I. The Old City
Should I lie to an Israeli soldier in order to be allowed to pray? This was a theological dilemma I never studied in Sunday school, one I never thought I would have to confront.
Anxious and on edge, the soldier was standing in front of me, rifle in hand, blocking my way, and all I had to do was tell him I was 50 years old, and then I could pray at one of Islam’s holiest sites. One minor problem: I’m 37. Typically, when violence happens in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israeli authorities ban men younger than 50 from entering Haram al-Sharif, the compound known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount. And there had just been a small—by Middle Eastern standards anyway—spasm of violence. Three Palestinians had shot and killed two Israeli police officers near al-Aqsa Mosque inside Haram al-Sharif, which led to Israeli retaliations, which led to mass Palestinian protests, which led to yet another predictable round of stories datelined Jerusalem about the legendary Middle Eastern “cycle of violence.”
When I had arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, outside Tel Aviv, a few days earlier, I had not anticipated this conundrum. This was not my first time in Israel. I’m a Pakistani-American Muslim, and I’ve been to Israel more times than half the Jews I know.
At the airport, I had been greeted by the giant, flawless face of the model Bar Refaeli, stretched across a billboard to sell me designer sunglasses. Tel Aviv is modern, its politics are progressive (at least by the dysfunctional standards of the Middle East), and much of the food there isn’t kosher. An hour later I was in Jerusalem, which might as well be on a different planet.
About Jerusalem: It is maybe the most contested real estate on Earth, sacred to each of the Abrahamic religions. For Muslims, Jerusalem is al-Quds, “the holy one,” and, many hope, the site of a future Palestinian capital; it’s currently occupied territory. For Jews, it’s their biblical home, finally liberated and reunified in 1967, a dream fulfilled after 2,000 years. For Christians, it’s the home of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to be the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and entombment.
Ever since the creation of the modern state of Israel—a miracle for the Jews, the Nakba(“catastrophe”) for the Palestinians—Jerusalem’s daily weather forecast could be described as sunny with a slight chance of apocalypse. The city frequently erupts; lives are lost on both sides. Israelis fear their Palestinian neighbors, and Palestinians are suffocated and immiserated by the Israeli occupation. It’s a real-estate dispute, yes, but seeded with a profound religious complexity that casts a shadow across the Middle East, and all the way to America, where many Jewish and Muslim communities circle each other with apprehension and mistrust.
“You. Fifty?” the young Israeli soldier asked me. He inspected my U.S. passport, hunting for my birth date. Muslim men who are 49 pose an existential threat to Israel; at 50, evidently, we turn into neutered kittens. Which means that all that stood between me and my chance to perform Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque was a simple lie—as well as a squad of nervous soldiers carrying automatic rifles. I figured Allah would give me a celestial get-out-of-jail-free card for a white lie, but I haven’t aged horribly and can’t pass for 50.
“Fifty? Fifty?” the soldier asked again, as I was pushed in the back by the bottleneck of Muslims trying to squeeze into a narrow gap.
Next to me, Abdullah Antepli, my guide and traveling companion, pleaded with another soldier. He proffered his passport, mixing his Turkish-accented English with bits of Arabic and Hebrew. Abdullah, who is usually jovial, reddened as his frustration grew.
The irony was thick. Abdullah, an imam and the director of Muslim affairs at Duke University, as well as a teacher in the divinity school there, was in Jerusalem to head a delegation from the Muslim Leadership Initiative, which he created with the Shalom Hartman Institute. The initiative brings American Muslims to the proudly Zionist Hartman Institute, headquartered in Jerusalem, for an intensive course about Judaism—and about how Jews understand the meaning of Zionism.Ever since the creation of the modern state of Israel, Jerusalem’s daily weather forecast could be described as sunny with a slight chance of apocalypse.
“He’s 50. Him. Not me,” I lied to the officer while pointing to Abdullah, who on a good day looks every one of his 44 years; that day, fortuitously, was not a good day.
“Okay, you come,” the young officer said to Abdullah, allowing the exasperated imam inside the compound. “You stay,” he said to me officiously.
With my small lie, Abdullah, ostensibly a security threat, walked in at the nearest entry point—a darkly comic episode in a surreal landscape, where everyone is perpetually nervous and obsessed with security.
I grew up eating Hebrew National kosher hot dogs in my Fremont, California, home. Back then, halal meat was alien to the local supermarket, so Jewish dietary restrictions came to the rescue of an overweight Pakistani American kid. Straightforward anti-Semitism was not taught in my Muslim household or in weekend Koran classes. My father never dusted off The Protocols of the Elders of Zion from the living-room bookshelf. Instead, I carpooled to an all-male Jesuit high school with my Jewish neighbor Brian, with whom I never debated the implications of the wars of 1948 or 1967, but with whom I did regularly have heated exchanges about the merits of Star Trek: The Next Generation versus Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Growing up, I was taught that Christians and Jews were considered “People of the Book,” part of the same Abrahamic tradition as Muslims. But the specter of Israel, the suffering of Palestinians, and the occupation of Jerusalem in particular loomed large in conversations at home and in the religious teachings I received. When visiting Pakistan, I heard relatives and friends lament how “the Jews” oppressed “the Muslims.” In America, the Muslims I knew discussed their envy of Jewish power and influence: If only we Muslims were as organized and strategic as the Jews, we could replicate their success. Among my community, respect for the Jews’ mythical status as the magical minority was its own subtle form of anti-Semitism. Sometimes my dad would read aloud the credits at the end of a movie and say, “Spielberg … Jewish. Cohn … Jewish. Adelstein? Definitely Yehudi! See, Wajahat, if Jews can dominate Hollywood, there’s no reason you can’t!”
