Through the Looking Glass
A few weeks ago I stood by the tomb of Abraham in Hebron hearing the recitation of the amidah, the rhythm of those familiar words of prayer suddenly accompanied by those of a Jewish poet that came to my mind in that moment. I felt moved and connected in ways I had not foreseen. The last time I was in that part of the world I was in my gap year, an eighteen year old enjoying the life of a secular kibbutznik before heading on to Oxford. This time I had arrived at Hebron after a very different journey, one that took me both deeply in to my Jewish culture and showed it to me from the other side of the mirror, so to speak, challenging many of my previous assumptions.
The beginning of the journey was calm enough. We flew into Jordan, arriving late for a preliminary night at the Hotel Intercontinental, Amman, a frictionless environment where the twenty or so international writers of the touring literary festival met and introduced themselves. By chance I found myself with the two other Jewish members of the group. Our conversation quickly turned to what possible consequences might follow from that identity when we travelled into Palestine. Sensibly, rationally, we reassured one another, a moment that reminded me of the reassurances I had offered my parents back in north east London. On both occasions I had been calming my own anxieties too. All the voices of my education and all the years of news footage — charred car bodies, masked gunmen, wailing crowds, photographers pushed back to allow stretchers to be rushed into ambulances — told me to be frightened. Nevertheless I’d been sure then that I wanted to seize the opportunity to go and see inside the situation for myself. It is so much at the heart of contemporary Jewish life as well as our geopolitical weather that I couldn’t resist the offer of first hand experience.
The following morning we crossed into Palestine at the Allenby Bridge, a border under Israeli jurisdiction. The experience felt far removed from my memories of entering via the grandly appointed front door of Ben Gurion airport. As we were being briefed on the bus as to how to be accurate and economical when answering questions, we pulled up at the low militarised building to see a line of Palestinians, men, women and children, waiting to pass through, blown on by a large swivelling fan, patrolled by a soldier in jeans and t-shirt with impressively muscled arms and a machine gun. The atmosphere seemed tense, businesslike, stoical, with no one wanting any trouble but also from inside the bus the whole thing looked strangely theatrical. Several times during the trip the quality of psychological power exerted by the structures and procedures of checkpoints reminded me of immersive works of art, installations or promenade theatre pieces designed to have a strong emotional effect, to make manifest the conceptual relations of power, of individual and state. It is an odd thought, perhaps, one that attests to my struggle to integrate the reality of what I was seeing with the world as I had understood it up till then.
This first checkpoint experience lasted a while, six hours from start to finish. Several members of our group, three Palestinian Americans, and a British Asian from Manchester, were held for questioning. The most experienced of them conjectured afterwards that they were being toyed with, pointlessly discomfited, on the basis that a background check does not take that long to perform. Still, we were not turned away from there as we feared might happen during that lengthy delay and as Noam Chomsky was a couple of weeks later. The worst that occurred was the theft from one of our group’s luggage of a pair of shoes and some jewellery. Later it seemed a useful introductory experience, a half-day immersion in powerlessness at the hands of an unpredictable military bureaucracy. I remember sitting there with the word ‘wasting’ dilating in my mind: wasting time, wasting away, a terrible waste, the waste places.
The first day or so in Palestine was marked for me, however, by a great happiness, a sense of liberation. We stayed in east Jerusalem. I’d last been in that city in my year off before university when I had been working and studying Hebrew on a kibbutz half an hour away. I was eighteen then and fearful. That Palestinians were violent, that a trip into east Jerusalem could be fatal, were axiomatic among the people I met. I had no reason to doubt it. In my days off I drifted in west Jerusalem, visiting an English language bookshop, sitting with my new copy of Nabokov’s Bend Sinister in a café before returning to the kibbutz at dusk. Now I found myself in the east, a grown adult meeting many Palestinians and felt in that environment no sense of threat whatsoever. The fear that I was carrying melted away; my body relaxed, my breathing slowed and deepened. The sensation was of lightness and elation; it was borne from a revelation that’s so obvious, so bound to be true, I’m almost ashamed to admit it: Palestinians are normal people, friendly, intelligent, rational people. Not only that, their warmth and openness, given their situation, was very striking. All the Palestinians we met were extraordinarily hospitable and pleased to see us. Movement is all but impossible for Palestinians and the presence of outsiders seemed to bring oxygen to their enclosed world. Everyone apparently welcomed the stationary travel of our visit and those who came to the literary events expressed pleasure at being able to spend an evening enjoying the passing illusion that they had a normal cultural life. To explain a little more: identity cards issued by the Israelis are colour-coded according the individual’s home town, not always accurately recorded. To travel from one to another is extremely difficult. Jerusalem and Bethlehem, for example, are six miles apart and as attached to one another as, say, Richmond and London. Unsurprisingly many families (and, formerly, working lives) are divided between the two places. A Palestinian from Bethlehem must now apply for a permit to visit east Jerusalem at least a month in advance. The permit can be refused without reason. It can be granted and then access be denied without reason at the checkpoint. Of course this makes it very easy to miss a relative’s visit or death or the birth of a child, and so on. More than a generation of West Bank Palestinians now exists who have never seen the sea. I learned this in Bethlehem where the experience of being in Palestine started to intensify, to cause pain.
