Shlomo’s World

Shlomo Wollins begins his narration well before we reach Hebron, a city on the very fault line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His tour, by car and by foot, on this late January day is an entry into a worldview of The Chosen and The Other, in which Jews, God’s Good Guys, are the victims of Arabs, but it’s also a world in which Jews are victors over Arabs.

At times, it’s a persuasive, irresistible message.

“You see that bus stop beside the road,” he says, indicating a nondescript crossroads on the drive south from Jerusalem. “That’s where three Jews were gunned down, including a 10-year-old boy and a pregnant woman. Just like that — as they waited for the bus. I came down and helped push dirt into three graves.”

I don’t doubt that Wollins did just that. His bearded, 40-something face is creased with kindness. His handshake is firm. His hug is warm. He was born and raised in America and tells me he made and lost a fortune in corporate America before immigrating to Israel. Inevitably, his conversation circles back to his dark vision of inevitable war.

“Right now the majority of people want to conclude that war is not necessary. That is a delusion,” Wollins says.

I crane my neck for a swift look as our car races by the bus stop. There’s a glimpse of a makeshift stone memorial. There isn’t much else to see there, except for a handful of Jews waiting for a bus.

Wollins himself usually rides the bus to Hebron, so he’s not absolutely sure how to navigate. He almost casually notes that a wrong turn would land us in an Arab village, with potentially deadly consequences.

On the way, we make two wrong turns. Each time, our driver, Orit, the third member of our party, wheels a hasty retreat. Perhaps the element of surprise works in our favor. Some bewildered Arab children seem as though they aren’t expecting an Israeli license plate. Had they been ready for us, would these adorable sprites really have lobbed rocks, or worse?

The unreality, the illogic of it all leaves me more fearless than I know I should be. Even the main road that we stick to runs almost exclusively through West Bank territory populated almost entirely by Arabs. Orit, a journalist I know to be intrepid, clearly looks nervous. Maybe she’s trying to remember if she got that spare tire repaired.

But we arrive in Hebron without incident — just ahead of a tour bus of mostly middle-aged U.S. visitors. If it’s safe for them today….

The bus’ appearance also says something about the irrepressible urge for normality, which asserts itself in Israel at any possible opportunity.

It’s no secret why a tour bus would stop here. Hebron and its environs are revered by both Muslim and Jewish faithful as the burial place, in the Cave of Machpelah, of patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. There’s been a Jewish presence on and off since then — and when it was off, it usually was in the wake of a bloody, unprovoked event. A local museum commemorates a 1929 expulsion pogrom that killed 67 Jews and wounded 60. When Jordan controlled the area from 1948 to 1967, its officials tried to raze all traces of the Jewish quarter, including the medieval synagogue. For that matter, over hundreds of years, the Muslims in charge had denied Jews and Christians access to Cave of Machpelah site.

So after Israelis overran the area during the 1967 War, there was plenty of pent up Jewish aspiration. The result was the nearby Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, which began at an old army installation and now houses some 6,500 souls. And, later, Jewish settlers pushed into Hebron itself, where they now occupy four, ever-at-risk neighborhoods, with about 1,000 residents in all.

Everything about Hebron speaks of a separateness dividing Israelis and Palestinians. A no-man’s land has developed between where Israelis live and where Palestinians live. And this dead zone is patrolled by young Israeli soldiers who make the Jewish quarter livable for Israelis outnumbered somewhere between 80-to-1 and 300-to-1, depending on who’s doing the counting. Those are bad odds even for Jews rough-and-ready enough to stage an Alamo-like stand.

This fundamental, almost unquestioned hostility and separateness is discomfiting to me, the child of Jews active in the civil rights movement. But here, in Wollins’ world, it’s a given. And in truth, it’s getting to be a given even for Israelis actively working for peaceful coexistence.