As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I was a member of the Muslim Student Association. I recall listening to more passionate khutbahs—Friday sermons—about the injustices in Palestine than stories about the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. The conflict in the Holy Land superseded all other Muslim suffering, including the ongoing occupation of Kashmir, the repression of Chechen Muslims, and the daily racism experienced by many African-American Muslims. I became a bit actor in a never-ending cosmic drama. I would parrot a script written by others, and serve as a proxy soldier for a tragedy happening across the Atlantic. The Jewish kids from the campus Hillel were my foil. We showed up to “debates,” predictable affairs where each side cheered and booed when appropriate but rarely engaged in a constructive dialogue.
We marched, chanted, rallied. We wore zionism is racism T-shirts. We thought we were differentiating Judaism from Zionism, the political ideology espoused by Theodor Herzl at the turn of the 20th century, which argued for the creation of a Jewish state in the Jews’ ancestral homeland of Israel. But too few of us Muslims bothered to ask how the many American Jews who consider themselves in some way Zionist felt upon hearing that Zionism was racism.
Video: The ‘Most Contentious Place on Earth’
I’ve moved quite a distance from my student-activist days. I first met Abdullah Antepli, the imam, in 2011. Abdullah is always in search of Jewish conversation partners who are willing to discuss something more than a shared affection for hummus. He found an unlikely one in Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli journalist, a Shalom Hartman Institute fellow, and a self-described former Jewish extremist. Born in Brooklyn to Holocaust survivors, Halevi grew up hearing warnings from his traumatized father about how the Jews will always be hated and persecuted. Unsurprisingly, Halevi became radicalized as a young man. He once told me, solemnly, that he could describe 24 ways that Israel could be destroyed by its neighbors. (I stopped him after the second scenario.)
Abdullah cooked up the Muslim Leadership Initiative with Halevi in 2013. The Shalom Hartman Institute itself was created by David Hartman, a rabbi who left Montreal for Israel in 1971. He wanted to produce thinkers who would elevate the quality of Jewish life by debating and teaching how Judaism and Israel are functioning in the modern world. The institute is now run by his son Rabbi Donniel Hartman.
On my first Hartman Institute trip with Abdullah, in 2013, I had been asked to lead a panel about Islamophobia in America. At the end of the panel, one of the Jewish Israeli attendees had told me, “I didn’t know Muslims could be funny.” Another had confessed, “When I heard they were bringing Muslim leaders here, I assumed you’d all be like [then–Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.”
The bar had been low.
For my second trip, the bar was a lot higher.
The Muslim Leadership Initiative didn’t turn me into a Zionist “interfaith Trojan horse”—as I’ve been described by a few Muslim and Arab American activists. Quite the opposite—my experience in Israel underscored for me the urgency of working out how Palestinians could emerge from under the often-brutal Israeli occupation. I also remain committed to keeping this conflict from continually leaching into America, poisoning the relations between the religions and inspiring the worst, drunk angels of Jewish and Muslim communities to rise and fight in a Pyrrhic battle.
But what my first trip with the initiative did for me was this: It turned the Jews into complicated humans. It exposed me to their narratives. On my first trip, I was overwhelmed by the reality that this mess seemed unfixable. But I was also overwhelmed by what I discovered was a gap in my knowledge. I was surrounded, at the Hartman Institute and on my forays into places such as Tel Aviv, by liberal Israelis who supported a two-state solution. Some of them didn’t know very much about Islam, but in the sheltering confines of the institute, there was not only respect for my Muslim faith, but also an acknowledgment that another people have a reasonable claim to the land that Israeli Jews call their own.
The people at Hartman—and the people in the cafés of Tel Aviv—could, theoretically, be part of a solution. But I knew this was only one side of Israel—empathetic, nuanced. For my most recent trip, I wanted to go where the deepest fault lines—and what I believe is the biggest impediment to peace—lie: the settlements in the West Bank, the home of the several hundred thousand Jews who have moved to the heart of what is, legally, Palestine.
I’ve always been interested in fanatics. I admire (and fear) their zealous conviction, unclouded by doubt, anchored by an arrogant righteousness, unwilling to tolerate dissent. Every community, including mine, has them—people who believe in only one truth, and that those who don’t completely embrace or support that truth are to be excommunicated or fought as villains. The Palestinians and the Jews are heavily burdened with these kinds of people. Historically, Hamas has not sought peaceful coexistence with Jews. I always assumed that Hamas and the settlers needed each other to justify their respective existences: lovers dancing a waltz, pouring gasoline as the world burned around them.
I wanted to talk with settlers myself; I wanted to understand how they thought and to ask them a couple of questions: Would they ever leave the West Bank in exchange for peace with the Palestinians? And, maybe even more important: What’s given them their strident conviction? (I figured I’d ask hard-line Palestinians the same question.)
This was a fraught project. I didn’t have the impression that the settlers would have much patience for a brown-skinned Muslim critical of the occupation.
I asked my friends at the Hartman Institute where I should go first. They suggested that I ease in gently. And so my first stop was Efrat, the Scarsdale of the settlements.
Haim Cohen, my Israeli driver, took me up into the hills south of Jerusalem, past security checkpoints, toward the settlement of Efrat, in the West Bank, near Bethlehem. Established in 1983, Efrat is an affluent community of 10,000 residents, built on the high ground of seven hills in the Judaean Mountains. It’s one of the gentrified jewels of Gush Etzion, a collection of more than a dozen settlements housing more than 80,000 people. Efrat is one of those settlements that many believe would become part of Israel in a land swap with Palestine. Not that such a deal is on the horizon.
