Settling Hebron

Jewish Fundamentalism in a Palestinian City

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Tamara Neuman
The Ethnography of Political Violence
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , May
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $69.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812249958.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Hebron lies in the southern part of the Palestinian territories known as the West Bank where seven hundred Jewish settlers live among two hundred thousand Palestinians. Moreover, right outside the city, the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba houses seven thousand ideological settlers. In other words, Hebron is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank in which settlers reside. The city is considered, especially by the religious nationalists, as part of the Jewish homeland and as a holy city due to the existence of the Tomb of the Patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob along their wives Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah; a site which is also known as al-Haram al-Ibrahimi in Arabic and Mearat Ha-Makhpela in Hebrew.  For centuries, Hebron has been one of the historic and religious cities for Jews in addition to the far more important city of Jerusalem as well as Safed and Tiberias.  

Tamara Neuman has written an in-depth analysis of the Jewish settlement in Hebron and the worldview of the ideological settlers in the city and its vicinity by conducting interviews with the residents. She discusses the Islamic character of the Tomb that served as a mosque from the 7th century until 1967. After the Six-Day War of 1967, the Tomb was eventually partitioned into a mosque and a synagogue. In other words, Jews gradually obtained a space within the edifice of the Tomb. Neuman’s account of the settlers living in Hebron who have a distinct “Jewish (settler) identity” (5), labelled as fundamentalists, is unsympathetic yet objective. At the same time, she also employs the concept of settler colonialism while analyzing the settlement phenomenon in the West Bank. Neuman does not ridicule the mindset of the settlers, which is quite alien to the secular mind, but tries to understand these settlers by showing empathy.

What is striking about Kiryat Arba and the Jewish neighborhood in downtown Hebron is that they are ideologically different from other settlements which might be security-related along the Jordanian-border or the economically driven cheap housing quality of life settlements found throughout the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Neuman does an outstanding job in dissecting the history, sociology, and ideology of Hebron and its significance especially for the religious nationalist camp. Having said that, without the implicit government support and military protection provided by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the settlement enterprise in general—and the Hebron settlement in particular—could not have survived. In other words, sympathetic ministers as well as certain elements in both the police and army were lenient towards these settlers. 

In the mindset of an important part of the political right, Hebron in fact became part of the homeland, so much so that independence ceremonies and political rallies were held in front of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. 

It should also be noted that radical individuals such Meir Kahane, the leader of the Kach party, and Baruch Goldstein, who ran on the party list, lived in Kiryat Arba. After Goldstein perpetrated his attack on the worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque, he was buried in Kiryat Arba in a plaza where his deeds were praised on his tombstone. Eventually this site was demolished by the military.  

Neuman quite succinctly constructs the incidents surrounding Baruch Goldstein’s attack on the Mosque of Abraham, analyzing it by defining it as religious violence, and discussing the interrelationship between the sacred place and violence. In addition, she demonstrates the importance of everyday practices and the “hatreds that fuel violence,” which, in other words, mentally eradicate a Palestinian presence and to look the other way regarding the illegal practices of the settlers (127) on the part of the government.

One of the strong points of the book is that it elegantly explains the agency of the settlers and their interaction with the Israeli government and the military. In 1968 Jewish prayer was allowed inside the Tomb, departing from the traditions under Ottoman rule when Jewish prayer was confined to the steps leading to the mosque. In 1975 the mosque was separated into Muslim and Jewish areas of worship. Furthermore, the settlers secretly circumcised their sons in the mosque, demonstrating the agency of the settlers. As further examples to such faits accompli, they started using the old cemetery in the city and restored Beit Hadassah as a clinic—in deference to the original clinic which operated there until the 1929 massacre of Jews by certain elements of the Arab population—resulting in the killing and evacuation of the Jewish population. Given this history, the recreation and revitalization of the Jewish Quarter in downtown Hebron achieved a certain amount of legitimacy in the eyes of the government and consequently the settlers: by adopting a gradualist approach ground was gained. 

In the ethnography of the city, the diversity within the Jewish community of Kiryat Arba is also well-presented by the author. The book discusses the Bnei Menashe from India and Beta Israel from Ethiopia, both of whom were considered to be among the lost tribes, as well as the Russian Jews, with each community having different traditions and lifestyles.  

Conceptually, one shortcoming of the book is the lack of a definition of “Jewish fundamentalism,” a term which exists in the subtitle of the book. Settling Hebron would also have been enriched if it had undertaken, even in a few pages, a comparison with other holy sites with competing claims such as the mosque/temple in Ayodhya in India—an area of contestation between Hindus and Muslims. Another shortcoming is the lack of Palestinian voices other than the brief discussion of the Jaber family, the owners of land next to Kiryat Arba, which could have been extended a bit further. 

In conclusion, Tamara Neuman’s book is essential for understanding the conflict over the holy city of Hebron as well as the question of land, settlement, and ideology in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. It demonstrates the de facto Israeli control and the blurring of the Green Line between Israel proper and the West Bank. Whether there will be Israeli annexation of these territories or the extension of the status quo is not quite evident at this point in history. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Umut Uzer is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Istanbul Techical University.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tamara Neuman is a Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University.

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