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In Hebron, a namesake falls short

What it means to be named Sarah in Hebron — where the streets are segregated and occupation manifests itself in the ugliest of ways.

By Sarah Stern

Israeli soldiers escort Jewish settlers as they tour the Old City of the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, June 4, 2016. The Israel army has enforced segregation in the city for over two decades, restricting residents’ movement according to their religion. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)

Israeli soldiers escort Jewish settlers as they tour the Old City of the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, June 4, 2016. The Israel army has enforced segregation in the city for over two decades, restricting residents’ movement according to their religion. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)

There is a common reaction that Palestinians have when they are introduced to me by name. “Sarah! What a nice name.” It sounds light and friendly, but this is no ordinary compliment. It carries the weight of thousands of years of collective storytelling that translates across three monotheistic religions. Sarah is the first matriarch. If my name were Rachel, Rebecca or Leah, it would be different.

Garnering this reaction so frequently gives me more appreciation for my name. Sarah’s centrality to both Muslims and Jews reflects my religious bridge-building endeavors. However, the weight of the name was more sinister on an early, formative visit in Hebron. A group of American Jews from an Encounter tour, our Palestinian guide, and I all stood in the folds of the settlements that surround the Mearat HaMachpela or Ibrahami Mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs in English), the place where Abraham purchased land for his wife Sarah’s burial.

The guide told me, “Sarah – nice name.”

Hebron, historically centered around the Cave of the Patriarchs, is a microcosm of military occupation in the West Bank. Near the Cave of the Patriarchs, Palestinians are not permitted to even walk on the streets, and must instead walk along rooftops to get from place to place. Only recently, a low cement block wall was removed from the street leading to the tomb, one side intended for Palestinians and the other side for internationals and Jews. Palestinian residents fear IDF raids into their homes, sometimes for military training, and abuse from settlers.

On the day we visited Hebron with Encounter, I saw a “Shoko Besakit”, a chocolate milk bag, dangling from a fence separating a new Jewish settlement complex from shops in the Palestinian old city of Hebron. These chocolate milk bags are a favorite for IDF soldiers as quick calories after military workouts and for American Jewish visitors with eyes for the oddities of Israel, like chocolate milk in a bag. When I drew closer with my camera, however, I realized I wasn’t looking at my favorite sweet, but at a bag of urine. It was thrown down from the heavens in the settlements above.

All because of Sarah.

A used diaper and bag or urine thrown from the settlement above hang on a fence in the occupied city of Hebron. (Sarah Stern)

A used diaper and bag or urine thrown from the settlement above hang on a fence in the occupied city of Hebron. (Sarah Stern)

While I could understand the deep Jewish attachment to Hebron, I didn’t see anything Jewish about this bag of urine. I felt great guilt in calling myself Jewish in this place and in carrying the name Sarah.

I like to think of my namesake Sarah as a bridge between nations, but in many ways Sarah fell short of this ideal. Her relationship with her Egyptian maid Hagar, for example, is troubling. When Sarah realizes that she is infertile, she offers Hagar to Abraham in the hopes that she will bear a child in her stead, a custom that was common in Mesopotamia.

Sarah shows a great deal of trust allowing her husband to be with another woman, one ethnically different than herself. However, once Hagar actually gives birth to Ishmael, Sarah has a change of heart and is angered that Hagar does not acknowledge Sarah’s superiority. After abusing them, Sarah then casts out both Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness.

The power dynamics in the story of Sarah and Hagar sound all too familiar, worsened by the fact that Muslims consider themselves to be descendants of Ishmael. A more or less harmonious familial situation among diverse characters becomes a struggle over Sarah’s power and status as the mother meant to carry on the covenant. Likewise, Hebron, a city based on shared characters between the monotheistic faiths, with a building that holds holy sanctuaries for both Muslims and Jews, in the same complex, instead has become a story of division and violence.

How did this happen to both Sarah and Hebron?

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, a former professor at the University of Chicago, explains the unique psychology of Sarah that I believe carries over into our Jewish collective conscience. Frymer-Kensky recalls that Sarah was enslaved briefly and traumatically in Egypt and notes, “Her own experience of servitude in Egypt perhaps has made her feel threatened by the Egyptian Hagar rather than sympathetic to her.”

Often, Jewish social justice activists invoke the line from Exodus, “Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt,” as though the logic is obvious. In actuality, there is a reason God had to remind us of this; the psychological reality of being an ex-slave, stranger or victim unfortunately often limits our capacity for empathy.

Many Jews worldwide, and in Hebron, carry a legacy of suffering due to the conflict, anti-Semitism in the diaspora, or personal traumas. I can’t say we are both equal in victimhood in the power structure of Hebron, but I can say that many in both communities hold on to a sense of victimhood. Too many Israelis keep the psychology of Sarah, unable to see Palestinians as fellow sufferers and fellow humans.

As the week approaches in which we read the story of “Hayei Sarah”, the “Life of Sarah”, in the Torah, in which Abraham purchased a plot of land for Sarah’s burial, I look for better ways to honor my namesake. This year on November 25, I am taking part in Project Hayei Sarah, an educational initiative that seeks to reconsider the Jewish relationship to modern day Hebron through discussion rooted in Jewish text and tradition. Theirs is a message of responsibility and hope that resonates with me. Despite the horror of Hebron, I choose to hear the twinge of excitement from Palestinians when they hear my name, as though this common ancestor might be enough to change the future.

Sarah Stern lives in Jerusalem and will be attending local Project Hayei Sarah events in the lead up to November 25th. She is originally from Washington, D.C.

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