But first, to get there, the checkpoint. You approach a low building or complex of buildings (it is hard to tell at first), with squat towers and machine gun nests masked with camouflage netting. Next you find yourself walking down a system of channels that suddenly turn at a right angle into narrower channels not much wider than your shoulders. These are fenced with heavy horizontal scaffolding poles. At a certain point you find yourself under a low roof, completely enclosed and at a turnstile that is floor to ceiling and made of the same scaffolding poles, rather like those in the New York subway. There are lights at the top of it, red and green. If the light is green you go through although how many do so at one time varies so it is easy in a moment of entirely humourless slapstick to walk into a locked gate. Now you are in the centre of a checkpoint which contains an x-ray machine for your possessions, a reinforced airport-style metal detector portal and a brightly lit office of toughened glass containing, typically it seemed, two bored, languid Israeli teenagers doing their national service. They ask to see ID and may have further questions. There is a disconcerting disconnection between their mouths in front of you on the other side of the glass and their voices which blast at near-distortion volume from a number of speakers above your head. During this time you are between two sets of turnstiles, completely shut in. If your answers satisfy them, they release you through the second turnstile. During the whole time you’re passing through you can be seen and heard but, unlike with CCTV, you don’t know where from because you can’t see the cameras or microphones. The effect is to make you introject the observing authority: you are helpless and feel entirely exposed. We had little trouble getting through the checkpoints, although there are obvious challenges for anyone claustrophobic, frail, hearing or sight impaired, or elderly: you can be standing there for a very long time. Stories we heard from Palestinians reflected different experiences, more brutalising, humiliating and capricious. At Hawara, the most notorious of the checkpoints, a number of deaths have been recorded of people waiting to get through for medical treatment. For those Palestinians who work inside Israel the checkpoint experience (one which in its mildest form I wouldn’t wish on anyone I loved) is a twice-daily occurrence. Sometimes, without warning, the checkpoints are closed and they can’t get to their jobs at all.
Having said that it was easier for us, the first time one of our party got stuck in a turnstile and spent ten minutes trying to remain calm before someone came to release her and the one member of the group with an identifiably Jewish name was, on every occasion, questioned with noticeable aggression as to who she was and what she was doing there. Why that was the case remains unclear although the natural inference is that the authorities have a particular dislike of Jewish people seeing inside the West Bank. Certainly it is almost impossible for Israelis to get in unless they’re currently serving in the army or are settlers.
And what was it we saw in Bethlehem? We saw the separation wall and, crucially, where it is. From that physical fact about the world you know that the security rationale for its existence cannot account for its placement. The nine-metre high wall, well within the green line, is wrapped so tightly around Bethlehem, rising up just beyond the last house on the perimeter, that the little town has been severed from the landscape and has no room to expand. Natural population growth can be expected to produce conditions of intense overcrowding. From certain vantage points you can look over the wall and see the extensive olive groves that used to support many Bethlehemites and that they now cannot reach to tend. There is an Israeli law that land ‘abandoned’ for seven years becomes the property of the state. The inhabitants of Bethlehem wait powerlessly for the land they have farmed continuously for centuries to be taken from them. You wonder what it does to the children their who are growing up behind that wall that exists, they are told, because they are so dangerous and who see the only real power in the town wielded by visiting soldiers with machine guns. If the wall were for security alone it would follow the proposed border of the Palestinian state. It would also be continuous. It isn’t at present. If you walk far and knowledgeably enough you can get around it. A number of impoverished migrant workers do so to find work as manual labourers within Israel.
