Why I Wrote The City of Abraham
Edward Platt discusses the inspiration and challenges that lay behind his book, The City of Abraham.
by Edward Platt
I wanted to write about Tel Rumeida since I first heard of its existence. In June 2001, when the Second Intifada was at its height, a friend of mine organized a conference at the ICA with the laudable aim of ‘creating a space where the intractable futures of Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs can briefly be re-imagined.’ The invited speakers included a woman whose daughter had been killed by a suicide bomber and an Arab member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, who was being prosecuted for treason, but it was the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman who presented a way of thinking about the conflict that was entirely new to me. He maintained that it was no longer defined by international treaties or by military force, but by how and where one chose to build. ‘The landscape and the built environment become the arena of conflict,’ he wrote in an essay called ‘The Politics of Verticality’. Since Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the Six Day War of 1967, the state has been engaged in what Weizman called a ‘colossal project’ of territorial and architectural planning, building military bases, hilltop settlements and ‘security roads’ that bypass Palestinian towns. Occupying land was not merely an end in itself: it was also a way of rendering the idea of a Palestinian state a logistical impossibility. ‘The thing must be done first and foremost by creating facts on the ground’, one planner said: ‘cut apart’ by Israeli roads and settlements, and enjoying only limited areas for self-rule, the ‘minority population’ would find it hard to ‘create unification and territorial continuity’.
Weizman said that mapmaking was a national obsession in Israel, and yet if you wanted to understand the nature of the occupation, it was no longer enough to view the West Bank in plan, as a flat territory, seen from above: ‘The separation between Israeli and Palestinian areas in the Occupied Territories was not articulated in the surface of the terrain alone,’ he wrote. Israel had created a multidimensional road system, with the highways reserved for settler traffic raised on bridges, and the narrow Palestinian roads sunk into underpasses, and it had also sought to control the militarized airspace above the West Bank, and the mountain aquifer beneath it. The territory that had resulted was a kind of ‘hollow land’ – ‘cut apart and enclosed by its many barriers, gutted by underground tunnels, threaded together by overpasses and bombed from its militarised skies.’
Yet it was another element of Weizman’s ‘hollow land’ that intrigued me most. Israel has never annexed most of the West Bank, but it annexed East Jerusalem at the end of the Six Day War, and at the same time it ‘declared the archaeological and historical sites in the West Bank, primarily those of Jewish or Israelite cultural relevance to be the state’s “national and cultural property”’. The sub-terrain was ‘the first zone to be colonised’, Weizman said, and in passing he mentioned a ‘notorious episode’ in which a group of settlers had occupied an archaeological site called Tel Rumeida, and built a block of flats on stilts above the exposed remains of the Bronze Age city of Hebron.
Hebron lies at the heart of the struggle for control of the land because it is the city of the matriarchs and patriarchs – the family of named individuals from whom all Jews, Christians and Muslims claim lineal or spiritual descent
It was not just the violence of the Second Intifada that stopped me going out to Hebron straight away. At first, I did not feel entitled to write about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict: I do not speak Arabic or Hebrew, I have no Israeli or Palestinian relatives – no Jewish or Muslim ones either as far as I’m aware – and I had never been to the region. I have no history of engagement in the subject and no expertise to offer. The lack of an instinctive commitment was not necessarily a disadvantage – you might argue that it was the best qualification I could have – and yet the idea of an outsider writing about such a tortuous and agonizing situation seemed at best inappropriate, and at worst a gross intrusion.
I told myself that Hebron was a place of significance to everyone who grew up within the cultural sphere of the three great Abrahamic faiths of the Middle East, but I did not believe it until I found my life converging on the lives of the matriarchs and patriarchs in one fundamental respect. In the summer of 2006, my wife and I had discovered that we belonged to the small group of people who cannot have children without help, and when I re-read the Book of Genesis shortly afterwards I was surprised and moved to discover that all three generations of Hebron’s first family also suffered from what our doctors call ‘unexplained infertility’. Naturally, the solutions that our societies proposed were very different – theirs preached obedience to the dictates of a priestly cult; ours offered all the benefits of post-Enlightenment medical science – but the dilemma was essentially the same, and the knowledge that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their respective wives had suffered the same frustrations as us made their stories more real to me than they had ever been before.
I was particularly fascinated by the story of Abraham’s attempts to produce an heir, for it dramatizes the mythic origins of the ethnic struggle that has endured until today. From the moment that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, appears in the Book of Genesis we are told that she was ‘barren: she had no child’, and before God intervenes to grant her a son at the age of ninety, she tells Abraham to ‘go in unto’ her Egyptian maid, Hagar: ‘It may be that I may obtain children by her.’