Stunning vineyards, beautiful maple and pine trees, and flourishing gardens filled the landscape. The roads were spotless; the roundabouts had striking green grass, perfectly cut; and all around us we saw idyllic, sand-colored homes made of Jerusalem stone and red tiles.
In the administrative building, I waited for a meeting with Oded Revivi, the popular mayor of Efrat, currently serving his second term. A bulletin board advertised houses for sale. I did the conversion in my head: Each unit was selling for $1 million.
Efrat is about 85 percent Orthodox Jewish and 15 percent secular. Mayor Revivi told me that settler communities attract three types of people. First, members of the Haredim, ultra-devout Jews who need a religious community and physical space to accommodate their growing families. Second, secular Jews who want a big, clean suburban home and an easy commute to Tel Aviv. And third, the minority, those who move here for purely ideological reasons, because “Judaea and Samaria”—the West Bank—“is full of biblical historical sites,” Revivi told me. “As religious Jews, we believe this is the promised land and we are entitled to live here.”
Revivi asked me to sit in on his meeting with about a dozen students, most of them American. He told our group that the international reputation of the settlements is that they are fenced cities, surrounded by Arab villages. Do you see any fences? he asked us. No, we answered. “They don’t provide security,” he added. “I personally believe not in fences but in building bridges.”
Revivi is fond not just of clichés but of analogies. What do cowboys do when they see Indians? he asked.
“Circle the wagons,” someone replied. Revivi nodded, and said that the principal misconception about the settlements is their lack of security; he assured us that if we visited late on Friday night, we’d see “thousands of kids walking in the streets freely” to return home, where their parents are fast asleep, confident that their kids are safe.
I asked Revivi to respond to criticism from fellow Jews who see the settler movement as entrenching the occupation and subverting the democratic ideals of Zionism. He disagreed with my use of the word occupation, which I reminded him was consistent with international law.
He answered with an extreme analogy: “Your line of accusation is almost like the accusation that a woman comes and reports that she’s raped, and people say, ‘Oh, you’ve been raped because the way you look, the way you dress, or because the way you’ve acted.’ ”
If the settlers were the rape victims in this analogy, then who were the Palestinians?
I walked outside and was greeted by a firm handshake and an American accent. Bob Lang, the 59-year-old head of Efrat’s religious council, offered to give me a quick tour of the settlement. The son of German immigrants to the United States, Lang moved to Israel for religious and ideological reasons, because according to him, this is “where Jewish history happened.” These are the valleys, he said, where his forefathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—walked. I wondered whether Abraham, a shepherd, would have been able to get a mortgage in Efrat.Meeting settlers for the first time, I felt like I was the token minority at an upscale New York City party; I could feel myself being scrutinized with equal measures of fascination and curiosity, and not a small quotient of horror.
Lang told me it “annoys him” when people say the settlers illegally occupy the land. Depending on your perspective, he said, the land was taken, captured, or liberated by Israel during the Six-Day War, in 1967.
Which term do you prefer?, I asked.
“Liberated,” he replied.
And what would he do with the land liberated by Israel? His answer surprised me. Lang favors a one-state solution that would absorb all the Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank: “I should have the right to live in their community, and they should have the right to live here.” I let that statement linger as I gazed at the hills populated exclusively by Jewish settlers.
III. Alon Shvut
Meeting settlers for the first time in these bourgeois utopias, I felt like I was the token minority at an upscale New York City party; I could feel myself being scrutinized with equal measures of fascination and curiosity, and not a small quotient of horror. The settlers were friendly, a bit guarded and standoffish at first, but mostly curious why a guy who looked like a Long Island Uber driver had come to Israel to talk with them. I learned quickly that everyone in Israel loves offering solicited—and unsolicited—opinions about politics and religion.
The last thing I expected to hear upon arriving at Alon Shvut, a short drive from Efrat and part of the same bloc of settlements, was the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. My guide, Hanan Schlesinger, a 60-year-old rabbi, told me that it came from a neighboring Palestinian village. His community of 800 families totaling almost 3,200 people, 95 percent of whom are Orthodox Jews, has no mosques.
“Sometimes, I think my Jewish neighbors don’t hear” the adhan, he said. “It’s the way their mind is structured.” Schlesinger’s mind had once been structured the same way. To him, the Palestinians had been “background noise—the gray, drab scenery that passes in the distance in a movie.”
About four years ago, Schlesinger attended an interfaith meeting where he met Yasin, a 17-year-old Palestinian who was wearing a seeds of peace T-shirt he had received at a camp in Maine. Schlesinger was baffled that a Palestinian could promote peace; the concept was an oxymoron to him. Schlesinger then met Jamaal, the boy’s father, and learned that the family was from the Palestinian town Beit Ummar. Jamaal told him that when the Palestinian children in his town saw a Jewish settler like Schlesinger, they ran and cried.
“Why?,” Schlesinger asked.
“They all carry submachine guns, and they kill our kids,” Jamaal replied.
A lot of his friends did carry Uzis or pistols, Schlesinger conceded.
He considered this exchange to be a “blessing,” because it was the first time in his life that he had experienced how “the other” experienced him—as an occupier.
The revelation was like a “dagger to my heart,” Schlesinger told me. He’d never thought of what the settlers were doing as an occupation: “Living around here, I see the return of the Jewish people to our land after 2,000 years of exile. I see triumph. I see righteousness … And suddenly, I hear that our triumph is another nation’s tragedy, and our righteousness is another nation’s suffering. I didn’t know where to put that.”
