This time, the reason is as innocent as can be: the organized visits of schoolchildren to the Cave of Machpelah, where our patriarchs are supposed to be buried.
By rights, Hebron should be a symbol of brotherhood and conciliation. It is the town associated with the legendary figure of Abraham, the common ancestor of both Hebrews and Arabs. Indeed, the name itself connotes friendship: the Hebrew name Hebron stems from the same root as "haver," friend, comrade, while the town's Arab name -- al-Halil -- means "friend." Both names refer to Abraham being the friend of God.
Abraham's firstborn, Ishmael, was the son of the concubine Hagar, who was driven out into the desert to die there, when the legitimate son, Isaac, was born to Sarah. Ishmael, the patriarch of the Arabs, and Isaac, the patriarch of the Jews, were enemies, but when their father died, they came together to bury him: "Then Abraham gave up the ghost and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years (175), and was gathered to his people. And his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried him in the cave of Machpelah"" (Genesis, 25)
IN RECENT times, Hebron has acquired a very different reputation.
For centuries, a small Jewish community lived there in peace, in perfect harmony with the Muslim inhabitants. But in 1929, something awful happened. A group of Jewish fanatics staged an incident in Jerusalem, when they tried to change the delicate status quo at the Western Wall. Religious riots broke out throughout the country. In Hebron, Muslims massacred 59 Jews, men, women and children, an event that left an indelible mark on Jewish memory. (Less well known is the fact that 263 Jews were saved by their Arab neighbors.)
Shortly after the occupation of the West Bank in the Six-day War, a group of fanatical messianic Jews infiltrated Hebron by stealth and founded the first Jewish settlement. This grew into a veritable nest of extremism, including some out-and-out fascists. One of them was the mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein, who slaughtered 29 Muslims at prayer in the Cave of Machpelah -- actually no cave at all, but a fortress-like building, perhaps built by King Herod.
Since then, there has been endless trouble between the 500 or so Jewish settlers in the city, who enjoy the protection of the army, and the 165,000 Arab inhabitants, who are completely at their mercy, devoid of any human or civil rights.
IF THE schoolchildren had been sent there to listen to both sides and learn something about the complexity of the conflict, that would be fine. But this was not the intention of the Minister of Education, Gideon Sa'ar.
Personally, Sa'ar (the name means "storm") is a nice person. In fact, he started his career in my magazine, Haolam Hazeh. However, he is a fanatical right-winger, who believes that his job is to cleanse Israeli children of the rotten cosmopolitan liberalism that he imagines their teachers are steeped in, and to turn them into uniform, loyal patriots, ready to die for the fatherland. He is sending army officers to preach in the classrooms, demands that teachers instill "Jewish values" (i.e. nationalist religiosity) even in secular schools, and now wants to send them to Hebron and other "Jewish" places, so their "Jewish roots" grow more robust.
The children sent there see the "Jewish" Cave of Machpelah (which was for 13 centuries a mosque), the settlers, the streets that have become empty of Arabs, and listen to the indoctrination of patriotic guides. No contact with Arabs, no other side, no others at all.
When a rebellious school invited members of the peace-oriented ex-soldiers' group "Breaking the Silence" to accompany them and show them the other side, police intervened and prevented them from visiting the town. Now some 200 teachers and principals have signed an official protest against the Education Minister's project and demanded its cancellation.
Sa'ar is upset. With flaming eyes behind his glasses, he fervently denounced the teachers. How could such traitors be allowed to educate our precious children?
ALL THIS reminded me of my late wife, Rachel. I may have told the story before. If so, I must ask for indulgence. I just can't help recounting it again.
Rachel was for many years a teacher of the first and second grade. She believed that after that, nothing further could be done to mold the character of a human being.
Like me, Rachel loved the Bible -- not as a religious text or a book of history (which it most decidedly is not) but as a superb literary work, unequaled in its beauty.
The Bible tells how the mythological Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah to bury his wife, Sarah. It is a wonderful story and, as was her wont, Rachel had the children play it in class. This not only brought the story to life, but also allowed her to push forward timid boys and girls who lacked self-confidence. When they were chosen for an important role in one of these improvised plays, they would gain self-respect and suddenly bloom. Some had their whole life changed (as they confided to me decades later).