The illegal settlements are the other great lesson of the occupied territories. There are a huge number of them, instantly recognisable by their bare, prefabricated ugliness and position, placed and fortified on the tops of hills, disfiguring the landscape their inhabitants claim to love with all the aesthetic indifference of true religious fundamentalism. Or have I strayed into rhetoric there? Do they claim to love the land? Does love come into it? Surely it’s enough for them that their God has instructed them to take possession of it with whatever force necessary. I find that the settlers’ Judaism is both very difficult and worryingly easy to understand. It bears very little relation to the tolerant, intellectual, profoundly moral Judaism I am proud to have grown up in, a tradition that is acutely aware of its outsider status and therefore highly sensitive to the vulnerabilities of other communities. Settler Judaism is something else altogether, messianic, fundamentalist, indifferent to pain, soaked in violence. But it arises from tropes well within the Jewish tradition. Its claim on the land is there in the Torah, a land that, after all, is promised to the Israelites, not their place of origin. The tanakh tells a story of bloody warfare waged by the Israelites to take possession of it. The perversity of settler Judaism is to privilege this of all parts of the Jewish inheritance, to pursue the one commandment to settle the land at the expense of the other six hundred and twelve.
If you haven’t spotted a settlement looking down over you, you might guess it’s there by the vandalism of multilingual road signs. The settlers erase the Arabic place names. Some of the settlements, those that form a ring around Nablus, for example, are so far inside the territory necessary (and promised) for a viable Palestinian state as to make Israeli talk of a two-state solution seem in bad faith. They clearly could not exist without the active support of the Israeli state and military. They have prospered with the collusion of successively more right-wing administrations. Since the much publicised withdrawal of settlements from within Gaza, more than twenty thousand new settlers have moved into the West Bank.
This is the great reward for making it through the checkpoints to see the place for yourself. In the wider world the arguments about what is going on there are so fierce and fiercely contested as to produce, it often seems, a kind of stalemate of competing narratives; you choose which one you believe, finally, according to temperament and tribal affiliation. Being there springs you from that trap. The physical configuration of wall and checkpoints and settlements tells the real story. Visiting Bethlehem you see that the wall is a land grab. Visiting Nablus you know that a possible Palestinian state is already vitiated by the presence of heavily armed religious fundamentalists who will kill rather than move. You know that areas of Palestinian habitation are so divided as to produce disconnected enclaves rather than the beginnings of a country. The result for me was an excruciating combination of sadness, anger and sense of betrayal. An Israeli voice came to mind, the imperturbable reasonableness of government spokesman Mark Regev, often heard on Radio 4’s Today Programme. It is a voice I’d empathised with and wanted to trust. Seeing the flatly contradictory facts on the ground, its even tone was revealed to me as the sound of a propaganda machine. I felt great anguish at the unnecessary suffering of the Palestinians and anger on my behalf but also on behalf of all the loving, reasonable, humane Jews I know and love in the diaspora who have been beguiled by understandable fear for Jewish survival and an admirable solidarity with the people of Israel into supporting the insupportable.
Hebron provided the trip’s most shocking encounter with the insupportable fundamentalism that is ruining lives and our chances of peace. It was the place I saw most vividly what the star of David, the Israeli flag, those symbols that to me have always meant home and familiarity must look like to those on the other side of the power structures and cultural edifices they represent. The challenge afterwards, my challenge at the moment, is to integrate these perspectives and contradictory stories to form the whole that comes closest to encompassing the complex reality of the situation.