Wollins points to a hill opposite the Jewish quarter, from where Arab snipers used to fire, until the army finally cleared them out. He walks us through the school’s play yard, onto which Arab neighbors on the other side of the divide would toss rocks at grade-schoolers. Up an incline we approach the house where an Arab intruder stabbed to death a rabbi. And in the flats, a monument marks where a sniper shot a 10-month-old girl in a stroller through the head.

Hebron is no place for these Jews to live, except that they consider this site so holy. Besides the patriarchs, it’s also the traditional burial site of Ruth (the biblical grandmother of King David) and Jesse (David’s father). The trail to these tombs snakes between quaint vineyards and Arab homes along a path blocked from open access by razor wire and from view by corrugated metal and opaque plastic. The shielding isn’t bulletproof — and plenty of bullet holes attest to this — but it effectively obscures a clear shot at passing Jews.

But Wollins’ tour is as much about Jewish victory as victimization. He shows off a new apartment building that now stands like a defiant sentinel over land the rabbi’s knife-wielding assailant had once crossed. Next to this new building lies a former Arab parcel that Hebron’s Jews recently purchased over the fury of local Arab officials.

The Jewish quarter is fully rebuilt, sparkling with ancient stones and modern conveniences. So is the medieval synagogue, which a few years ago had been purposefully desecrated through its use as a trash pit and animal pen.

And Jews can once again enter the mosque that sits over the Cave of Machpelah.

Here, alas, there’s still a problem, says Wollins. Jews can only enter half the mosque, except for a few days a year. So some of the ancestors remain out of reach, because of the Muslims who control the grounds. Muslims, he adds, can visit the entire site, but it doesn’t work the other way around. One more example, he says, of Muslim injustice and the Israeli government’s tolerance of inequality when it comes to Jewish settlers.

But that’s not exactly right, as it turns out. After 1967, when Israeli troops took control of the region, Muslims and Jews had access to all parts of the mosque. Then, in 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a radical American doctor who’d immigrated to adjacent Kiryat Arba, entered the mosque armed with a Glil rifle. He opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 125 before being overcome and beaten to death.

After that attack, which was almost exactly 12 years ago, the mosque was divided in half. Jews and Muslims no longer mingle. A few days per year, the whole site is open only to Jews or only to Muslims.

What about that? I ask Wollins, after hearing an Israeli guide explain the actual arrangement and its history to a group of tourists.

How does Goldstein figure into Wollins’ narrative? Wollins, after all, chose not to mention Goldstein on his own, let alone acknowledge that it was Goldstein’s actions, not Muslim perfidy, that precipitated the division of the holy site.

Wollins tries to explain: “I can’t say for sure, because I really don’t know. Maybe he snapped. But I can tell you story after story that I’ve heard of what a good man this doctor was. And I’ve heard from people here — and they say they have good reason to believe it — that Goldstein had advance knowledge of an Arab massacre that was about to happen. And that’s what he was trying to prevent.”

I learn later that Goldstein’s grave has become something of shrine for the radical right wing. And that the graveside inscription reads, in part: “Here lies the saint, Dr. Baruch Kappel Goldstein…. His hands are innocent and his heart is pure. He was killed as a martyr of God.”

To me, it sounds a lot like the posters lionizing the Muslim suicide bombers. I can’t resist thinking that the only thing missing is the 70 virgins waiting to greet Goldstein in heaven.

For his part, Wollins prefers to change the subject, like to a discussion of the peace process, which he regards as a disaster.

What is the better option? I ask.

He says he likes the way it was before then, before Palestinians had any pledge from Israel to turn over land to form a Palestinian state. Sure, he concedes, they would attack us, and we would attack them. And some people would die violently on a regular basis. But overall, that status quo was acceptable compared to the present. He could have lived that way forever — on the presumption that Israel would keep the lands it won in battle and continue to settle them.

And what about now? How can Israel hold onto all this territory and retain its Jewish identity — if that means that most residents of this greater Israel would, in fact, be Arab Muslims?

