers in place and their activities unrestricted. Yasir Arafat and his lieutenants are directly responsible for accepting a deal which leaves their essentially defenceless population legally subject to the depredations and abuses of settlers and Army alike. Secret negotiations between the PLO and the Mossad began in Boston in October 1992; their main aim was security for Israeli settlers. Not one word was said about Palestinian security, which is practically invisible in the many clauses of the Oslo agreement. Moreover anyone who had any concrete knowledge of the situation in places like Hebron would have pressed at the very outset for some disengagement of settlers and Palestinian civilians.
In addition, anyone with any knowledge of the extraordinary violence latent in American Zionism would have taken into account the propensity of people like Baruch Goldstein (there are many of them in the Occupied Territories) to want to kill Palestinians, and would have created some defence against it. But not the PLO, which has been too concerned with its relationship with France and Britain, and Mr Arafat’s lunches and dinners with John Major and François Mitterrand. One also wonders how, with so excellent ‘a friend in the White House’, Mr Arafat never thought to put the security of his own people at the very top of his wish list.
All this is the result of the negotiators’ ignorance and lack of preparation and of Palestinian officials living in an intoxicating world of media hype and personal aggrandisement completely removed from the grim realities of life in Hebron, or the refugee camps of Gaza and Beirut. Just after the accord was announced late last August a senior PLO official telephoned me to tell me what a great thing the Gaza-Jericho agreement was. When I mentioned that Israeli settlements already accounted for over 50 per cent of the land, he said that wasn’t true: all the Israelis had were ‘a few thousand settlers’. In fact, including Jerusalem they have over 250,000.
This same well-informed senior official was in Washington last week trying to improve the Oslo agreement with some retrospective (and hopeless) re-negotiating. On 4 March the New York Times quotes him as saying that the peace process was ‘rudely interrupted’ with the crime of the Hebron massacre. ‘We discovered we really have to protect Palestinians from settlers and not the other way around’ (emphasis added). This is so amazing a statement as to boggle the mind. This senior negotiator only now discovers – the word has a contempt for reality that sticks in one’s throat – that settlers are a threat, not the other way round, and goes on to say that he had once believed that Palestinians were a threat to the settlers! Both this eminent gentleman and the President of Palestine whom he serves so faithfully and so well should retire from the scene now. But of course they won’t, and the negotiations will resume, with virtually nothing changed: the 24-hour curfew against Palestinians continuing, the killing unstopped – all in pursuit of what is called ‘the peace process’. If it is ever achieved, limited autonomy in Jericho and perhaps Gaza under Arafat scarcely bodes well for the two million Palestinians who have already endured 27 years of Israeli military occupation.