Shlomo Wollins begins his narration well before we reach Hebron, a city on the very fault line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His tour, by car and by foot, on this late January day is an entry into a worldview of The Chosen and The Other, in which Jews, God's Good Guys, are the victims of Arabs, but it's also a world in which Jews are victors over Arabs.
At times, it's a persuasive, irresistible message.
"You see that bus stop beside the road," he says, indicating a nondescript crossroads on the drive south from Jerusalem. "That's where three Jews were gunned down, including a 10-year-old boy and a pregnant woman. Just like that -- as they waited for the bus. I came down and helped push dirt into three graves."
I don't doubt that Wollins did just that. His bearded, 40-something face is creased with kindness. His handshake is firm. His hug is warm. He was born and raised in America and tells me he made and lost a fortune in corporate America before immigrating to Israel. Inevitably, his conversation circles back to his dark vision of inevitable war.
"Right now the majority of people want to conclude that war is not necessary. That is a delusion," Wollins says.
I crane my neck for a swift look as our car races by the bus stop. There's a glimpse of a makeshift stone memorial. There isn't much else to see there, except for a handful of Jews waiting for a bus.
Wollins himself usually rides the bus to Hebron, so he's not absolutely sure how to navigate. He almost casually notes that a wrong turn would land us in an Arab village, with potentially deadly consequences.
On the way, we make two wrong turns. Each time, our driver, Orit, the third member of our party, wheels a hasty retreat. Perhaps the element of surprise works in our favor. Some bewildered Arab children seem as though they aren't expecting an Israeli license plate. Had they been ready for us, would these adorable sprites really have lobbed rocks, or worse?
The unreality, the illogic of it all leaves me more fearless than I know I should be. Even the main road that we stick to runs almost exclusively through West Bank territory populated almost entirely by Arabs. Orit, a journalist I know to be intrepid, clearly looks nervous. Maybe she's trying to remember if she got that spare tire repaired.
But we arrive in Hebron without incident -- just ahead of a tour bus of mostly middle-aged U.S. visitors. If it's safe for them today....
The bus' appearance also says something about the irrepressible urge for normality, which asserts itself in Israel at any possible opportunity.
It's no secret why a tour bus would stop here. Hebron and its environs are revered by both Muslim and Jewish faithful as the burial place, in the Cave of Machpelah, of patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. There's been a Jewish presence on and off since then -- and when it was off, it usually was in the wake of a bloody, unprovoked event. A local museum commemorates a 1929 expulsion pogrom that killed 67 Jews and wounded 60. When Jordan controlled the area from 1948 to 1967, its officials tried to raze all traces of the Jewish quarter, including the medieval synagogue. For that matter, over hundreds of years, the Muslims in charge had denied Jews and Christians access to Cave of Machpelah site.
So after Israelis overran the area during the 1967 War, there was plenty of pent up Jewish aspiration. The result was the nearby Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, which began at an old army installation and now houses some 6,500 souls. And, later, Jewish settlers pushed into Hebron itself, where they now occupy four, ever-at-risk neighborhoods, with about 1,000 residents in all.
Everything about Hebron speaks of a separateness dividing Israelis and Palestinians. A no-man's land has developed between where Israelis live and where Palestinians live. And this dead zone is patrolled by young Israeli soldiers who make the Jewish quarter livable for Israelis outnumbered somewhere between 80-to-1 and 300-to-1, depending on who's doing the counting. Those are bad odds even for Jews rough-and-ready enough to stage an Alamo-like stand.
This fundamental, almost unquestioned hostility and separateness is discomfiting to me, the child of Jews active in the civil rights movement. But here, in Wollins' world, it's a given. And in truth, it's getting to be a given even for Israelis actively working for peaceful coexistence.
Wollins points to a hill opposite the Jewish quarter, from where Arab snipers used to fire, until the army finally cleared them out. He walks us through the school's play yard, onto which Arab neighbors on the other side of the divide would toss rocks at grade-schoolers. Up an incline we approach the house where an Arab intruder stabbed to death a rabbi. And in the flats, a monument marks where a sniper shot a 10-month-old girl in a stroller through the head.
