Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hebron and my basic training in the Israeli Army

This post is a continuation of my experiences doing basic training in the Israeli army in 1994.

As part of the basic training, we had to spend a six hour night shift guarding the base. To make it easier we were allocated partners for the shift and I was paired with the only Haredi Jew in our group of new immigrants doing three week basic training.
I no longer remember his name, the Russians liked him because his wife was Russian and he stood out.  He spoke Hebrew with a strong Yiddish inflection but the key thing about him was that he lived in the heart of Hebron.  Hebron is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank with Jewish settlers right in its heart.  There are I believe, about 400 settlers living there and they are regarded as among the most extreme settlers in the West Bank and a source of constant provocations and tension with the Palestinian population.

Our lone Haredi told us he was doing military service because it would allow him to get additional child support (he had five children) and to carry a weapon.  He also saw it as his duty to educate us about Hebron and constantly explained that Hebron, or rather the "Tomb of the Patriarchs" in the heart of Hebron is the burial site of Abraham and other forefathers (and mothers) and the second most holy site in Judaism (it is also sacred to Moslems).  All this was recounted with a typical slight sing-song Yiddish inflection.
During the peace negotiations with the Palestinians in the 'Nineties a Jewish terrorist opened fire in the tomb, killing 29 Palestinians.

During the six hours that we guarded the base, I told him about my family history and he told me about himself. To my astonishment he turned out to be a former Irish-Catholic postman from Brooklyn. This revelation caused me to take another look at the man. I suddenly noticed that he was taller than me - and among the rather short Russian Jews, I was noticeably tall (in England I am average height).  He was also red-headed.
The next day in the dining room I couldn't keep my new information to myself. "x is a convert" I told someone next to me, "he's a former Irish Catholic from Brooklyn". Everyone who heard this was stunned and you could hear a buzz as the information travelled across the dining room, like waves of grass bending in the wind.

I have since learnt that Rabbinical Judaism regards it as a grave sin to remind a convert of their origins and they are quite right not the least because it is very difficult to convert to Judaism and requires a year of study. I sometimes remember the incident and feel ashamed of my action but with it I feel a sense of annoyance that someone who was not born into Judaism should act in a way that makes life difficult for those of us who had less choice in their religion.

I have never visited Hebron or the Tomb of the Patriarchs, but I should add two important facts about the tomb, which contributed tot he Jewish extremism round it.  First of all it is one of what were known to the Jews as the four holy cities (Tsafed, Tiberias, Jerusalem and Hebron) in which the Jews maintained a presence across the centuries. In 1929 there were riots in Palestine and 70 Hebron Jews were killed and the rest forced to leave.  The issue was a celebrated cause among right-wing Jews.  The other pertinent fact is that Jews were banned from entering the Tomb of the Patriarchs from the late 1300s until the Israeli conquest in 1967 and despite that apparently maintained their connection with the site, worshipping on the steps at one of the entrances.  

1 comment:

  1. I could swear I visited a tomb of the patriarchs about 40 years ago in East Jerusalem. Maybe it was a different set of patriarchs.


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