IV. Neve Erez
In Neve Erez, an outpost established in 1999 on a dusty West Bank hilltop, I thought briefly that I’d stumbled upon a Zionist Coachella.
For miles I was surrounded by mostly empty land and sunbaked hills. The man I was to interview, a settler named Noam Cohen, appeared, walking past his front porch, which sported two dirty sofas and a table that was currently being used by his dog for shade. With his long hair tied in a ponytail, graying temples, and white T-shirt and green pants fitted on a lean frame, Cohen looked like Iggy Pop. I felt that I’d seen Cohen countless times before on Telegraph Avenue, in Berkeley, shrouded in a fog of weed.
“I’m the luckiest person on Earth,” Cohen told me as we stood on his back porch overlooking his utopia. Cohen’s kids, barefoot, were running around.
Cohen said that his community is considered an illegal outpost, but that the Israeli government helps it out: “They give us money to build everything—all the lights around, all the roads in here.” The government also provides water, picks up the garbage, and sends a school bus for his kids.
“We got everything, but not officially,” he added.
Cohen loves nature and sincerely believes that one day all of humanity will be one. (“There won’t be religions anymore,” and “there won’t be differences anymore,” he said, sounding like an unproduced John Lennon song.) But for that to happen, he also believes that “we have to pass the process.”
I asked him whether that process includes expelling and forcibly transferring Palestinians to Jordan.
“I think it’s going to be part of it. We have to transport people,” he said without hesitation.
Before departing, I asked Cohen to take me to his music studio, where I pointed to random instruments and asked him to play. He performed an impromptu 10-minute concert, effortlessly cycling through traditional Israeli instruments, drums, and even a didgeridoo. He was damn good and thoroughly enjoyed himself.
Here was a man who had realized his dream on the top of a hill in the middle of a desert.
“Do you feel God here?,” I asked.
“I feel safe,” he replied.
V. The Old City, Part II
“I actually don’t mind the word conquered,” Daniel Luria told me in his Australian accent, referring to Israel’s acquisition of Palestinian land after the 1967 war. We were walking outside the Old City walls on a cool Jerusalem night. A few hundred Israelis, flanked by soldiers and police vehicles, were gathering for an annual march organized by the Women in Green, a group dedicated to the preservation of what it believes to be the Jews’ God-given biblical homeland.
Luria was raised in a religious Zionist home in Australia. He tried at age 11 to emigrate by himself, intending to get from Melbourne to Israel. (He was stopped a few miles from home, carrying underwear, an atlas, and a Bible.) Years later, at age 30, he finally found his way to Jerusalem, and he now lives in Ma’ale Adumim, one of the West Bank’s largest settlements, with his wife and five kids. Many Israelis believe that Ma’ale Adumim, which sits east of Jerusalem, would have to be part of Israel in any peace deal. Palestinians see what that would do to the West Bank—effectively cut it in half.
“Joshua conquered the land,” Luria said, pounding his chest with both fists as he invoked the man who led the Israelite tribes after the death of Moses. “He came back. Today, conquered has become a negative word. But we’ve come back home. We are the natural heirs of this country—and we are here to stay.” His eyes flashing with defiance, he added, “The truth is there’s nothing the world can do about it.”
The word occupied makes Luria’s “blood boil”: “You can’t be an illegal occupier of your own land.” I pointed out that much of the international community, led by the United Nations, disagrees.
“Doesn’t matter what the world says,” he countered. For Luria, there is no Green Line—the armistice border established after the war of 1948. “There’s one line,” he told me, and it runs from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. “Sea, river. Sea, river. Palestine equals Jewish national homeland.” That homeland belongs only to the Jewish people, because “it’s never been a homeland to anyone else, not a single nation, not a single person, definitely not the so-called Palestinians.”
As it happened, Luria and I were talking on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av, which is, as Yossi Klein Halevi, the Israeli journalist and Hartman Institute fellow, once put it, “the black hole of the Jewish calendar.” On this day in history, over the centuries, Jewish tradition holds that the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians; the second temple was destroyed by the Romans; the Jews were expelled from Spain; and World War I began, leading to the disintegration of Europe and paving the way, ultimately, for the rise of Nazi Germany.
Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning, but for many Jews today, their return to the land from which the Romans exiled them makes the mourning substantially less bitter. “I’m not in exile, anymore … I’ve got my country,” Luria said.
Isn’t that enough?, I asked him.
No, he said.
For Luria and his fellow marchers that day, redemption will not be complete until they achieve the missing piece that will make the fragmented dream whole: the Temple Mount.
Luria is a spokesman for Ateret Cohanim, a group founded in 1978 and dedicated to, as he puts it, “the revival of Jewish life.” The organization helps settle Jews in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and in neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Some 3,000 Jews now live, protected by armed Israelis, in the densely populated Muslim Palestinian areas of the Old City and Silwan.
Luria sees almost no difference between his work and what the Zionist pioneers did 150 years ago, “when they came back from Europe and moved to Israel to build up the country.” But B’Tselem, an Israeli nonprofit that documents human-rights violations in the occupied territories, alleges that Ateret Cohanim aggressively acquires land, displacing Palestinians. A 2016 survey by B’Tselem found that eviction claims filed by Ateret Cohanim were pending against 81 Palestinian families who had lived in the Batan al-Hawa region of Silwan for decades.
Whereas Palestinians and human-rights organizations see occupation by Jewish settlers as chaotic disruption, Luria sees peace: “When Jews move into an area, it becomes a safe area. If you have one Jew there, he’s attacked; if you have 30 Jews there, suddenly it’s a quiet neighborhood.”
