Shabbat in Hebron: The Good, the bad, the inappropriate and the ugly

Not everyone would consider spending Shabbat in Hebron, let alone a group of Anglo post high-school students trying to enjoy their gap year (a year between high school and college) in Israel. Students from the ATID student leadership program, however, boarded a bus at 6:40 a.m. on Friday morning on December 28 to learn about the Jewish and Palestinian communities in Hebron over the course of Shabbat. While there, some cried during prayer services at the Cave of the Patriarchs, some fumed with anger during political discussions and many asked questions during discussions and talks with activists from both the far Left and far Right sides of the Israeli-Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Program organizers extended the invitation to non-ATID participants, bringing in a handful of young professionals to the mix.

“A lot of times, people are either very stuck in their ways, or they’re completely swayed in one direction and dismiss anything else they hear. I think that most people on this Shabbaton were able to internalize something from everyone, even though it was difficult,” Danit Felber, the program’s managing director commented.   

Head educator, Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen said that the weekend aimed to deepen participants‘ sense of Jewish identity and connection to Hebron while exposing them to how Palestinians are experiencing life in H2 (the 20% of Hebron that is under full Israeli control). HaKohen stressed that the goal of the weekend was to empower students to create their own unique ideologies. “ATID is about creating the intellectual leadership of a 21st century Jewish liberation movement that can clean up Zionism’s mess while safeguarding its positive achievements,” he said.

“Participants are encouraged to go through a difficult process and come to their own conclusions,” HaKohen said. “One of the greatest barriers to peace, in my opinion, is the fact that both Jews and Palestinians feel threatened by each other‘s stories. We‘re both afraid that if the narrative of the "other" is true, it makes our own narrative less true. I see it differently. I think both peoples are correct when we talk about ourselves and our experiences but tend to get it wrong when talking about the "other," which leads to us each superimposing identities and motivations on the "other" that have little in common with how we each actually experience it ourselves. We‘re both playing fantasy antagonists in one another‘s stories and this leads to very counterproductive methods of struggle on both sides.”

In order to give people the opportunity to draw a conclusion, the group listened to a handful of speakers in Hebron, after setting up camp at the Hebron guest house. After conducting morning prayers at the Cave of the Patriarchs, the program picked up. First was a talk with Palestinian tour guide Mohammed al-Mohtaseb. The group followed him to the rooftop of his family’s home in H2, which is above a souvenir store. It was an extremely brisk day and the group listened patiently as hail fell from the sky. Al-Mohtaseb told the group about his life experiences. In under 20 minutes, the guide explained the difference between the Hebron territories, shared his experience between military law and civilian law, telling the group that while Israeli citizens are innocent until proven guilty, he and his community are guilty until proven innocent. The guide shared an anecdote, detailing a time when he was jailed for throwing stones — but was able to prove to the commander he was innocent, as the man in the photo that the authorities offered him as evidence, pictured a man that was 50 kilograms heavier than al-Mohtaseb.

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