The city remains the largest population centre in the West Bank. It is divided into two sectors, H1 and H2, the new town and old city, under Palestinian and Israeli control respectively. The old city is the cultural heart of Hebron, an ancient market centre where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived and worked together for many centuries. It is now a ghost town. Its economy is dead, its busy arcades shuttered and silent apart from a final few shops that are hanging on. In Hebron over all more than seven hundred shops have closed. The remaining Palestinians live with sixteen checkpoints and frequent curfews. Walking through the empty arcades felt a bit like being in a point-and-shoot video game — that same eerie stage-set feel, that latent violence. The Palestinians now live beside four hundred or so settlers and fifteen hundred Israeli soldiers. The settlers are paid by various supporting organisations to be there which means that they have nothing to do except pray and harass the local inhabitants. I can’t speak for the former but certainly the evidence was clear that they set about the latter with great energy. We walked down a narrow street directly above which settlers have built homes. A net is hung at first floor height to catch the rubbish the settlers throw down on the Palestinians below although obviously it can’t prevent the dirty water, urine and occasional bottle of acid that is emptied over their heads. There is no flowing water in the old city; there is a system of wells and roof-top water tanks. Settlers vandalise the Palestinians water tanks so that their water supply empties down through their ceilings and is gone until a new tank can be found. Outside three Palestinian shops that are caught on the far side of a barrier between them and the very edge of the settlers’ new conurbation, a van has been parked for many months playing loud settler anthems. It was playing them when we visited. I was told that they were doing it less than they used to. It had been playing them twenty-four hours a day for months.
Hebron is one place we saw the infamous division of different roads into those for settler usage and Palestinian usage that gives rise to talk of apartheid. Whether you agree with the use of that term or not there is a technical sense in which it is very hard to disavow. Illegal settlers living in Palestinian territory do so under Israeli civil law. Palestinians in the same territory live under an accumulation of more than fifteen hundred military orders. Two populations in the same place under two different legal systems determined by their ethnicity. Clearly this fulfils the very definition of apartheid. From afar I had thought the deployment of that term crude and obfuscatory rhetoric. Now it seems an accurate description of the legal situation in the West Bank.
The reason Hebron is so important to settlers and Palestinians alike is that it contains the tombs of the patriarchs in the Ibrahimi mosque. It is there that during my first visit to Israel in 1994 Dr Baruch Goldstein, now celebrated as saint and martyr by the settlers, massacred twenty-nine worshippers at Friday prayers during Ramadan. Part of the Israeli response was to divide the mosque, turning sixty-five per cent of it into a synagogue. Muslim pilgrims pass through a checkpoint of turnstiles and metal detectors to get there.
As I wandered the mosque I stopped beside Abraham’s tomb. It was an awesome experience to be in that place at the very well spring of the Jewish tradition, to stand by Abraham, the first Jew and father of all three heavenly faiths, all of their genius, beauty and unending violence. I noticed that there was one position you could look through and glimpse the synagogue. In a moment that encapsulated for me the strangeness of seeing the world through the prism of this journey, I lingered there, staring across, in my socks with my head uncovered and, as I’ve said, heard the amidah being chanted. I felt intensely connected to those words, to that world I was now seeing from outside but also deeply upset and disturbed by all I had seen it could mean. What came to mind was the Jewish poet Paul Celan, in particular a poem of his I have by heart. I started reciting it to myself. It contains the mysterious line ‘How many dumb ones? Seventeen.’ One critical conjecture is that seventeen falls just short of the formerly eighteen sections of the amidah, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy still commonly referred to as the eighteen. The poem, suffused for that moment with all I now knew of the erasure of the Palestinian landscape and the disappearance of a plausibly hopeful Palestinian future, seems to refer to the erasure of ancient Jewish culture in the shoah. The poem ends with a devastating effect: the same line is repeated three times with letters removed until only the vowels remain. Those, you realise, are the letters that are not written down in Hebrew; all that is left on the page finally is the invisible, the absent. From memory it goes like this:
No more sand art, no sand books, no masters.
Nothing on the dice.
How many dumb ones? Seventeen.
Your question, your answer.
Your song, what does it know?
Deep in snow.
Many years after that historical tragedy we are beset by questions of how the wider population could have tolerated the actions of its government or the minority of ideological extremists, how complicit they were, why they didn’t say anything, how much they knew and how possible it was not to know. I am hugely grateful that such questions regarding the Palestinian situation have been settled for me. I have seen and I know. Now like many thousands of other Jews in Israel and around the world, I protest.
Adam Foulds lives in London. He is the author of two novels and a narrative poem. He was named the Sunday Times Young Writer Of The Year in 2008, and has won the Costa Poetry Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the 2009 South Bank Show Literature Award. His recent novel, The Quickening Maze, was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize.