The Evil That Dare Not Speak Its Name:
By Sandy Tolan
une 15, 2015 "Information
- For years the “A-word” has been
off-limits in polite conversation about Israel’s treatment of
Palestinians. The A-word, we have been told, unfairly singles
out the Jewish state and its use is perhaps
even anti-Semitic. Such declarations can have a powerful
However, in 2002
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
broke the taboo, writing in the British newspaper The
Guardian that “the humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints
and roadblocks” reminded him “of what happened to us black
people in South Africa.”
Four years later Jimmy Carter committed a
similar indelicacy with the very title of his bestseller,
“Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” A
wave of condemnation of the former president followed. “He
appears to be giving
aid and comfort to the new anti-Semites,” wrote a reviewer
for the Jewish Virtual Library.
For the most part, in the mainstream U.S.
press at least, the decorum that forbids use of the A-word
remains in place. Yet increasingly, as Israel continues to
colonize the West Bank with settlers, and its army ensures their
dominion over the lands they occupy, adhering to the A-word ban
requires shielding one’s eyes, or, at a minimum, engaging in
verbal gymnastics. What, after all, to call a system of
legalized discrimination based on ethnicity and religion in
which one group has full voting rights and the other does not?
What to call a system under which one people can travel freely
roads built specifically for them, whisking through
checkpoints because of their religion and the
color of their license plates, and under which the other
must submit to inspection at military kiosks frequently manned
by snipers? A system under which one population in hilltop
enclaves is protected by troops and military surveillance
towers, while the other is subjected to frequent night raids by
those same troops? Under which
40 percent of the adult male population has been forced to
spend time in prison? Under which one group’s “civil
administration” can designate a town of the other group as a
historic archeological site and
evict all the residents, who then must move into tents?
soldiers ordered Palestinian bathers out of a public
swimming pool last spring so Jewish settlers could have a swim,
alone and unbothered by the darker-skinned native population?
Here’s what I found on a trip I made to the
West Bank recently.
I and my Palestinian host left Jerusalem on a
hot, dry morning, our access to the exclusive West Bank roads
ensured by the precious yellow license plate of our vehicle. H.
was aware that because of his origin he could be banned from the
roads at any time.
Our destination was the old city of Hebron,
one of the most surreal tableaus of the entire tragedy of
Palestine and Israel, where 500 to 600 Jewish settlers, many of
them from the United States, are protected by at least 1,500
soldiers in a city of 170,000 Palestinians.
I looked out the open window to the east,
feeling immediately the profound changes that had occurred in
the landscape in the two years I’d been away. The red-roofed
Jewish settlement of Efrat now stretched for nearly two miles.
Adjacent were rows of white trailers, part of an
“outpost” that Israel deems technically illegal but which,
by Israel’s design, will soon be absorbed into the settlement.
Israeli leaders call settlement expansion “natural growth”; this
is how a Palestinian landscape is transformed into a Jewish one.
The population of Efrat is officially about 10,000, though H.
claims the real number is more than twice that.
In the distance, the 25-foot-high
separation barrier marched south with us, and now, suddenly,
at a narrow passage it reached us, transformed into a tastefully
etched boundary of beige and tan. Settlers, H. told me, had
complained that they found the ugly gray slabs distasteful as
they commuted to prayer in Jerusalem or to the beach in Tel
Aviv; now, with the wall’s offensive aspects eliminated for the
privileged population, the separation of peoples carries the
deceiving look of a simple sound barrier.
Presently the road opened up again, and for a
lovely, fleeting moment the landscape of Palestine appeared,
unimpeded by barriers, settlements or checkpoints. Ancient
terraced olive groves dotted the landscape, interspersed by
vineyards of Hebron grapes, nearly ready. The cries of
“Khalili ya anab,” H. told me, would soon ring out in the
markets across Palestine: “The Hebron grapes are here!”
Few vendors were calling out 30 minutes later
as we walked through the moribund Old City of Hebron, where
urban settlement blocks stand brick to brick with Palestinian
homes in a contorted geographical designation
known as H-2. This arrangement was sanctioned by the
international community in an
agreement signed by the Palestinian Authority as part of the
Oslo “peace process.” Israel had insisted that a few hundred
settlers be allowed to stay in a neighborhood of tens of
thousands of Palestinians because of a long Jewish presence
there. The current settlers say they live in Hebron to honor the
memory of Jews massacred there by Palestinians in 1929, during
riots over Jewish immigration to Palestine. Yet the current
settlers, among the most extremist of all Israelis, have little
or no connection to the descendants of those massacred. Some of
the descendants have denounced the Hebron settlements, pointing
out that some Palestinian families sheltered Jews in the
massacre; they call
for removal of the settlers.
oday, the 1,500 Israeli soldiers, more than twice
the number of settlers they were sent to protect, spend much of
their time escorting their charges from one part of the city to
another. When the armed escort squads push through the narrow alleys
of Old Hebron, life on the Palestinian street freezes; such is the
primacy of Israel’s settlement project.
