Hebron, the West Bank and the ties that bind

The City of Abraham: History Myth and Memory – a Journey Through Hebron - review.

The Patriarch Tomb in the divided old city of Hebron
The Patriarch Tomb in the divided old city of Hebron. Photograph: Getty Images

The City of Abraham: History Myth and Memory – a Journey Through Hebron
Edward Platt
Picador, 384pp, £18.99

Edward Platt decided to write about Hebron in 2001, when he first encountered the idea that not only was land subject to conquest but its sub-terrain was, too – the history and myths written into and buried beneath the surface of the land. It changed the way he thought about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making him want to “understand the city’s mythic history and the ways in which it continued to inform its inhabitants’ lives”. What he discovered there was that history is constantly being overwritten to fortify competing opinions.

One of the most ancient and contested cities in the West Bank, Hebron is named in Genesis as the place where Abraham settled and founded monotheism, hence its significance to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, are said to be buried there, along with Abraham’s sons, Ishmael, the father of the Arabs, and Isaac, whose son Jacob became the father of the Jews.

While biblical claims to the city are very old, the seemingly intractable conflict over its land began surprisingly recently. Even after Muslim armies conquered Palestine in 636 and turned the building above the tomb into a mosque, Jews and Muslims lived pretty peacefully in Hebron until as late as 1929, when 67 Jews were massacred by local Arabs and the remaining Jewish population was evacuated. Forty years later, in 1968, a group of messianic settlers moved in and the current problems began.

In his award-winning debut, Leadville (2001), a “biography” of the A40 trunk road, Platt made use of a mix of interviews, reportage and travelogue that worked brilliantly. Exported to the Occupied Territories, the same formula is less successful. Platt meanders from claim to counterclaim about past and present without shedding much light on either. So archaeologists make “narrative assumptions” and extremists use history to serve their own ideologies – tell me something new!

A deeper problem is Platt’s assertion that, being neither Jewish nor Muslim, he has a degree of neutrality that qualifies him for the task at hand. He has clearly gone to considerable lengths to interview Israelis who represent different viewpoints from those of the settlers in Hebron but he remains strangely oblivious to the cultural baggage that his observations carry with them. It’s as if the sensitive and thoughtful author of Leadville has, in Hebron, become tone-deaf to the sound of his own voice.

Why, for example, does he “expect” all Israelis to be “pugnacious”? Would he admit to an equivalent expectation about Palestinians? Did he really need to tell us that the first Jewish settler he meets has “black hairs sprouting from his nose”? And in a book crowded with voices, there is a notable area of silence: Platt does not interview a single Palestinian extremist, despite mentioning that Hebron elected nine Hamas representatives in the most recent elections and is home to three leaders of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an overtly anti-Semitic organization linked to terrorism.

Platt is entitled to his opinions and I share his antipathy towards the settlers. Yet I strongly object to insidious bias in a book that purports to be even-handed. Platt’s assertion that the British “ignored” Arab concerns about Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s is simply untrue. The Mandate government imposed increasingly severe limits on immigration during this period in direct response to Arab outrage.

It’s hard to evaluate many of Platt’s quotations (there are no footnotes or references) and harder still, in the absence of any statistics, to locate the settlers in the wider context of Israeli society. You will dislike them more after reading this book but be none the wiser about them.

The strongest section by far is the one in which former Israeli soldiers describe the brutalising effects of serving in the West Bank. They seem willing to articulate the tensions between personal and national identity that bedevil both Israelis and Palestinians. As Platt concludes, the tragedy of Hebron lies not in its mythic history but in entrenched ideologies that make the possibility of coexistence increasingly remote, while at the same time “binding together, ever tighter . . . the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael”.

Rebecca Abrams’s most recent book, “Touching Distance”, is soon to be published in paperback by Pan Macmillan.

You can read an extract from Edward Platt's "The City of Abraham" here