The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How an Israeli historian led me to do the best things I’ve ever done

An Ethiopian Israeli protester wears a kippah, the traditional Jewish skullcap for men, during a demonstration in the Israeli city of Kiryat Gat on May 4, 2015. (THOMAS COEXTHOMAS COEX/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE via Getty Images)
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He had no chest pains, just minor flu symptoms. He went to sleep early, and never woke up. He was in his early 60s.

Thus ended the life of Israeli historian Elliott Horowitz.

I can’t really claim that we were close friends. If I add up all the time we spent together, it probably doesn’t come to 24 hours. But because of him, I did the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

It started nine years ago. Elliott, whom I’d once interviewed about his research, sent me an email. He’d read an article in Haaretz about a Palestinian stonecutter named Ghassan who lived in the Israeli-controlled sector of Hebron in the West Bank.

Ghassan had saved up to buy a washing machine for his wife. But in a measure supposed to protect the small Israeli settler enclave in the town, his street was closed to Palestinian cars. So he was carrying the washing machine home on his head.  The big box attracted the attention of Israeli paramilitary police. An argument ensued; Ghassan ended up bloodied and jailed.

An Israeli military judge thought the arrest was so questionable that he ordered a review of police behavior. But when Ghassan was released, the washing machine had vanished.

Instead of getting depressed, Elliott said we should buy Ghassan a washing machine. At his suggestion, I quickly raised the money from members of my Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem. Another friend, who works for Rabbis for Human Rights, volunteered to drive us and the appliance to Hebron in his battered station wagon.

On an April day, during the brief Mediterranean spring when the hills haven’t yet been scorched brown, three bearded men with skullcaps drove south from Jerusalem, through the West Bank, to Hebron. When we got to Ghassan’s place, a jeep pulled up and one of the paramilitary cops inside asked what we were doing.

In the West Bank, the assumption about bearded Jews with skullcaps is that they are Orthodox settlers. In Hebron, it’s that they are extremist settlers. We explained to the police that we were making a family visit.

Upstairs, in the living room, Elliott told Ghassan that we’d come because we saw it as a religious obligation. When we came out, the cops were still there. I don’t know if they were worried that we’d get hurt, or that we’d come to bust the place up.

Soon after, Elliott got in touch again. He’d read about a family in the West Bank village of Wadi al-Shajneh whose home had been searched at midnight by Israeli soldiers, apparently on a tip that they’d find weapons. The tip was false. But when they left, the family’s computer was smashed.

We bought the new computer at a small Jerusalem shop. The owner looked surprised when Elliott asked about installing Windows in Arabic and explained who it was for. “And you with a skullcap!” he said.

On that trip or another one, Elliott told me about his political awakening. In the late 1970s, as a young man, he’d spent the Sabbath with a family in Kiryat Arba, the large settlement adjoining Hebron. At  Friday night dinner, the woman of the house brought out her brand-new pistol and showed it off like a piece of jewelry. The other guests congratulated her.

For Elliott, the gun was grotesquely out of place at the Sabbath table. Jewish law allows carrying a weapon on the Sabbath only when it’s an unfortunate necessity to protect lives. Eventually, Elliott devoted much of his academic research to the suppressed history of violence — symbolic and real — in Judaism. He studied it as an oncologist looks at a cancerous growth: You must see that it’s there in order to excise it.

Our last shared journey came when he read about a Palestinian in the West Bank town of Dura who was struggling to get a residency permit from Israeli authorities for his Gaza-born wife. The reporter mentioned that the couple had a three-year-old daughter who apparently suffered from brain damage. The Palestinian health system lacked the top-notch pediatric rehabilitation care provided at Israel’s Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem.

Elliott wanted to do something to help. By sheer good fortune, I’d once studied Talmud on occasional evenings with a neighbor, then a young doctor. He’d gone on to become a department head at Alyn. I called; he immediately agreed to drive with us into occupied territory to give the girl a first evaluation. After bureaucratic battles and a fundraising campaign, she was treated at Alyn.

Afterward, because of life’s small changes in direction, I saw less of Elliott.

I don’t have illusions. I know that a washing machine isn’t a political solution. But for 30 years, as a journalist, I’ve covered the politics and absurdities of the occupied territories, and if all the words have made any difference, it’s in the way that a very slow drip erodes rock. I can’t see any impact.

Elliott didn’t wait for grand solutions. He said, without pride or embarrassment, that he acted out of religious conviction. In Israel, the political stereotype of Orthodox Jews is of people concerned exclusively with settling the occupied territories. In the world, commitment to the most traditional forms of faith — Jewish, Christian, Muslim or other — is often confused with building walls between people.

Elliott believed that faith demanded breaking down barriers between human beings created in God’s image. I believed that, too, but he pushed me to act.