Peacemaker in Hebron

A descendant of the city's 500-year-old Jewish community starts a movement to restore a tradition of coexistence between Muslims and Jews

Until last September, Yona Rochlin had never imagined stepping out from the privacy of her quiet life in an agricultural village north of Tel Aviv.

But, after that month's bloody clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, something clicked in her mind: She realized she held a powerful card in the embattled quest for peace.

Ms. Rochlin is descended from two illustrious families of the 500-year-old Jewish community of Hebron, the city now considered a virtual powder keg in the West Bank. Just as diplomatic efforts were being made to rescue the Middle East peace process this month, violence erupted in Hebron between hundreds of stone-throwing Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets.

The old Jewish community in Hebron was shattered during two days of pillage in 1929, when rioting Muslims killed 67 Jews. British officials ordered all survivors to leave the city; neither they nor their descendants ever returned to their homes.

A sense of mission

Now, invoking her Hebronite roots, Rochlin takes a tough stance on the 40 or so Jewish families whose presence in the city of 120,000 Palestinians is widely viewed as an obstacle to peace. These settlers, living in what were the old community's homes, have a sense of divine mission: to revive the Jewish presence in one of Judaism's holy cities.

But Rochlin sees the matter differently. For five centuries, she says, the city's Jewish and Muslim populations lived in peaceful coexistence. And during the 1929 massacre, 400 Jews were saved by their Muslim neighbors - a fact excluded from settler accounts.

"The settlers have taken two days and erased 500 years," Rochlin says. "While they live in Hebron in the name of the old Jewish community, they don't represent its way of life, which was a way of peace."

Hebron, in fact, faces chronic violence between settlers and Palestinians. During two weeks this April, Palestinians incensed by Israeli construction in East Jerusalem set the city aflame. A settler shot dead a Palestinian who he said sprayed him with chemicals; two more Palestinians were killed and more than 150 wounded in skirmishes with Israeli soldiers. And recently, Palestinians have expressed outrage at Israeli plans to destroy hundreds of "unauthorized" Palestinian houses in the Hebron area.

But in October, Rochlin decided she'd already seen enough. She formed a group of the old community's descendants who went back to Hebron to meet with Palestinian officials and tell their own Hebron story.

Twenty-five descendants sent a tremor throughout Israel in November when they met with Hebron's Palestinian mayor, Mustapha Natshe, to voice support for the peace process and dissociate themselves from the Hebron settlers.

A few weeks later, two major Israeli newspapers printed a statement, signed by 40 descendants, that called on the government to remove the settlers "at once, before they succeed in exploding the peace process and destroying the prospects of peace."

And in another visit in late January, Rochlin and others hinted they might seek to legally reclaim their grandparents' property and evict the settlers themselves.

Rochlin, who holds a 1910 deed to a building where several settlers live, says she would establish a heritage museum and Jewish-Arab cultural center in the building: "Instead of [militant rabbi] Levinger's laundry hanging there, why not have a museum that will serve the peace?" she suggests.

In the meantime, this homemaker-cum-activist has ignited a national debate, prodding Israelis to reexamine both their current views of the city and their reading of its past. Surprising as it is that Rochlin, daughter of a staunch right-wing nationalist family, has emerged as a peace activist, it is perhaps more surprising that no one had ever recognized the political potential of a descendant's voice.

Rochlin's first public statement, "I don't want my son to die on my grandfather's grave in Hebron," made headlines in Israeli dailies and touched many nerves.

Battle at Joseph's tomb

The statement refers to September's gun battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police at Joseph's tomb in Nablus, where the Israeli soldiers were trapped for two days in a small Jewish seminary at the site. "Like many Israelis," Rochlin says, "I was traumatized by this event. I saw young men dying to protect a handful of religious fanatics who insist on sitting at a grave in a totally Arab city." Her words resonated in a large sector of Israeli society but infuriated those who believe the site is holy.

Rochlin, who is now studying political science and sociology, admits that becoming a public figure has been a "great change" for her personally, as well as for her husband and two children, ages 10 and 13. "I'm afraid that my family wasn't very happy with it - they're used to a peaceful life," she says. But, she adds, "I had to make the choice."

She and others in her group of descendants say that Hebron is in their blood and souls, and that they, not the government or the settlers, should have the final say on how things should be - and can be - in Hebron.

* Lital Levy is an Israeli-American journalist based in Jerusalem.

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