Luria, like other extremists I was coming to know (on both sides of the divide, I should point out), favors a one-state solution in which Palestinians would be allowed to vote as citizens of Israel—but their citizenship would be revocable if they incited terrorism. “What if a Palestinian was born here?,” I asked.
“Big deal!,” Luria said. “There’s never been a Palestinian state or a Palestinian people.” He asked me whether I’d heard of the book, once sold on Amazon but since removed, called A History of the Palestinian People: From Ancient Times to the Modern Era—which consisted entirely of 132 blank pages.
Luria doesn’t consider Jews who want to liberate the Temple Mount to be on the same level as Muslim terrorists, “depraved animals” who stab people.
I told Luria that he sounded like a fundamentalist.
“I believe in the fundamentals of Judaism,” he replied. “Nothing wrong with that,” as long as it doesn’t lead to violence like the stabbings and beheadings committed by some Muslims.
“Have you ever had moments of doubt—where you felt, ‘Maybe I’m not doing it right, maybe I’m not fulfilling God’s—’?”
“Never, not once,” he said, cutting me off.
“In your entire life?”
Yossi klein halevi says he fears Jews like Daniel Luria. He believes that they have a “spiritual madness,” and that their longing for the Temple Mount reveals a “fundamental lack of responsibility.”
At sunset, Halevi invited Abdullah and me to accompany him to the Western Wall, where he would be offering prayers.
Halevi brought kippot for us. I joked that it would be just my luck if a pro-Palestinian media outlet filmed me at the exact moment Halevi placed a kippahon my head. But Abdullah and I agreed to accompany Halevi through the Jewish Quarter, and to wear the kippot out of respect once we reached the wall.
As we walked, I told Halevi about some of my recent interviews with settlers. He agrees that they have a claim to the land—but thinks “the price of implementing that claim is too high.” He believes that the quest of Luria and the Temple Mount Faithful is a profoundly “anti-Zionist act” that risks “putting Israel and the Jewish people in danger.” Luria and his ilk, Halevi believes, are “playing with spiritual fire” that could cause the immolation of the Jews all around the world.
“You don’t think the Temple Mount is worth it?,” I asked.
“Absolutely not,” he said without hesitation. He proposed a solution, laughing: “The Jews and the Muslims should give it to the Baha’i.”
Descending to the wall, we put on our kippot along with hundreds of Jewish men, some praying out loud, others seated in small prayer circles, a few swaying back and forth, not quite lamenting or weeping, but all gathered with a dedicated solemnity. I’ve visited the wall three times, and each time I’ve approached it with respect and reverence, as a visitor who would expect the same from his Jewish brothers and sisters at a Muslim holy site.
I see how the wall, with prayers embedded in the narrow spaces between its bricks, inspires an expansion of hearts, bringing joy and love to the faces of believers. The same wall ironically constricts: Men and women must be separated when they pray. Jewish women have returned to the Western Wall after thousands of years, only to be denied equal rights.
VI. Al-Amari Refugee Camp
The quickest way to tell you’re in a Palestinian neighborhood is to look for clusters of big, unsightly black barrels crowding the skyline. These eyesores store water, which is almost entirely controlled, even in the Palestinian territories, by the state of Israel. Our guide, Ashraf Ehab (I’ve changed his name at his request), told me that some Palestinian residents get water about two days a week. The limitations force Palestinians to get creative with conservation. “You sometimes take five or six shits before flushing,” he said.
This is just one of the challenges for Palestinians who live on the West Bank side of the wall separating most of Jerusalem from the settlements. On the Israeli side, we drove past neat lawns and clean streets, and we breathed fresh air. Then we crossed through the Qalandiya checkpoint into the West Bank, which has almost no police presence and scant municipal services. Cans and plastic bottles littered the roads. Trash was caked onto the rocks and dirt. Crushed cars were stacked like pancakes.
Palestinians line up at the checkpoint, hoping to enter Jerusalem for jobs or medical services, or to reach their property. Some have a blue ID card, which indicates residency in, but not citizenship of, Israel, and which allows them to enter Jerusalem. They come on foot or by car, sometimes waiting 15 minutes, sometimes hours, subject to the whims of young Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint. Ever since the 1967 war, Palestinians possessing only a green ID card—indicating West Bank residency—cannot get into Jerusalem without a special permit. Ehab told me that many Palestinian residents of the West Bank have never entered Jerusalem, despite living just feet away. The 280-mile-long wall doesn’t make it easy.
Known as “the separation barrier,” the wall, which is more than 25 feet tall in sections, stretches from Jenin in the north to Hebron in the south, dividing Israelis from Palestinians. It has also separated thousands of Palestinians who once lived in the same city. This creates absurdities: The Palestinian neighborhood of Kafr Aqab is part of East Jerusalem—but since the building of the wall, it is now physically separated from the city, so many of its residents have to travel daily through the Qalandiya checkpoint, blue ID in hand, just to reach work, attend school, or meet other family members in Jerusalem.
Israel justifies the wall as a necessary security measure, citing the dozens of suicide attacks that took place inside Israel from late 2000 to early 2004 during the second intifada, in which more than 900 Israelis, soldiers and civilians, died. Ehab told me the wall is a “thriving business for the Palestinian mafia.” He took me to a section where people were using a makeshift ladder to cross over illegally into Jerusalem for work and criminal activities. “What security?” he asked.