Such arrangements might have been conventional in the time that Genesis was composed or redacted, but its authors were nonetheless aware of their ability to create resentment. The King James Bible conveys what happened next in a verse of concise dramatic power: Hagar conceived, and ‘when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.’ To be supplanted by her servant was bad enough, but to be ‘despised’ by her was too much to bear. Sarah – or Sarai, as she was known before Isaac’s birth – complained to Abraham, whose answer, seems, to a modern reader, perfectly pitched between affection and exasperation: ‘Behold, thy maid is in thy hand. Do to her as it pleaseth thee.’ Sarai was unforgiving: she ‘dealt hardly with Hagar’, who ‘fled from her face’, and yet God did not abandon her. An angel of the Lord found Hagar wandering in the wilderness, and told her to go back. Hagar and her unborn child were part of God’s design – the angel told her that her descendants ‘shall not be numbered for multitude’, and that she could call her son Ishmael ‘because the Lord hath heard thy affliction’ before adding an ominous prophecy about his nature: ‘And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him.’
Hagar went back to her mistress, as instructed, but the feud between Abraham’s wives was renewed after Isaac’s miraculous birth. Ishmael’s behaviour at the ‘great feast’ that Abraham gave on the day that Isaac was weaned is the source of the dispute, though it is not clear exactly what he did: the King James Bible says that Sarah saw Ishmael ‘mocking’, without explaining who or what provoked his scorn, but the Jewish writer Elie Wiesel offers a different translation – he says that Sarah saw the fourteen-year-old boy Ishmael ‘playing’ with his younger brother, and could not abide the growing intimacy between the boys.
Her reaction was as unforgiving as before: she told Abraham to ‘cast out this bondwoman and her son’, and God, who seemed to have infinite patience for the matriarchs’ and patriarch’s domestic affairs, advised her to obey. ‘In all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac thy seed shall be called,’ he said, though he added that he would also make Ishmael ‘a nation’.
Abraham gave Hagar bread and water, and expelled her and Ishmael into ‘the wilderness of Beer-sheba’, where the boy would have died of thirst if the angel had not intervened again. This time, Hagar and Ishmael did not return to Canaan: Ishmael ‘dwelt in the wilderness’, and married a woman from Egypt. He had twelve sons, ‘princes according to their nations, and when he died, aged one hundred and thirty-seven, he was gathered ‘unto his people’, who ‘dwelt from Havilah unto Shur’ – an area that is sometimes said to correspond to the Arabian peninsula. Isaac and Ishmael only met once as adults, when they buried their father in the family tomb in Hebron, but nonetheless the warring residents of the city are aware of their shared heritage: as one Palestinian man was to say to me, Arabs and Jews are ‘brothers with different mothers’.
The costly and time-consuming process of IVF delayed my visit to Hebron by another year, but it also gave me a new appreciation of the drama and richness of the legends located in the city, and made me even more curious to see where they were set. My son was born in July 2007 and four months later I went to Hebron for the first time.
Read Edward's account of his visit to Hebron.
I tried to find out more about it, but the reports were confused and contradictory: one claimed that the settlers had been drawn to Tel Rumeida by the news that an archaeologist had uncovered remnants of King David’s palace, but others said it was not until the settlers occupied the site that its archaeological significance became apparent. It seemed that there had been several digs during the last forty years, but when they had taken place, and what they had found, was not clear. The nature of the settlement was not clear, either: Eyal Weizman said the settlers had placed ‘seven mobile homes’ on ‘an elevated cement roof’ supported by concrete pillars placed around the site of the dig, but other sources suggested they had built – or were building – a block of flats.
The confusion was intriguing in itself – the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is reported in great detail even in relatively peaceful times, and during the upheavals of the Second Intifada there were more or less daily updates in the media. Yet the constant coverage has not proved enlightening: a study conducted by the Glasgow University Media Group in 2003 found that many people did not even know who was ‘occupying’ the ‘occupied territories’. Perhaps it was not surprising that the history of a single building in the most bitterly contested city in the West Bank should have been so hard to establish.
Hebron lies at the heart of the struggle for control of the land because it is the city of the matriarchs and patriarchs – the family of named individuals from whom all Jews, Christians and Muslims claim lineal or spiritual descent. According to Genesis, Abraham settled in Hebron when he obeyed God’s command to leave his home and travel to the Promised Land. He had two sons: the elder, Ishmael, is believed to have become the father of the Arabs, while the younger, Isaac, had a son called Jacob, who became the father of the Jews.
When Abraham’s wife, Sarah, died, he buried her in a tomb called the Cave of Machpelah, on the outskirts of the town, and he was later buried beside her. Since Isaac and Jacob, and two of their respective wives, are also believed to be interred in the family tomb, Hebron is regarded as the birthplace of the Jewish people, and the immense Herodian structure that stands above the traditional site of the Cave of Machpelah in the south-west corner of the city, half a mile east of Tel Rumeida, is Judaism’s second holiest shrine.
