West Bank, Sunday 6/10/013
I’m in a crowded mini bus on my way from Bethlehem to Hebron: leaving a Christian enclave surrounded by Moslems – and on my way to see a Jewish enclave surrounded by Moslems – one enclave forming the heart of a flourishing tourist industry and the other, lying fairly and squarely in the conflict zone.
The driver, a quiet man with some clipped beard and neat casual clothes, has the radio on. He’s not interested in music. He’s interested in religion. From the radio comes a continual wailing, like the call to prayer only it goes on and on. It drives me nuts. An advertising jingle would be an improvement.
I look outside.
We pass hill tops where there are Israeli settlements, lines of apartments, big flags with the Star of David. On the opposite side of the highway are Israelis waiting for a bus. Two soldiers from the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) standing nearby, chatting, looking bored. Out of their backpacks long aerials can be seen.
Bethlehem: the busloads of Christian tourists from all over the world paying homage to the birth place of Jesus. Visiting the historical sites such as the Church of Nativity (the supposed birth place of Jesus), buying souvenirs, going to restaurants etc. Sure, good for the local economy, providing jobs for thousands of Palestinians. But I got bored in Bethlehem. I’d been travelling around Israel and the West Bank for the previous month and it had been an intense journey. Not the kind of trip that I could describe as enjoyable – no, not at all. Every day had brought with it unforgettable sights. And unanswerable questions.
Questions: some of which were contested with words – and others with bullets.
During the following days, it dawned on me: travelling in Israel and the West Bank was travelling in a conflict zone. At first, I didn’t know how to deal with it, didn’t even know whether I wanted to continue the journey. Many times, I thought about leaving early. It could get too much. But there was something addictive about it too: the sheer intensity. Every day experiencing something different and being confronted by the strange, the inexplicable, the outrageous.
After a month of this, arriving in Bethlehem and finding myself in a tourist town, I felt as if I’d suddenly found myself in a Sargasso Sea, becalmed – and bored.
I missed being in the conflict zone.
Hence the day trip to Hebron.
On Sunday, the holiest day of the week for Christians.
Israel and Judaism is where it began: the conflict zone.
Judaism was the first monotheistic religion in the world – there is only one God, not multiple Gods – and it was the major inspiration behind Christianity and Islam. Those religions, appearing historically much later, borrowed heavily from the theological landscape of Judaism – indeed, it can be said that if there had never been a Jewish people, there would never have been Christianity or Islam. More than once, it occurred to me that the existing problems, endless, complex, vexing, would never have come into being if those first Israelites had been polytheists, e.g. Hindus.
Christianity and Islam differed from Judaism in one crucial respect: whilst the Jew’s God directed his attention inwards, towards his ‘chosen people’, the God of the late comers commanded his followers to convert others – Heathens, Infidel – by word if possible, by sword if necessary. Intolerance – and worse – come naturally to the monotheistic religions: there is only one God and anyone else who worships a different God, or Gods, is guilty of worshipping Satan and is doomed to burn in Hell. Monotheism and especially evangelical monotheism lends itself to the conquest of others. The Crusade and Jihad are concepts which belong to Judaism’s off spring.
Its irony which occurred to me often during my journey in Israel and the West Bank: driven by their universalist pretensions, neither Christianity nor Islam, which owed so much to Judaism, ever showed the slightest sympathy towards the Jews. On the contrary: they persecuted the Jews relentlessly. Their behaviour, historically seen, was like a big corporation stealing the ideas of a small firm and then running that firm out of business – as well as murdering its employees.
The territories comprising ancient Israel vanished in 70 AD when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and scattered the Jewish people to the four corners of the world. From that time on, where ever they were, China or Egypt, Russia or Portugal, the Jews remembered Jerusalem and their once flourishing civilisation.
Then in the early 20th century the Great Return began. European Jews, from Theodore Herzl to Franz Kafka, convinced that after almost 2000 years of relentless discrimination there was no place for the Jews in Christian Europe, began moving back to Palestine. They bought land from the Arabs and started farms.
Then came the Holocaust and the trickle back to the ancient homeland became a flood.
Ricochet: in the conflict zone, everything is a matter of historical cause and effect. Endless chains of it.
Example: the temple of Hebron, otherwise known as the ‘Cave of the Patriarchs’.
2000 years ago, the Jewish King Herod had a temple built on the site where it was believed that three couples lay buried who were the ancient progenitors of the tribes of Israel and, by extension, the entire Jewish race: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.
Were they really buried there?
Were these three couples really the progenitors of the Jewish people?
For centuries, after the dispersion of the Jews, Christian pilgrims came to ‘The Holy Land’ to worship at Jerusalem – and, Herod’s temple in Hebron.
In the 7th century, the second great mutation of Judaism appeared on the scene: Islam. The former lands which comprised ancient Israel – the Christians ‘Holy Land’ – were occupied by Islam’s triumphalist armies and Herod’s temple was converted into a mosque. Abraham was revered by Moslems as a prophet in the same way he was revered by Christians as a sacred figure from the Old Testament.
What did the Moslems and Christians then make of the other Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs who also, according to ancient Jewish lore, lay buried beneath the temple/church/mosque?
Were they also sacred or was pride of place reserved for Abraham?
In the 12th century, the Crusaders arrived in ‘The Holy Land’.
The English and French armies, on their way through Southern Germany before swinging to the south-east, unleashed pitiless pogroms against the Jews.
On arriving at their destination, they unleashed another blood bath on the Moslems.
In Hebron, they turned the mosque into a church.
When the Moslems returned – and drove off the crusaders, the church was converted back into a mosque.
The Jews were forbidden to worship there.
For them, the ‘Cave of the Patriarchs’ – was the second most sacred site in the world after the western or so-called ‘wailing’ wall in Jerusalem (and they were forbidden from worshipping there, too).
‘So how shall we worship the Lord in a strange land?’ as the old Jewish song went.
In 1967, during the ‘Six Day War’, Israel gained control of Hebron.
For the first time in 700 years, Jews could once again worship at ‘The Cave of the Patriarchs’ (although it was just as much a ‘Cave of the Matriarchs’).
Jewish settlers moved to Hebron. The first settlers – immigrants from Europe – had appeared during the 1920’s and were later driven off by the Moslems. Now a new Jewish settlement was established near the hallowed ‘Cave of the Patriarchs’.
For Moslems everywhere in the world, the Jews have no right to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs. It is a Mosque and the presence of Jews is, in effect, sacrilege.
Today it is possible for tourists to visit this ancient structure. It has been divided into a mosque on one side and a synagogue on the other. Access to each of these can only go ahead after passing through an Israeli check point.
When I went to Hebron, my plan was to visit the mosque-synagogue and then afterwards, the Jewish settlement enclave.
In terms of the visiting the conflict zone, you couldn’t do better than this.