Ehab wanted to stop near Ramallah, at the al-Amari refugee camp, which was established in 1949 and serves as a home to more than 6,000 Palestinian refugees, many of whom are still holding on to the hope for a “right of return.” They want to go back to villages that no longer exist. Al-Amari is one of 19 refugee camps in the West Bank. Several generations of Palestinians have been born and raised in these camps.
The scene reminded me of cities in Pakistan: graffiti, trash, barefoot children playing on dirt roads. An electricity line crisscrossed between several buildings barely separated by narrow alleys. Posters of young men holding guns hung on the walls. Some of the older men bragged that their camp had produced 100 shuhada (“martyrs”), and 40 resistance fighters who are serving a life sentence in Israeli prisons. They complained that the Israel Defense Forces come in whenever they want and have often placed men in “administrative detention” for up to six months. The unemployment rate in the West Bank is 18 percent. The people there loathe Israel. They hate the Palestinian Authority even more.
We encountered a family on the way to a social event. The mother, 60-year-old Umm al-Abad, was dressed in a floral white hijab and a dark-blue dress. She has been in the camp for more than 45 years, and she said she wants to reclaim all the land from the river to the sea, stating, “The Jews should go back to where they come from.” Her daughter, Samaha, 37, who was born in the camp and is the mother of two boys and two girls, added: “May God take all the Israelis to hell.”
Samaha’s next-door neighbor Rowayda, a 60-year-old grandmother who was born in Jordan, told me her family had been kicked out of Lydda, a Palestinian city, in 1948. She eventually moved to the camp in 1982. She said that “everything is hard” in the camp. “I have about 50 people living in this house. Look at it—me and my children and my children’s children.” She kept pointing to the kids and telling me they have no place to play.
Although Rowayda realizes it’s unlikely that she will return to her original land, she still holds out hope. She said her grandfather had owned farms in Lydda and cultivated crops there, but “they”—the Jews—“took our homes, took our land.” She said she’ll “never be able to forgive the settlers,” even if they gave all the land back, because of all the suffering she’s experienced in her life. She said she wants to “eat them all alive.”
You hear this anger again and again from many Palestinians in the West Bank. In the global conversation about the occupation, people assume that Palestinians, when or if they are freed to have a country of their own in the West Bank, will be satisfied with their lot. But many Palestinians I encountered think of the people in Tel Aviv as settlers as well. In al-Bireh, a Palestinian city north of Jerusalem, I met a woman named Umm Khusay, who had turned the front lawn of her house into a museum of the occupation, featuring a palm tree decorated with tear-gas canisters.
As we walked up the steps to the front door, I could see a giant hole in one of the windows, recently broken by what seemed to be a stone. Khusay, a 48-year-old Muslim who was born in Michigan—she is an American citizen—but raised in al-Bireh, met us at the top of the stairs wearing a beige jilbab covering her from head to toe. All of her children are American citizens now.
“I die here rather than have happy life in the United States,” she said when I asked her why she didn’t join her family in the U.S. “I love my land. I have many problems, but I can’t leave.”
Khusay said she feels anger when she sees the settlers of Psagot, just up the road from al-Bireh. “This is Palestinian land. Why did they take this land? Why?”
She paused and looked at me: “Would you like someone to take your home?”
I asked whether she also blamed the Palestinian youth for instigating some of the conflicts outside her home by throwing stones and burning tires. “The Israeli soldiers are afraid of stones?” she asked. “The soldiers have a weapon, and they’re afraid of the boys that hold stones? This is fair? And they kill them? This is not fair.”
She, like Umm al-Abad, wants all the Israelis “to go back where they came from.”
Khusay added: “There’s no solution with them until they go back home.” Her mission in life, she said, was to defend al-Aqsa from the Jews. To her, al-Aqsa is more than just a mosque or a building, it is aqeedah, the creed itself. “Not just for Palestinians, for all Muslims. All the Muslims have to protect al-Aqsa,” she stressed.
“What’s one thing you want to tell the settlers?,” I asked.
“Go back home. They took our land.”
“How do you want the settlers to see you?”
“Why am I enemy?” she asked. “I don’t have nothing—guns, weapons, nothing.”
Throughout my trip, everyone told me to brace myself for what I’d see in Hebron. “You’ll need to detox with a lot of strong sheesha,” Abdullah warned.
About 800 Jewish settlers live in this enclave, protected by 650 or so Israeli soldiers and surrounded by 200,000 Palestinians, who are penned in by dozens of roadblocks and checkpoints around the city. The dreams of those 800 or so Jewish settlers shape and distort the lives of all the Palestinians living there. Hebron had a Jewish community until 1929, when the Jews were killed in a riot. In 1968, settlers came back for good.
We met one of these settlers, Noam Arnon, near the entrance to a playground. He shuffled toward us in his sandals, resembling a kindly Jewish American grandfather. In 1972, at 18, Arnon decided to visit the settlement of Kiryat Arba. He kept returning, eventually becoming involved in excavations and helping restore the old synagogue. Today he is not only a spokesman of the Jewish community of Hebron but also a historian and an expert on the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Yishai Fleisher, a radio host and frequent commentator for international media, was to lead our tour. Born in Israel, he earned a legal degree at Cardozo School of Law, in the U.S.
Fleisher leaped out of his car with a boyish energy, extending his hand and welcoming us with a giant grin. He was carrying a big, visible handgun. “There are only two kinds of minorities in the Middle East,” Fleisher told me. “Armed and unarmed.”
Arnon gave us a quick tour around the community before we headed over to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. He took us first into the playground and pointed at a mural depicting flames emerging from a baby carriage. It was to honor a 10-month-old baby who had been killed in 2001 by a sniper bullet that had come from “over there,” he said, motioning toward a nearby hill. I asked him whether it was worth staying in Hebron, especially with children, considering the danger. Yes, he said. “Children play here, and every one of them is a victory over terror.”