Steel screens above the old Arab casbah protect the Palestinian
vendors against a stream of trash, bottles, plastic chairs and bags
of feces that the settlers hurl down from above. This is everyday
We walked toward
Shuhada Street, the once-bustling main street of Palestinian
life. H. stopped; as a Palestinian, he is not allowed to walk there.
The street was nearly vacant. The doors on some of the shops were
welded shut; access to some homes is now possible only by ladder,
or, in one case, a rope to a window.
We came upon one of H-2’s 120 military checkpoints
and other obstacles ensuring separation between Arab and Jew. As we
paused, 50 meters away a soldier’s voice called out from a
loudspeaker, imitating the call to prayer. “Allahu akbar,” he
sang in accented Arabic. His mocking laughter followed.
Around the bend, away from the checkpoint, stood a
Palestinian elementary school, its entire perimeter marked with
looping razor wire. Many of the children must cross checkpoints to
get to the school, walking past graffiti in English saying “Gas the
Arabs!” and sometimes enduring a gantlet of flying stones and rotten
vegetables and attacks from settlers’ dogs. Across from the school
lies a flat expanse of asphalt. Once this was a play area for the
school. The old soccer and volleyball grounds have been replaced by
a parking lot for buses from the settlements.
It was from an adjacent settlement, Kiryat Arba,
in 1994 that a settler from Brooklyn named Baruch Goldstein emerged,
traveling with his Galil automatic rifle to the Ibrahimi Mosque and
somehow getting through Israeli security before gunning down 29
Palestinians as they prayed. Survivors beat him to death. Today
Goldstein is revered among some settlers. At his gravesite in Kiryat
Arba, these words are inscribed: “He gave his soul for the people of
Israel, the Torah, and the Land. His hands are clean and his heart
We headed to the Ibrahimi Mosque, also known as
the Cave of the Patriarchs. Near the entrance we passed through a
pair of metal floor-to-ceiling turnstiles and submitted ourselves
for inspection by Israeli soldiers, as does every Palestinian who
wishes to worship there.
The call to prayer from this mosque, H. told me,
is often banned by the Israeli authorities, who say it bothers the
settlers. In December, for example, the call was
banned 52 times; in May, 49 times, or about one-third of calls.
“Just a humiliation,” H. said. “Showing their power.” Sixty percent
of the mosque has been taken over by Israel and is now a synagogue.
At the entrance we took off our shoes. Just inside
lay a mound of plastic throw rugs—seemingly redundant, as plush
Turkish carpets cover the interior of the mosque. But they are
essential, H. told me. If a member of the Israeli government, or its
legislative body, the Knesset, wishes to visit, he or she can enter
the Muslim side with only a brief warning. Such visitors refuse to
remove their shoes, so the Muslim faithful line their path with the
plastic rugs, preserving the sanctity of their religious space.
Here, it is believed, lie the remains of Abraham
(Ibrahim) and Sarah, figures central to both Judaism and Islam. The
tomb of Abraham/Ibrahim is visible to each segregated side. Peering
past the tomb, I could see a woman on the synagogue side peering
back at us.
We emerged into the harsh midday light outside the
mosque. Inside or out, the overriding feeling was about imbalance of
power: that officials would refuse to remove their shoes in someone
else’s holy place; that metal screens are needed to protect
shopkeepers from debris hurled in hatred; that someone, somewhere,
would actually decide to close a playground for Palestinian children
in order to put in a parking lot for the buses of Jewish settlers.
Power in Hebron, as it does across the West Bank,
lies most clearly in the hands of Israel; Palestinians are no match
for Israel’s military might or its political influence with the
United States, the world’s sole superpower. Palestinian power lies
instead in sumud, or steadfastness: a determination to
persevere and to live for a better day, confronting Israel on moral
grounds while hoping the world will one day bear greater witness to
the facts on the ground.
As if to underscore this point, near the end of
our trip to Hebron, H. gestured to a small neighborhood near the
mosque, on the other side of yet another entrance controlled by
soldiers and armed with metal detectors. Just beyond live six
Palestinian families on a tiny island of territory amid the
patchwork jurisdictions of H-2. They live essentially surrounded by
settlements and the military, and because of that proximity any
items that could be construed as weapons—including
kitchen knives—have been banished from their homes by Israeli
authorities. The Palestinian residents must have their meat cut in
the market, to be brought back in pieces. “For how long [is one]
able to live under these shitty conditions?” H. asked. Israel, he
said, wants to force the families out—“what we call slow transfer.”
But for now, the families’ sumud is intact. They remain
steadfast. “Existence,” declares a popular Palestinian slogan, “is
But the system in which they exist cannot stand in
the long run. And although some commentators and others, even after
looking at the facts, may continue to decry the use of the A-word—A
for Apartheid—to me it matters little what we call it. I am also
fine with comparing these conditions, and others like them all over
Palestine, to the legislated racism and racial violence that were
known in America as Jim Crow.
Whatever we call it, it is separate and unequal.
And like apartheid, like Jim Crow, it is destined for the dustbin of
Sandy Tolan is the author of “Children of the
Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land” (Bloomsbury April 2015)
and “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle
East” (Bloomsbury, 2006). He is an associate professor at the
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University
of Southern California. He blogs at Ramallahcafe.com