Last week, I accompanied 19 Jews from the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Chicago as they traveled across Israel and the West Bank. They wanted to see Hebron, one of the four holiest cities for the Jews. Ironically both Muslims and Jews value Hebron for the same reason. It is the burial site of Abraham, the father claimed by both Arabs and Jews.
However, unlike typical tourists who ignore the locals, this group came to see more than the stones of the Patriarchs tombs. The building in itself is representative of the city’s spiritual paucity. It has been divided between Muslims and Jews since Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers in 1994.
This group from Chicago cared about the city and about its residents, yet wondered how the holy city could turn into a never ending source of discrimination and injustice. Hebron is also divided into two main areas: H1, where Palestinians live and H2, the downtown Hebron area where the settlements were created and where only Jewish settlers live. After touring the Palestinian side, we arrived to H2 where, as a Palestinian, I am not allowed to enter.
As we approached Shuhada Street I was thinking of a way to stay with the group. I wanted to show them Abu Seneineh neighborhood, where my ancestors came from before moving to Jerusalem 80 years ago. I wanted them to see my aunt’s house and share with them my childhood memories about Hebron. So, I found myself devising a plan that would allow me to pass through without raising the soldiers’ suspicions.
Before arriving to the street, I asked Brant, the congregations’ rabbi, for his “kippah” (skullcap). I put it on my head and walked straight up to the Israeli soldier at the entrance of the street. I told him (in Hebrew) that I have a Jewish group touring from Chicago that wants to walk through. He only had one question: “do you have any Arabs with you?” I answered confidently, “No, they are all Jews,” and that was all we needed to get inside the “Jewish area.”
I was amazed by what a kippah could do. Suddenly, I was not suspicious and was transformed for the soldiers from an enemy to a friend. The kippah became my entry visa, my access papers. I felt like it was my “shibboleth” into an elite club and the kippah was like the card I swipe to get in.
2,100 years ago, the Jewish Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus conquered the “Holy Land.” However, he was met with a demographic problem that Israel faces today: too many of the residents living on the land conquered were not Jews. He gave them a choice to either leave, die or convert to Judaism. I learned this week that Palestinians are facing a similar choice. If we want equal rights we apparently must consider changing our identity. As Israel’s government officials continue to proclaim it a Jewish and democratic state, it seems that one must have to be Jewish first to enjoy the democracy as well. Therefore all Palestinians need to do is to start wearing their Jewish friends’ kippahs and then they can expect to be granted civil and human rights.