Arnon said he believes that the Jewish condition in Hebron “is an apartheid”: “The Jews are in a ghetto. The Jews are limited to 3 percent of the town.”
A ghetto? This was the first time I’d heard anyone accuse the Palestinians of imposing an apartheid regime on their neighbors.
The Jews of Hebron “don’t have rights to build or to develop,” he said, adding that anyone who considers the occupation to be illegal is wrong. “Jewistically, they are wrong,” he continued, coining a new word in his ardor. “Historically, they are wrong … Geographically, ecologically, everything wrong.” He said he believes that his community, unlike the Palestinian leadership, “takes care for human rights of Arabs, for health of Arabs, for supplying water for Arabs.” Arnon told me that a two-state solution would end up pushing Arabs to form a “terrorist, jihadistic, Islamic regime.” He is for one state, the entire land of Israel, including the occupied territories, and for “one loyal person, one vote.” He even said he would be fine with a Palestinian prime minister—provided that he or she is “loyal to the vision of the state of Israel.”
The condescension was a bit much for me to take. Fleisher talked about an “equitable solution” to the conflict, but the one described would have Jewish settlers seizing disputed property, and the Palestinians deprived of legal remedies.
Doesn’t that sound a lot like colonialism?, I asked.
“What is it to do with colonialism?,” Fleisher said, offended. “We’re taking our property. It’s our land. We purchased it. We’re trying to move into here. How is that possibly colonialism?”
On our way to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, I asked Fleisher whether Arab citizens of Israel could be equal to Jews.
“No, not in my opinion,” he said.
He added that the word occupier is a “fantastic, audacious, bold move to delegitimize Jewish presence” in Hebron, which he credited to the forces of “narrative jihad.”
At the steps leading up to the Jewish entrance of the tomb, I twice annoyed Fleisher by referring to the Temple Mount as the al-Aqsa compound.
“It’s not just disrespectful; it’s supposed to be historical, right?” he said. “It was for 1,400 years, before Islam came around, the Temple Mount.”
We passed by green walls and arches, saw several worshippers and tourists, most of them Orthodox, and eventually reached the cenotaph. Looking through the green bars of the gate, you could see the section for Muslim visitors, about 10 feet across on the opposite side. In between us was Abraham, the forefather uniting Islam and Judaism, allegedly buried here, in the Cave of Machpelah, thousands of years ago by his sons Isaac and Ishmael. In the 21st century, he was lying between both children, dividing them.
Later that day, on the Palestinian side of Hebron, I met a man named Jihad Rashid. “The land is more important than our families. More important than blood. Jerusalem, Palestine, al-Aqsa Mosque is more important than all of the above. It is part of our religion,” he said. I felt I had found the perfect interfaith partner for Fleisher and Arnon. The three men are saying the same thing, but speak from different texts. Would Rashid ever leave Hebron and the occupation? “Even if they gave me all of America and the White House, I would not leave,” he replied. He had lost two children in the fight against Israel. Had it been worth it?
“It’s worth it.”
We left Rashid’s shop and entered a souk, venturing deeper into the old city of Hebron. Shop after shop was closed, the green metal doors shut. Above us was wire mesh in between long, lime-green metal bars that crisscrossed and formed a semiopen dome. I felt like we were birds in a cage. Ashraf Ehab told me that this “shield” had been installed years ago to protect Palestinians from the trash that Israeli settlers would throw down from the houses above.
We walked toward a two-story building that was surrounded on three sides by the Jewish community of Hebron. At the top of a yellow metal staircase, by the front door, we met an overweight Palestinian kid in dark-blue sweats and a multicolored T-shirt who looked like I had when I was 10. He was leaning against a railing, looking down at a pristine basketball court used exclusively by Jewish settlers, constructed between his building and a Jewish neighbor’s house.
At this Palestinian home, effectively nestled inside the Jewish settlement, we were greeted by Nasreen, a 28-year-old mother of five, whose serious face revealed the spartan toughness needed to survive here. She had moved in 14 years ago, right after she’d married Shadi, now 34, whose family had lived in Hebron for generations. She shared the two-story home with Shadi’s first wife, who stood behind Nasreen, welcoming us with a big smile. Seventeen people live in the house.
The three shops we’d passed by before reaching their house, all welded shut, had belonged to Shadi. Nasreen said all three had been forcibly closed by Israeli soldiers. Now the family members were essentially prisoners in this house; they had to make sure that at least one adult was in the building at all times to prevent a takeover.
Despite the challenges, Nasreen affirmed, “we will all remain steadfast for Palestine.”
What about her kids and their future?
“I will die in this house,” she said. “Me, my children, my husband—all of us.”
“Your grandchildren?,” I asked.
She nodded. “We can’t leave. How can we? As soon as we leave, the settlers will come and take this house.”
The settlers, she said, pointing at a window that looked down directly to the basketball court, throw wine bottles into her home. She said that if the settlers ever see any member of her family looking at them while they play, they start cursing. Once, settlers tried to flood the home when her family was sleeping. Another time, she alleged, “my daughter was sleeping here in the middle of the night, and they threw a bottle of alcohol that cut her face, and she had to go to the ICU.” After that, her family put bars on the windows.
What would happen if settlers offered you money? Could you leave?, I asked.
They already had offered. “$4 million,” Shadi said from the background.
“U.S. dollars?,” I asked.
“How about if they offered $1 billion?,” I asked.
