Herzog, Hebron and Chesed | Atira Winchester

This sunday evening the world watched like the 11 of Israele President Isaac Herzog lit the first Chanukah candle in an official ceremony at the Patriarchs’ Tomb in Hebron.

No other sitting president has been housed inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs – also the home of the Ibrahimi Mosque – since 1967. No other president, regardless of political affiliation, has publicly aligned himself with what is widely accepted as the “hardest” of settlements.

Just 28 km from Jerusalem, Hebron is home to 200,000 Palestinians. It is the second largest city in the West Bank and the only Palestinian city with a Jewish settlement at its heart.

The Old City of Hebron has 34,000 Palestinian residents and a Jewish settlement of around 800 people. In 1997, with the 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacre still fresh in the minds of the people, Israel retained the responsibility for the security of this area within the framework of Hebron Accord.

With a openly declared As a policy of segregation and separation, the IDF has closed large swathes of the city to Palestinian foot traffic, closed hundreds of businesses, and stepped up patrols and control of the city to a point where Palestinian life has become almost unbearable. Only the most determined (or poorest) Palestinians remain in the Old City under this regime.

In my role as Director of Programming and Content for the New Israel Fund UK, I have visited many places in the West Bank and have seen the occupation up close. In 2019, I visited a Physicians for Human Rights Israel mobile clinic in the small village of Al-Lubban ash-Sharqia where dozens of sick Palestinians waited hours in the brutal summer heat for the chance to see medical professionals who, because of health inequalities, would normally never reach their city.

I went to Barta’a, where a Palestinian taxi driver named Mahmoud recounted his experience of being brutally attacked by settlers while he was just trying to drive from his hometown to Jenin. You do not forget the experience of seeing the reality of the occupation up close: the brutality, the despair and the quiet, slow stranglehold created by the policies of the Israeli government.

And yet nothing prepared me for the horror of Hebron.

If you want to see the logical conclusion of the occupation, visit Hebron.

Hebron has haunted you for years. The main streets of the old town are desolate and intentionally ‘sterilized’.

Palestinians are prohibited from entering through their own entrance gates on the Old City’s main street, Shuhada. Checkpoints at most street corners (21 in total) ensure that Palestinians are regularly humiliated through routine searches, a few meters from their homes.

Meanwhile, the region’s 800 or so Jewish settlers roam free, protected by a similar number of IDF members: one soldier for one settler.

There are no winners in Hebron. To live there as a Jewish settler is to be complicit in the moral turpitude of the status quo. To live there as a Palestinian is to suffer. In this way, we are all the losers in a city that was once vibrant and filled with commerce and life.

When I visited Hebron with Breaking the Silence, an NIF beneficiary, they told us how the IDF uses the city to ‘gibberish‘- solidarity training for soldiers – toughen them up and help them create links around their common mission and vision. ‘Hebron zeh Hibur‘was written in large letters on the walls of the IDF post. Hebron means Connection: in the land of our fathers, at the tomb of Patriarch Abraham, and by extension, to the vision of separation and settlement.

I care about what is happening in Hebron because I care deeply about human rights and the end of the occupation.

But for me, it’s also personal.

Just like Herzog – who mentioned this when lighting the first candle – I have a relative who was caught up in the infamous Hebron Riots of 1929. That relative was my grandfather, Reb David Winchester, a United States-born Yeshiva student of Hebron at the time.

Stabbed 13 times and taken for dead, he came out of this experience with redoubled dedication to hesed, the Jewish principle of benevolent love.

Those who knew him say that as a rabbi in Albany Park in Chicago, he would come home in shirt sleeves in the winter, after giving his coat to people on the streets. Food packages appeared anonymously on people’s doorsteps; he welcomed people with fleas into his home.

Even his paycheck eventually had to be handed over to my grandmother to make sure he didn’t give everything before he got home.

I am telling you this story because the lesson my grandfather drew from his experience, and which I strive to draw from him almost a hundred years later, is the imperative to act with hesed, real kindness. The imperative that we as Jews have to see the difficulties of others and to be empathetic.

I fervently wish this is what Herzog, who verbally pledged to be “everyone’s president” and “lower the flames” of violence, would learn as well.

I’m less interested in whether Herzog is courting the right with this visit to Hebron, or is positioning himself as potential PM in the 2028 election, as some have suggested.

I want him to understand that when he lights a Chanukah with fascist political figures such as Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir (who until recently had pictures of Baruch Goldstein hanging on his wall), he turns his back on the dizzying levels of unemployment, poverty and usury and humiliation that shatter the morale of life under the occupation.

Atira Winchester is Director of Programming and Content at the New Israel Fund in the UK. His previous roles include as Head of Creative Learning at JW3. She is an active member of the ASSIF equal community at the NNLS in London. Atira lived in Jerusalem between 2000-2008.

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