Yet it was Ishmael’s heirs who dominated Hebron when the Jews’ two-thousand-year exile from Israel began. When the Muslim armies led by Mohammed’s successors emerged from the Arabian peninsula and captured Palestine in 632 CE, they renamed Hebron Al Khalil, ‘the friend’, in honour of Abraham, whom Muslims venerate as a ‘friend of God’, and turned the building above the Tomb of the Patriarchs into a mosque. Jews began returning to Hebron in the medieval era, and a small group lived in peace with their Palestinian neighbours until 1929, when sixty-seven of their number were killed in a riot provoked by growing tensions over Jewish immigration to Palestine, and the British authorities decided to evacuate the rest.
For most of the next forty years there were no Jews in Hebron, but in 1968 an atavistic rabbi called Moshe Levinger led a small group back to the city. According to the Israeli writer Amos Oz, the ‘settlers’ who led the return to the territories that Israel had captured in the Six Day War of 1967 made up ‘a stupid and cruel messianic sect, a band of armed gangsters . . . that emerged from some dark corner of Judaism’. Rabbi Levinger and his followers were some of the most extreme of all. In most places in the West Bank, the settlements were established on isolated hilltops or other defensible locations, at one remove from the local population, but the settlers of Hebron chose to live in the middle of the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank.
Levinger believed that the biblical legends on which their claims to the land were based should supersede all other considerations: ‘The Jewish national renaissance is more important than democracy,’ he once said. ‘No government has the authority or right to say that a Jew cannot live in all of the parts of the land of Israel.’ Since many of his followers belonged to the outlawed Kach Party that advocated the expulsion or ‘transfer’ of the ‘Ishmaelites’ from the territories they called ‘Judea and Samaria’, it is little wonder that their presence provoked resentment and resistance, yet they were not easily intimidated. In the early days of the settlement, Palestinian stallholders in the Old City would identify their new neighbours by their antisocial tendencies – one might be known for turning over market stalls; another for spitting in people’s faces – but over the years, the minor antagonisms escalated into violent confrontations, and on the morning of 25 February 1994 a doctor from Brooklyn called Baruch Goldstein walked into the Tomb of the Patriarchs during dawn prayers and shot and killed twenty-nine Muslims.
The Israeli army responded to the massacre by imposing a year-long curfew on the Palestinian residents of the Old City of Hebron, increasing the number of roadblocks and checkpoints, and banning Palestinian cars, and in some cases Palestinian pedestrians, from its streets. Complaining of constant harassment, and finding themselves increasingly unable to pursue their lives, the Palestinians began abandoning the area, and the settlers expanded their presence. In 1984, they placed seven caravans on a plot of land on the eastern edge of Tel Rumeida within the line of the ancient city walls, and in 1999 they gained permission to turn the encampment into permanent homes. Building on such an important site would never have been permitted in Israel itself – one Israeli archaeologist told me that it was like build ing on Stonehenge, and the legal challenges that delayed the progress of the work were one of the sources of the con fusion that I had encountered when I began my research.
The building was finally completed in 2005. The Israeli archaeologist who had conducted the ‘rescue excavation’ that prepared the ground for construction had left intact some of the structures he unearthed, including two sections of the city walls, and the settlement was raised on stilts placed among them. The settlers’ American-born spokes man David Wilder called the first tenants ‘keepers of the keys’ – guardians of Hebron’s Jewish shrines, and inheritors of a tradition lasting almost four thousand years: ‘It is the site of the original Hebron, home of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Lea’, he wrote. Seemingly unconcerned by the fact that they had destroyed the heritage they claimed to revere, Wilder said that the ‘beautiful new apartment complex’ built above ‘the roots of our existence’ symbolized ‘the buds of the rebirth of the Jewish People in the City of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs’ and ‘represents, perhaps more than any other place in Israel, the moral and historical justification of our existence, not only in Hebron, but in all of Israel. That is why we are here, and that is why we will stay here, forever.’
The building that stood on stilts above its own foundations also stood above the foundations of the state of Israel itself. Here, or so it seemed to me from a distance of several thousand miles, were the mythic roots of the struggle to control the land – and here was the modern conflict in its most incestuous form. In 2005, the liberal Israeli journalist Gideon Levy said that ‘an annual field trip’ to Tel Rumeida should be mandatory in Israeli schools: ‘This is where every student in Israel – every citizen, in fact – should be brought.’ The fate of its Palestinian residents would form the curriculum of a course in civics and social studies, for barely fifty of the five hundred families who once lived in the area were left: the rest had been driven out by ‘a reign of terror’ imposed by the ‘violent lords of the land’ who had become their neighbours.
To Levy, Tel Rumeida has become ‘the gutter of the settlement enterprise’, a ‘military barracks’ that had become ‘a shelter for purest evil’, while to Wilder, it is not only the birthplace of monotheism but ‘the roots of all civilization’. There was only one point on which they might agree: as Levy put it, there was no other neighbourhood like this one.