Hebron is no place for these Jews to live, except that they consider this site so holy. Besides the patriarchs, it's also the traditional burial site of Ruth (the biblical grandmother of King David) and Jesse (David's father). The trail to these tombs snakes between quaint vineyards and Arab homes along a path blocked from open access by razor wire and from view by corrugated metal and opaque plastic. The shielding isn't bulletproof -- and plenty of bullet holes attest to this -- but it effectively obscures a clear shot at passing Jews.
But Wollins' tour is as much about Jewish victory as victimization. He shows off a new apartment building that now stands like a defiant sentinel over land the rabbi's knife-wielding assailant had once crossed. Next to this new building lies a former Arab parcel that Hebron's Jews recently purchased over the fury of local Arab officials.
The Jewish quarter is fully rebuilt, sparkling with ancient stones and modern conveniences. So is the medieval synagogue, which a few years ago had been purposefully desecrated through its use as a trash pit and animal pen.
And Jews can once again enter the mosque that sits over the Cave of Machpelah.
Here, alas, there's still a problem, says Wollins. Jews can only enter half the mosque, except for a few days a year. So some of the ancestors remain out of reach, because of the Muslims who control the grounds. Muslims, he adds, can visit the entire site, but it doesn't work the other way around. One more example, he says, of Muslim injustice and the Israeli government's tolerance of inequality when it comes to Jewish settlers.
But that's not exactly right, as it turns out. After 1967, when Israeli troops took control of the region, Muslims and Jews had access to all parts of the mosque. Then, in 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a radical American doctor who'd immigrated to adjacent Kiryat Arba, entered the mosque armed with a Glil rifle. He opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 125 before being overcome and beaten to death.
After that attack, which was almost exactly 12 years ago, the mosque was divided in half. Jews and Muslims no longer mingle. A few days per year, the whole site is open only to Jews or only to Muslims.
What about that? I ask Wollins, after hearing an Israeli guide explain the actual arrangement and its history to a group of tourists.
How does Goldstein figure into Wollins' narrative? Wollins, after all, chose not to mention Goldstein on his own, let alone acknowledge that it was Goldstein's actions, not Muslim perfidy, that precipitated the division of the holy site.
Wollins tries to explain: "I can't say for sure, because I really don't know. Maybe he snapped. But I can tell you story after story that I've heard of what a good man this doctor was. And I've heard from people here -- and they say they have good reason to believe it -- that Goldstein had advance knowledge of an Arab massacre that was about to happen. And that's what he was trying to prevent."
I learn later that Goldstein's grave has become something of shrine for the radical right wing. And that the graveside inscription reads, in part: "Here lies the saint, Dr. Baruch Kappel Goldstein.... His hands are innocent and his heart is pure. He was killed as a martyr of God."
To me, it sounds a lot like the posters lionizing the Muslim suicide bombers. I can't resist thinking that the only thing missing is the 70 virgins waiting to greet Goldstein in heaven.
For his part, Wollins prefers to change the subject, like to a discussion of the peace process, which he regards as a disaster.
What is the better option? I ask.
He says he likes the way it was before then, before Palestinians had any pledge from Israel to turn over land to form a Palestinian state. Sure, he concedes, they would attack us, and we would attack them. And some people would die violently on a regular basis. But overall, that status quo was acceptable compared to the present. He could have lived that way forever -- on the presumption that Israel would keep the lands it won in battle and continue to settle them.
And what about now? How can Israel hold onto all this territory and retain its Jewish identity -- if that means that most residents of this greater Israel would, in fact, be Arab Muslims?
Wollins has an answer for that, too. Inevitably, he says, there will be a war, and the Muslims must, in the end, leave the land.
That is Wollins' world -- and that of many Israelis, though still a minority. Take that last paragraph and replace the word Muslim with Jew and that's the world of Hamas, which has now assumed control of the Palestinian Authority. The leaders of Hamas seem equally certain that it is the Jews who ultimately must exit.
And did I mention that these visionaries of conflict confidently proclaim God to be on their side?
On this week after President's Day, I am reminded that Abraham Lincoln once admonished the Holy Rollers of his day by saying that he never presumed that God was on his side. He could only pray that he was on God's side.
With all due respect, the world of my friend Wollins is not my world. And I shudder to think that the best that so many can hope for is a bloody time when opposing worlds are fated to collide.