Benjamin Moser is a world-renown writer: he was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for his book Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for his latest book Sontag: Her Life and Work. He’s also a Jewish American whose visit to Hebron transformed him into an advocate for Palestinian rights.
What did he witness in Hebron that made him call it “the worst place in the world” in the title of his blog article about the trip?
Getting to Hebron
Hebron, or Al-Khalil in Arabic, is a city in the West Bank just 19 miles (30 km) south of Jerusalem. It is the largest city in the West Bank after East Jerusalem, housing about 200,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israeli settlers.
Moser describes how getting to Hebron from Jerusalem can take hours due to the Israeli checkpoints managing entry into the Occupied Palestinian Territories, even for travelers like himself who carry the “good” passports.
According to this interactive map of Hebron, there are six possible checkpoints for entry into and through the city. Some of these checkpoints forbid entry to Palestinians. Others only allow Palestinians to pass through as pedestrians. Many ban travel on main streets reserved for Jewish settlers.
A Place Stuck in the Jim Crow Past
Jim Crow ended only a few years before Moser was born, but he describes that what he witnessed in Hebron “felt worse… than anything I’d read about Jim Crow. Worse than apartheid…”
He describes seeing heavily armed Israeli soldiers patrolling the marketplace in the heart of the Old City, and how the shops—which were once bustling with people—were now shuttered and still. This part of town was populated by Jewish American settlers.
Moser realized that these settlers “don’t actually live here… What they are mainly there to do is harass Palestinians.” The Israel-endorsed violence by settlers and security forces has compelled Palestinians to leave in a mass exodus and caused economic ruin to this downtown area.
“In Hebron, I saw a racial tyranny that was not only not over: it was actively getting worse.” Moser writes, “I saw ethnic cleansing happening in real time, house by house, block by block.” He saw a place where people who were indigenous to the region were forced out of their homes only because of the ethnic group they were born into.
Life in Exile
Moser reflects on the life of exile Palestinians in Hebron experience. Palestinians of all ages who live in Hebron are subject to the Israeli military, which means they can be imprisoned, expelled, have their homes invaded and demolished, or be killed at any time. Palestinians who leave have no citizenship, so they become stateless refugees and risk never being able to return home or see their families again.
Journalists have described life in Hebron as a “microcosm” of Palestinians’ life under the domination of Israel and its powerful army.
The late Palestinian intellectual and Columbia University Professor Edward W. Said has theorized exile as the painful and unjust political condition of the Palestinian people: Palestinians are exiles even while living in their homeland, and they’ve also become exiles by “the proverbial people of exile, the Jews.”
The Jewish Perspective
As an American, Moser feels a deep shame that the United States pays for Israel’s apartheid regime, financially, ideologically, and technologically. But as a Jew, Moser feels betrayed.
He shares: “In my family, as in so many other Jewish families, the worst thing you could be was racist. This was a betrayal of both nation and people: of the American promise of equality and democracy, and of the entire Jewish ethical heritage.” The Jewish people’s long history of persecution has led to their commitment to civil rights, prompting many to march alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Moser now thinks of the State of Israel as a shanda fir di goyim, or a Jew that embarrasses the Jews. He hints at a difficult question: What would the six million Jews who died from the genocide of the Holocaust think about the apartheid regime of Israel?
He concludes with his conviction that “if people of good faith—and particularly Jews who have any respect for the moral and ethical traditions of the Jews–really knew the stunning, cruel, appalling treatment of the Palestinian people that happens every day in the name of the Jews and the Jewish state, they wouldn’t stand for it.”
About Benjamin Moser
Benjamin Moser is a Jewish American writer from Houston, Texas. He is a staff writer for The Nation, and he regularly writes in his newsletter “Urubuquaquá”. Moser has also written several books, including Sontag: Her Life and Work and Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. He has worked as a book critic for Harper’s Magazine and as a columnist for The New York Times Book Review. He has also translated books from several languages and won multiple awards, including Brazil’s State Prize in Cultural Diplomacy, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Pulitzer Prize.