Ilana Hammerman was not a familiar name. But the subtitle of her new book was irresistible: One Woman’s Story of Challenging Borders in Israel/Palestine. She was lavishly praised in the foreword by poet and peace activist David Shulman. He identified her as a “renowned activist and scholar” who urges mass civil disobedience against “the cruel and indeed illegal laws of the occupation.” Left-wing Israeli writer David Grossman commended her book as “a powerful, consciousness-changing novel.” Willing to have my consciousness challenged, I borrowed it from our local library.
I was intrigued by Hammerman’s repetitive insistence on distancing herself from herself, self-identifying only as “the woman.” So “the woman wondered”; “the woman deliberated”; “the woman” challenged the Israeli judicial system; “the woman couldn’t make up her mind” whether to smuggle a Palestinian across the border in the trunk of her car; “the woman” visited a Palestinian prisoner.
“The woman” wonders what she would have done if, like the Palestinians, “she had been compelled to live under military occupation since the day she was born.” It means false arrests; hours of interrogation without legal counsel; endlessly long, arduous legal proceedings. Unmentioned, it also meant fair trials for murderous Palestinian terrorists who attacked Israelis in shopping malls, buses, restaurants and public spaces.
A touching chapter is devoted to her kindness in taking four Palestinian children to a Tel Aviv beach, their first crossing of the closed border between their West Bank home and Israel. They were delighted to encounter sand castles, sea waves, sea shells and tiny water creatures—in sharp contrast to “the warped and distorted reality” of the town where they lived, “fenced in with barbed wire and [Israeli] military jeeps driving to and fro along its main street.”
Back in the West Bank, “the woman” charmingly admires young Palestinian girls licking ice-cream while “their red-and-white tongues loll out of their little faces smeared with vanilla-chocolate.” She chats with a father who shares “good memories of bygone years . . . when Israelis sounded like good people, an open and tolerant society, much more than the Arab one.” She does not mention the consequences of two intifadas, and the Israeli deaths and injuries they inflicted.
In Hebron, the kindness and cordiality that she effusively displayed towards West Bank Palestinians quickly vanishes. “The woman’s eye” can only see the dismal shuttered homes and shops that line the main street of the Jewish Quarter. She seems unaware that Hebron once was a thriving Jewish community of religious sanctity, with Ashkenazi and Sephardi yeshivahs that attracted students from Eastern Europe and even the United States. Nor does “the woman” mention the murderous Arab riots in 1929 that killed dozens of Jews, and destroyed their synagogues and yeshivahs, leaving Hebron Judenrein (“free of Jews”) until the Six-Day War returned Jews to their ancient holy city.
“The woman in dark blue jeans” (doubtlessly worn to distinguish herself from Orthodox women wearing long skirts) walks along a “ghostly street” where shops are shuttered, and the only visible Jews are Israeli soldiers. “The woman” lingers briefly outside Me’arat Hamachpelah, the towering Herodian edifice marking the burial place of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs—the world’s oldest Jewish holy site. There is no mention that King David ruled from Hebron before relocating his throne to Jerusalem millennia before Muslims appeared to usurp sacred Jewish sites.
Nor does “the woman” notice that Beit Hadassah—until 1929 a hospital providing free care to Arabs and Jews alike—is now an attractive apartment building; yeshivahs flourish; and the desecrated ancient Jewish cemetery has been restored. Eight hundred Jewish residents who determined that their ancient city will never again be Judenrein also escape “the woman’s” attention.
Nor does “the woman” seem to know that 30,000 Palestinians outnumber Jews in the Jewish Quarter largely because Israeli governments, whether on the left or right, have squelched Jewish population growth there. She seems unaware of the thriving Palestinian sector of Hebron on the other side of the Jewish ghetto barrier, with 200,000 residents, high-rise apartment buildings, universities and shopping malls, where, as a Jew, she is forbidden to enter.
Even a store front in the Jewish Quarter, inscribed with the enduring motto Am Yisrael Chai (“The People of Israel Live”) bracketed between Stars of David, was “an annoying sight” to “the woman.” (Perhaps she would prefer “The People of Israel Dies.”) Nothing in Hebron seemed to please her until a local Arab welcomed her into her home for conversation and coffee.
“The woman,” David Shulman writes admiringly in his foreword after commending her “moral outrage,” speaks “of the urgent need for all of us to break the law” to end “the occupation” in the (unidentified) biblical homeland of the Jewish people. With friends like “the woman,” sadly, Israel hardly needs enemies.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.