Sheldon Adelson recently implied that Israel does not need to be a democracy, pointing out that there is no mention of the term in the Bible and that “God did not talk about Israel remaining democratic.”
While democracy is not an imperative feature of Israel for Adelson, Judaism is. To understand his vision of the Jewish state’s character, there is no need to activate one’s imagination or search in far away places. It is enough to visit Hebron. The importance of the city in Jewish history is undeniable. It is where, according to belief, the patriarchs are buried; where Abraham settled when he reached the Land of Israel, and where King David was crowned. For that reason, Hebron is the place where Israel’s character as a Jewish state should be examined, specifically where the meaning of Israel’s Jewish identity manifests daily.
Two weeks ago, we read the Chayei Sarah Torah portion, which describes Abraham’s purchase of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. In the last few decades, this Sabbath has attracted hundreds of Jewish citizens to visit the settlements and pray at the Tomb. On these days of religious significance, Israeli presence in Hebron – both settlers and soldiers – increases.
This is not to say that their presence is minimal the rest of the year. Around 850 settlers live in the area of Hebron that is under full Israeli military control (h2). They are Israeli citizens living among tens of thousands of Palestinian residents of the city who are not citizens. In the last two decades, the area, once a busy urban center that spans the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the Old City and what was once a bustling market, has become a ghost town.
This change is the direct result of consistent military presence in the area, a routine of settler violence against Palestinians, and probably more than anything else, the strict policy of segregation enforced by the IDF in areas under its control. This policy, that includes restrictions on freedom of movement on certain streets for Palestinians both on foot and by car, began as a result of the massacre of 29 Palestinians executed by Baruch Goldstein in February, 1994 in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. This situation has led 77 percent of businesses to shut down, and about half of the Palestinian population of downtown Hebron has left.
On days like Shabbat Chayei Sarah, the routine violations of Palestinian freedoms and security in Hebron are intensified. During the first years of the Second Intifada, when I was a soldier and commander in Hebron, we would impose a curfew on the Palestinians – which meant they were prohibited from leaving their homes and walking the streets; and more IDF patrols were deployed in the Old City. Patrols are a daily occurrence in Hebron: Groups of soldiers scanning the city, going into private homes of innocent people (chosen at random) at any time, day and night, and randomly stopping people to “check” them.
The IDF employs these patrols to make its presence known, to show the local population who is in charge and create the feeling that they are constantly persecuted. A feeling that there is no place where they are free of the watchful eye and strong arm of the military. The soldiers currently serving in Hebron act similarly: They also observe the religious days by increasing their presence in the Old City.
Currently Hebron, maybe more than any other place, begs the question: What does it mean to be Jewish in 2014? The city reflects not only Israel’s deteriorating democratic ideals, but also the character and substance we ascribe to Judaism. There, and throughout the entire occupied territories, millions of Palestinians are living under military control that they did not choose and in which they have no say.
Their basic rights are being stripped in the name of Judaism in Hebron. People are not free to walk in their own city on the streets on which they live, in the name of Judaism. IDF warrants have closed down shops whose doors have Stars of David along with racist hate speech often sprayed on them, in the name of Judaism. Soldiers enter people’s homes in the middle of the night in the name of Judaism. Adelson’s vision of Israel as a Jewish and undemocratic state is being realized every single day in Hebron.
Some may argue that the reality in Hebron exposes the tension between the state’s Jewish and democratic features. I think this reality exposes a different question: What is Jewish about imposing a military regime on a defenseless civilian population? Does an occupying repressive regime deserve to be called Jewish at all?
The writer served as an infantry combat soldier and commander in the IDF, and is a founding member of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO of veteran combatants who through published testimony, lectures, meetings and tours attempt to give the Israeli public a fuller picture of everyday life in the Occupied Territories since the start of the Second Intifada.