Wollins has an answer for that, too. Inevitably, he says, there will be a war, and the Muslims must, in the end, leave the land.

That is Wollins’ world — and that of many Israelis, though still a minority. Take that last paragraph and replace the word Muslim with Jew and that’s the world of Hamas, which has now assumed control of the Palestinian Authority. The leaders of Hamas seem equally certain that it is the Jews who ultimately must exit.

And did I mention that these visionaries of conflict confidently proclaim God to be on their side?

On this week after President’s Day, I am reminded that Abraham Lincoln once admonished the Holy Rollers of his day by saying that he never presumed that God was on his side. He could only pray that he was on God’s side.

With all due respect, the world of my friend Wollins is not my world. And I shudder to think that the best that so many can hope for is a bloody time when opposing worlds are fated to collide.


Israel Reenters Image Fight on Campuses

More and more Jewish leaders are becoming aware of the dangers posed by a festering anti-Israel sentiment on U.S. college campuses. A recent poll showed that when students were asked whether they were more "sympathetic" to Israel or the Palestinians, 28 percent answered Israel and 22 percent said the Palestinians.

Some may not be too alarmed by those figures. After all, Israel is still in the lead. But given that the general U.S. population sides with Israel by more than 3-1 (49 percent to 14 percent) and that this poll comes at a time when Israel is defending itself against the most unprecedented campaign of terror in history, these numbers must concern all of us.

Israel cannot afford to lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation of American leaders.

When I assumed the office of minister of Diaspora Affairs, I planned to make the deteriorating situation on the campuses a central part of my agenda. But I, myself, did not understand the magnitude of the problem until I went on a tour of colleges in September.

The article I wrote following that visit, in which I argued that the passion, sophistication and intimidation tactics of the forces of anti-Zionism were winning the day against a largely silent and unprepared Jewish student community, spurred much discussion and debate.

This subject is high on the agenda of many organizations that have been warning for years about the growing hostility toward Israel on campuses. And whether it be Hillel dispatching Israeli advocacy interns across the country, AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) mounting a voter drive to register pro-Israel voters or the Caravan for Democracy bringing prominent Israeli politicians to colleges across America, these organizations are clearly fighting back.

Equally important, the work of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a partnership between Hillel and the Shusterman family that includes nearly 30 national organizations, shows that efforts to coordinate the work of a number of heretofore separate bodies can be effective.

Individuals have shown that they, too, can make a difference. For example, Joey Low of New York is sponsoring college tours for young, articulate Israelis who show their American peers a different side of Israel than the one they see on CNN. And Rachel Fish almost single-handedly compelled Harvard’s Divinity School to consider rejecting a donation of millions of dollars from an Arab sheik who supports anti-Semitic and terrorist organizations.

But there is one body that for the last few years has been conspicuously absent from this struggle: the State of Israel. During the 1990s, Israel stopped all of its programming on college campuses, as well as many of its auxiliary public relations efforts, because it was convinced that good policies (i.e. the peace process) needed no explaining.

At the same time, our enemies were vastly increasing their efforts to turn America’s future leadership against Israel. By the time the Palestinians launched their war of terror, our enemies on campus faced little coherent opposition in their attempt to delegitimize the Jewish State.

Our government must re-enter the fray and stand shoulder to shoulder with those organizations that have worked so hard on campuses to defend Israel against this unprecedented onslaught. Today, Israel is beginning to do just that. Last month, one part of a Cabinet meeting was devoted to this subject, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on my fellow ministers to get more involved, asking them, among other things, to include college campuses on their itineraries when they travel abroad.

Next week in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish state and the spiritual center of the Jewish people, 1,000 Jewish students from around the world will gather to address the critical issues facing them and to chart a course of action. I am proud to be hosting this first-ever "summit," which was made possible by the coordinated efforts of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Jewish Agency, Hillel, the Israel on Campus Coalition and the World Union of Jewish Students, as well as a number of other student organizations.

