“What religion are you?” The Israeli guard at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs wanted to know.
In Israel and Occupied Palestine, answering this question correctly can make a world of difference as a tourist. And at the current moment, it meant either entering or not entering the cave where father Abraham, his many sons AND Adam and Eve are allegedly buried.
Yes, that Adam and that Eve.
Okay, so by now I’ve decided to save time by no longer pondering too much on how people could possibly even know that’s actually them in there. This, I think, actually strays from the point. It’s more like the idea of them being in there that makes it true.
Speaking of ideas, being in the Holy Land is making me recall (badly) all those stories and maps I had once read somewhere and so genuinely believed. I’ve kinda become curious to see, in person, what the hype has all been about. But first, I need to get rid of this guard. Do I tell the man with the gun that the answer is that I was raised Christian, but leave out that all sense of religion was lost over the course of a semester after learning the fate of Galileo Galilei in my astronomy class?
Or do I tell him that he might actually like my father, a Guatemalan-evangelical-preacher, who wants to see the Jews build the third temple more badly and quickly than even they want to build it — but leave out the part about how he’d like to see them all killed afterward?
Or I could play the Jew card instead, explaining that we just learned that my mother’s last name is Sephardic so Mazel Tov, I’m kinda Jewish(?) — but leave out out the part about how now that I’m a Jew, will my voice matter in this state of affairs, as the Israeli state is commiting atrocities in my name and where do I file a complaint?
I toyed with this last one until I recalled the conversation my friend Clayton and I had while crossing the border with our Syria/Lebanon passport stamps as la migra held us up for 8 hours and made it their business, among other things, to find out our paternal names.
“Damn, why don’t they ask me about my maternal side instead?” I whispered to Clayton. “My mom’s supposedly kinda Jewish-ish.”
“Well,” he reminded me, “you take your chances seeing that you’re not Ashkenazi.”
It’s true. I recently read somewhere that in Israel, being a brown kinda Jew means being a wrong kinda Jew. This has been confirmed by an Israeli friend of mine who admitted that without the shared hatred of the Palestinians harmoniously bringing the nation together, Israel would have to deal with its own very serious internal problems instead.
So what was I to answer to this security guard? Do I kinda lie or tell the truth? There’s a fine line between the two. I don’t really believe in God. But then, I don’t really believe that I don’t believe in God. I can’t say I’m an Atheist because to have to constantly prove that there is no God is really just another form of fundamentalism, and as a friend of mine points out, “Is too much work.”
“No religion,” I replied.
“That the best kind,” he smiles.
Whoa. I glanced up at the heavens expecting to find a P.O.ed baby Jesus, and couldn’t help wondering if we were about to be turned into a whale or swallowed by a pillar of salt.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Go ahead inside,” he winked, and led me to the Jewish section of the Tomb.
“But I’m not Jewish.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “You’re special.”
I figured if a guy with the gun says it, it must be true to somebody. I reached a metal detector where I was asked to show the contents of my bag. Seven seconds later, a soldier gasped. “A keffiyeh!” he exclaimed, piquing the interest of his soldier friends. I couldn’t tell if they were horrified because they thought the scarf would slither out and snap at them like a serpent, or if they’d never been confronted with a situation where anyone seeking to visit the Jewish section of the Tomb could even own such a garment. They briefly congregated away from me and one of them returned, letting me know that I was allowed to enter but needed to hide the scarf in my purse and not let anyone inside see it. I agreed, recalling the story of that Israeli settler who shot and killed 29 Muslims praying in the very Tomb I was about to enter. I nodded to the guard, and pulled my left sleeve down to cover the Palestine bracelet a store-owner in the Old Souq had given to me only minutes before.
I entered the Tomb and witnessed several Jewish men and women praying in segregated, gendered areas. I realized that this is the first time I had seen Jewish civilians on this trip. Many children were there, speaking English with American accents while holding their parents’ hands. They laughed, smiled, and walked throughout in sheer awe. They are people. The brutal occupation is comprised of people. The ethnic cleansing exists on behalf of, and through the might and complicity of, a group of… people. Just people. It’s perhaps, when there is no gun to your face, that these sentiments become much more easily realized. (Also more easily realized: many might want to concentrate on their own religion’s “gender issues” before launching into attacks of others.)
So right then, like back home when speaking to some of my progressive Jewish friends who I can no longer have a conversation about Israel because whenever their unconditional support for it shines through it breaks my heart into a million little pieces, I was reminded of the late Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, who described evil as “banal”. In her 1968 book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil” Arendt sought to highlight that often, those who carry out unspeakable crimes are ordinary individuals who rationalize these acts in very unremarkable ways. Such people are not always crazy lunatics but rather, those who simply accept that which is routine and normative. Never problematic. Never immoral. And like Eichmann, they’d probably say they’re just doing their jobs.
We’ve become, I think, so good at vilifying certain people who commit atrocities into ways that reduce them down to the status of animals or fanatics. This is not useful and is actually proving to be quite harmful. To think that evil can only come from those who are not like us takes us on a dangerous trajectory where it becomes impossible to accept that we and our loved ones are also quite capable of harming others, no matter how well-intentioned we may be. We can say this about the general Israeli population on Palestine, and we can say this about the general American population on Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Latin America, Africa… ad nauseum. Our complacency renders us complicit.
I walked to the back of the Tomb and was greeted by a soldier guarding the door separating the Jewish and Muslim sections. He assured me that he was there for my protection as I didn’t want to be accidentally wandering into that dangerous place.
“Really?” My eyes widened incredulously, trying to peek in. “What will happen to me?”
His face fell into grave seriousness, “They steal.”
I flashed a quick smile and waved good bye, hurriedly making my way out. “They steal?!” I muttered under my breath. I walked away wondering how this soldier, who seemed genuinely nice (minus the automatic weapon), came to “know” what he knew. Knowledge has serious consequences in real peoples’ lives. Perhaps in my personal interest to save time by not allowing myself to ponder too much on how people could possibly even know what they “know”, I might also be chosing to ignore those things about us which, in reality, a
re proving to be quite harmful.