HEBRON, West Bank — Arriving aboard a tour bus, accompanied by a former Israeli machine-gunner turned human rights activist, an international delegation of pretty famous writers came to the heart of this old city to see for themselves how 850 hardcore Jewish settlers, protected by 650 young Israeli soldiers, live among 200,000 angry Palestinians.
The writers didn’t like what they saw.
The settlers didn’t like the writers much either, especially their hosts.
The Israeli military occupation is “the most grievous injustice I have seen in my life,” Michael Chabon, the American author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” told the Forward, a Jewish newspaper, a day after seeing Hebron.
“Liars!” the settlers shouted at the writers.
Through the summer, 25 novelists will journey to Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to gather material for a book of essays to be published by HarperCollins in June next year (and simultaneously released in a half-dozen other languages).
The book is designed to mark the 50-year anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories — and to make a political splash.
The organizers hope their words will kindle reflection, outrage, change. They think that after five decades of daily news coverage, often numbing in its narrative of stalled “peace processes” and kill-reprisal-repeat, the Israel-Palestinian conflict needs a novelist’s chops to tell old stories in new ways.
Yet on a recent morning in Hebron, the Jewish settlers weren’t waiting for the book to come out. They were ready to pan the effort now.
A gray-bearded settler driving a beater down Shuhada Street hit the brakes, honked his horn and began to shout at the group and point at Yehuda Shaul, a burly former sergeant from the Israel Defense Forces who is a founder of an anti-occupation group called Breaking the Silence.
“Don’t believe him! He’s a traitor. The Israeli army is the best in the world. Don’t believe him.” Then the settler waved and called, “Shabbat shalom!” before he sped away.
It was the first of several slightly surreal mini-encounters — all scenes in the Hebron Show, which may have felt fresh to the writers, but is a rerun. Settlers here frequently taunt tours led by left-wing activists.
So the settler children, well-schooled in the routine, surrounded Shaul and tried to block his way, being careful not to touch him (physical assault against a Jewish Israeli would have probably been stopped by the soldiers).
Instead, the children called him “fatso,” stuck their hands over the lenses of cameras carried by the journalists accompanying the writers, including The Washington Post, and gave the Breaking the Silence support staff the finger.
The book project is being led by a husband-and-wife team, novelists Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, assisted by their éminence grise, Mario Vargas Llosa. Other visiting writers include Geraldine Brooks, Colm Tóibín, Cheryl Strayed, Assaf Gavron, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi and Dave Eggers (who traveled to Gaza).
The visits are controversial in Israel, in part because they are organized by Breaking the Silence, a group of current and former Israeli soldiers who oppose the occupation and do so by revealing how it looks and feels to a conscript enforcing it. Many Israelis — especially the 600,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — despise the group and its tactics, which include anonymous testimonies.
Shaul led the writers through a sterilized zone where Palestinians are forbidden to walk. The Palestinian shops were all closed, the metal doors welded shut. The vegetable and meat markets are a memory. A few Jewish children kicked a soccer ball around. Soldiers roared past in armored jeeps, and a squad with automatic rifles and body armor followed the tour on foot, mostly to keep the settler children from harassing the writers.
At one point, Chabon stopped to thank the soldiers, saying he understood they were put into a difficult situation.
One of the young soldiers, a red-haired private with an American accent, told Chabon, “I’ve read your books, actually.” He was obviously a fan.
His commanding officer told him to knock it off.
A handful of Palestinian families remain in the area immediately around the Jewish settlements of Hebron. They must enter their houses through back entrances and rooftops. They did not appear.
“Welcome to downtown Hebron,” Shaul said, stopping at an empty intersection. “This was the busiest, most lively section of the city.” He held up a “before” photograph that showed throngs of shoppers. “Now it’s a ghost town.”
Shaul related the basic history of Hebron to the writers.
This is where tradition says the patriarch Abraham bought a cave to serve as a tomb for his wife, Sarah, and where she and Abraham, along with Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah, were buried. There is an ancient mosque and synagogue to mark the spot.
The Jews were marginalized but steadfast residents of Hebron for centuries, forbidden by Muslim conquerors to enter the Tomb of the Patriarchs. In 1929, an Arab mob slaughtered some 67 Jews here, mutilating their bodies. If the writers had entered the museum built by the settlers at the old Hadassah hospital here, they could have seen the photographs of the bloody stumps.
In 1967, after the Six-Day War, the Israel Defense Forces took control of Hebron and an army rabbi was the first Jew to enter the tomb in 700 years.
In 1994, an Israeli American physician named Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque and unloaded his machine gun, killing 29 Palestinians and wounding more than a hundred, until the crowd overwhelmed him and beat him to death. That event is not in the museum.
Goldstein’s grave is located a mile away in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba. Today it is a pilgrimage site for Jewish extremists, who leave pebbles on his tombstone; the inscription praises him as a martyr with clean hands and pure heart.
The writers visited the grave. Waldman said the tomb disgusted her.
Chabon said the couple sought out an international group of writers, young and established, most neither Jewish nor Muslim, to tell the story. They didn’t seek out conservatives or liberals — but it’s fair to say the group tilts left. “There’s no way such a diverse group of writers could have an agenda,” Chabon said.
Actually, they could have quite an agenda, one of the settlers, Danny Cohen, said. He had come out to watch one of his neighbors yell at Shaul.
Cohen asked, “Do they tell you why these two blocks are closed to Arabs?” Because of Palestinian attacks (there have been many). “Did they tell you this property was owned by Jews before the massacre? They don’t tell you that there’s been Jews living here for centuries.”
Chabon tells Cohen, yes, they did tell us that.
Each writer will pursue their own research, which could be the subject of their essay. Some of the topics include: Ramallah nightlife, Palestinian football, the separation barrier, West Bank hip-hop, child inmates in Israeli prisons and military courts.
“They’ll write what they want to write,” said Waldman, author of a series of self-described “mommy-track” mystery novels and the best-selling work of nonfiction “Bad Mother.”
Waldman was born in Jerusalem, the daughter of a kibbutznik. She immigrated to Canada and then the United States as a child.
Asked whether the tours are presenting a one-sided take on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Waldman said no, not at all.
“There are not two sides to an occupation. There are two sides to a conflict, but there are not two sides to an occupation,” she said. “There are occupied and the occupiers.”
Waldman added that she wasn’t blind.
“I’m not denying the reality of terror, I’m not denying that buses blow up in Jerusalem, that there are knife attacks,” she said. “But what this book is designed to do is give the world a glimpse of what it is like to live for 50 years under a military occupation.”