Israel is also coordinating a project aimed at providing information and training to the approximately 2,500 students who are studying there on long-term programs. And the government is working with leading educators and organizations to strengthen Israel studies in Jewish high schools in order to prepare young students to meet the challenges they will confront on campus.

With every initiative, the Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs will encourage existing organizations to pool their resources, energies and talents, and we will work to ensure that Israel’s government gives its full support to these efforts.

For my part, I plan to continue emphasizing the issue of human rights. In recent years, the principles of human rights have been twisted beyond recognition and are used as a bludgeon against Israel. Ideas that once were used in the struggle to protect basic individual freedoms are now used to defend regimes that deny freedom to their own subjects and attack states such as Israel that uphold them.

On college campuses, these warped arguments have been packaged to evoke a special resonance, and their false premises must be continuously exposed. Those who would defend Israel must not shy away from the human rights debate. On the contrary, it is precisely in the context of human rights that Israel’s record, as a democracy defending itself against terrorism, is most impressive.

The battle ahead surely will not be an easy one. For too long, too many Israelis felt that the problems in the Diaspora were not their concern.

Likewise, too many in the Diaspora thought Israel’s public relations image was not their problem. Now, we all once again recognize a central truth that we must never forget: We are in this together.

By working hand in hand, we can turn the anti-Israel tide and again make the Jewish State a source of pride for Jewish university students across the world.

Natan Sharansky will speak on Monday, April 19 at UC Irvine. For tickets, call (800) 969-5584, ext. 247.

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week.

Return to Founding Ideals Poses Challenge

The major overall challenge we face today is that of returning to the ideals of a democratic, pluralistic Jewish State that found their expression in the noble words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

What its authors envisaged was a state in which all citizens would enjoy equality of status and of rights, irrespective of race, religion or sex.

Unfortunately, not only has this idyllic condition not yet been attained, but it seems to be even further from reality, as economic and social gaps widen, hostility between different ethnic groups increases and new fissures appear, for example, between native Israelis and foreign workers, Jewish citizens and non-Jewish immigrants, the haves and the have-nots.

The need to educate all Israeli citizens and residents in the basic principles of democracy and pluralism, in the Jewish tradition of "love your neighbor as yourself," is paramount. The challenge is to find appropriate means of inculcating these principles.

Development of formal and informal frameworks, as well as development of a cadre of leaders who will, both by precept and example, help to put good intentions into effect — these are vital to our future.

Given the current dismal state of our economy, another challenge is how to restore the ideal of "Avodah Ivrit," Jewish labor, which used to be the pride of the yishuv, Israel’s prestate society.

This means structural change in the economy — decent wages and working conditions for all, development of public projects that will provide employment (as the WPA did in the United States in the 1930s), good vocational training and retraining — and a greater degree of social justice in determining the salary levels of senior executives and government employees in the public sector.

Economic prosperity will not be restored until we make significant cuts in expenditures on military equipment, on settlements across the Green Line and on the construction of the bypass roads and tunnels that serve the settler population and increasingly deface what is left of Israel’s "green and pleasant land." In other words, the peace process must be jump-started again, based on a readiness to make major sacrifices.

And apropos the land, we have to relate urgently and seriously to the increased pollution of our soil, our water and our air.

There is much to do. The time is short. We have to band together to ensure that the next 55 years see progress, rather than continued regression.

We need honest, dedicated, selfless leadership — and we need far more women in positions of decision-making and the determination of policy. We need an end to male domination based on military prowess.

As for the Jewishness of the Jewish State: We need equal status and rights for all streams of Judaism and an increase in Jewish education, even for those who are not religiously observant.

Those are the challenges. Now to work!

Alice Shalvi, a feminist activist and educator, was born in Germany in 1926 and educated in England from 1934 to 1949. She has lived and worked in Jerusalem ever since.