“No, nothing,” she said, shaking her head.
Even if there’s a magical peace process, Nasreen said she believes that it will be very hard for her to live side by side with Israeli settlers, “because they are all devils” and have made her life “very difficult for 14 years.”
Nasreen wanted to show us the roof. She said that if soldiers saw us they might yell at us to go down or, worse, bring more soldiers to the home and detain us there for hours. I felt that I could have touched the nearest Jewish settlement building. To our left and our right was the Jewish community. Just take the $4 million, I thought to myself, shaking my head, observing this absurd existence—a life sentence served in an open-air prison in the heart of Hebron.
A young Israeli soldier spotted us and started yelling “Leave now! Leave now!” in Hebrew. Nasreen wasn’t fazed. “More will come now, you’ll see,” she predicted, and all of a sudden three more soldiers popped up, like characters in a video game. We left.
As we went down the stairs, the young Palestinian boy kept staring at the basketball court. In a normal world, he would be attempting layups with a Jewishkhalil, a friend, who lived right across from him. But here, in the old city of Hebron, one boy must play within the walls of his home, while the other boy has a playground right outside, visible behind barred windows, beyond reach, surrounded by Israeli soldiers.
VIII. Al-Aqsa, At Last
Our final day in Israel coincided with Friday prayers, so Abdullah and I decided to try again to pray at al-Aqsa, hoping for a better outcome than the last one.
I waited for the imam past the Jaffa Gate, near the Muslim Quarter. I reflected on the past two weeks and thought of where I had been around the same time the previous Friday: meeting at a Jerusalem train station with the writer and historian Gershom Gorenberg, the author of the influential book The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967–1977. Gorenberg made aliyah from America some 40 years ago and lives in Jerusalem. He had arrived for lunch on his bicycle wearing a black shirt, black pants, and black gloves, his round face surrounded by a thicket of scraggly black-and-white hair. We discussed the creation of the settlements, religious nationalism, and the future of Israel.
Gorenberg told me he believes that “the two-state outcome is still the best bad plan we have” for Palestinians to eventually have self-determination and for Jews to maintain self-determination and a democracy. He believes the settlements are the greatest hurdle to achieving this end. “Every additional room that is built in a home in a settlement is a deliberate impediment to having that,” he warned. Ultimately, he said, Israel has to encourage Jews living in settlements to “move to the Jewish state.”
I told him I didn’t think that was going to happen.
Gorenberg then said something that I wrote down in my notebook and starred: “I’ve lived here for 40 years and nothing important that has happened was expected.”
At Haram al-Sharif, Abdullah and I entered unperturbed by soldiers, and I thought of Gorenberg’s hopeful words. It was a perfect Jerusalem day, sunny but not humid, with a subtle wind. No one could have guessed that just recently this place had been the site of violent clashes.
Abdullah and I walked toward the wudu station to make ablutions. The golden Dome of the Rock was on our left. Kids kicked soccer balls, giggling, as their mothers and aunts sat in the shade. Elderly men relaxed in chairs, circling their prayer beads, talking. Teenagers took selfies in front of the dome. A young couple, visiting from America, held hands as they walked across the compound. Abdullah and I entered the Dome of the Rock, passed by women who were offering their prayers, and walked down the steps to the small cave cut into the rock from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven. I offered a prayer, taking my time to appreciate the space. We walked out and sat on the steps in between the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa, waiting for the call to prayer.Is this land worth all the pain and suffering and bloodshed? I couldn’t ask God, because I’m convinced that he’s now an absentee landowner. He sold Abraham’s children a lemon.
Sitting there, I prayed that the many Palestinians I had met who had never been allowed to visit al-Aqsa could stand next to me in Juma prayer. I prayed that Palestinian kids would be able to run freely around the city without fear, not worrying about upsetting a soldier or neighbor. I prayed that men like Daniel Luria would be able to come up and say a prayer, and maybe find release from their absolutism. I prayed that Jihad Rashid, the father of two martyrs, and other Palestinians who use and abuse religion to validate hate and sanction violence would realize that they didn’t have to give their life or their children’s lives to defend this place.
I prayed for all those Israelis and Palestinians suffering from a permanent state of rage, hijacked by this small volcano the size of New Hampshire, which simultaneously inspires love and loathing, madness and inspiration. As a result of engaging with Zionists, I found that once you allow a space for conflicting narratives, even those that might repulse you, the characters take up room in your mind and your heart. You can no longer unsee or unfeel them. You have to negotiate their presence without compromising your core principles. Yossi Klein Halevi had somehow conjured two dozen ways that Muslim extremists could destroy his people—but he also kissed my Muslim babies and looked at them lovingly, yearning for grandchildren.
Throughout the trip and afterward, I kept asking: Is this land worth all the pain and suffering and bloodshed? I couldn’t ask God, because I’m convinced that he’s now an absentee landowner. He sold Abraham’s children a lemon.
I prayed for the settlers. I’m convinced that their zeal to redeem the land has transformed it into a golden calf—an idol, placed on a pedestal where even God, Jewish morality, and democracy can barely reach it. And I’m convinced that the settlements have become the Achilles’ heel of Israel’s security. Each new settlement beyond the Green Line is paving another road to insecurity and fear, and continuing the cycle of violence, in which generation after generation will sleep with one eye open.
One of the most startling things about the West Bank is the fixedness of the settlements. These are not tent camps and hipster organic farms; they are massive cities of Jerusalem stone. Even the far-flung ones, the ones that could in no way be merged into a contiguous Israeli state, project a feeling of permanence and domination over the landscape.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.