Yesterday in the New York Times, Roger Cohen published a column from Hebron titled “Holy City of Sterile Streets” that lots of people are talking about, and which I see as distancing the columnist from Zionism: 1, It states bluntly that the Israeli goal of sterilizing Hebron streets by emptying them of Palestinians is reminiscent of anti-semitic rhetoric and actions; 2, It says the occupation has never ended and it is being done in the name of the Jews and is getting worse every time he sees it; 3, It urges people to put the disputed claims of the past behind them and look to the future.
The last message is a memo to Cohen himself. He has repeatedly cited the Jewish history of persecution to justify the existence of a “Jewish state” he chooses not to live in but to defend. That justification gets a lot slimmer in this piece. The Jewish history of persecution turns out to produce Jewish monsters. And Cohen surely recognizes that it is cruel to revisit such a place and only see the conditions get worse, and mouth liberal Zionist pieties as an answer.
Some excerpts. First, the endless occupation and the anti-Semitism echo:
The occupation of the West Bank is a half-century old. That’s a long time. Jews did not go to the Holy Land to deploy for another people the biological metaphors of classic racism that accompanied their persecution over centuries. But the exercise of overwhelming power is corrupting, to the point that “sterile” streets, presumably freed of disease-ridden natives, enter the lexicon.
Next, in this passage Cohen identifies the occupation as inherently “Jewish” in Zionist eyes, and rejects that strategy as oppressive.
[Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence] remembers a mission statement on a wall: “To protect and defend the inhabitants of the Jewish community of Hebron.” He was ordered to fire a grenade machine gun into a heavily populated Palestinian residential area. He saw a Palestinian medical clinic destroyed. Doubts grew.
“It’s not defense, or prevention. It’s offense against Palestinian independence. That is the mission,” Shaul says. “The view is that between the river and the sea there is room for one state only, so it better be us.” Inevitably, the settlers, however extreme, become a vehicle of this strategic aim.
Here is the part where Cohen urges everyone to escape their nationalist narratives and look ahead:
To settlers, this is the first Jewish city in the biblical hills of Judea. To the Palestinian majority, this is their centuries-old home under relentless Israeli military occupation.
Like every Israeli-Palestinian argument, this one has no resolution. Other than to say the past is gone and what matters is the future.
Ever backward the violence spirals
Given the neverending fact of occupation that Cohen documents, there is only one way forward for American Jews: to get out of the back seat and remind Israelis of the political conditions under which we live in this country, and urge them as a model: One person one vote, equal rights for minorities, separation of church and state. I.e., abandon this idea of a Jewish people and Jewish national home for which we must hold the breathing tube.
I repeat that there is something cruel about a journalist visiting a Jim Crow town twice in 14 years (2004, 2018) and noting that it’s only gotten worse, something any activist could have told him, while continuing to defend Israel. You either bear witness or you don’t. Experiencing Hebron helped to transform me (when I went with Yehuda Shaul in 2006) and many others, and caused us to support BDS. Also, it would have been nice if Cohen had quoted a Palestinian. No, he has to quote the Hodding Carter character, the good white person in the south. That’s not good enough.
H/t Scott Roth, Robert Herbst, and Priscilla Read.