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Richard Gere on segregation in Hebron: It's exactly like the Old South

‘It’s exactly what the Old South was in America. Blacks knew where they could go: they could drink from that fountain, they couldn’t go over there, they couldn’t eat in that place,’ the American actor tells an Israeli TV station during a tour of the segregated West Bank city.

Richard Gere visited the West Bank city of Hebron this week, guided by the Israeli anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence.

Gere was in Israel to promote his new film “Norman,” and was accompanied to Hebron by director Joseph Cedar, an Israeli, along with a crew from Channel 2 News.

In the report, broadcast during the prime time evening news hour Wednesday, Gere responds to what he sees in blunt terms. He compares occupied Hebron to the Jim Crow era in the southern United States.

Looking around, Gere says to his guides, and to the television camera, “It’s exactly what the Old South was in America. Blacks knew where they could go: they could drink from that fountain, they couldn’t go over there, they couldn’t eat in that place. It was well understood — you didn’t cross over if you didn’t want to get your head beat in, or you get lynched.”

Having internalized the understanding that he is standing in the middle of a deserted street in what was once a busy commercial area, Gere sees Jewish settlers moving about freely where Palestinians are forbidden to walk and says: “This is the thing that’s flipping me out right now…This is really bizarre, this is genuinely strange … who owns the city, and their feeling of ‘I’m protected, I can do whatever I want.’”

[Watch the full video here]

This particular part of Hebron is home to about 500 radical Jewish settlers, notorious for their extreme racism. The city is home to over 160,000 Palestinians. Shuhada Street, which used to be the main commercial avenue of the area, bustled with human traffic 20 years ago — as one of the guides for Breaking the Silence describes to Gere. Today it is eerily empty, except for a heavy Israeli military presence.

Palestinians are forbidden to walk on Shuhada Street. Their shop doors have been welded shut. The army has bricked up and sealed the fronts of Palestinian houses that face the streets through which settlers pass on their way to synagogue.

Some of the most notorious amateur video clips about settlers committing egregious acts have come out of this area. They show the settlers throwing rocks at Palestinian residents and cursing them. These types of incidents occur frequently. The soldiers will sometimes make a desultory attempt to stop Jewish settlers from throwing stones, but their orders are to protect the Jews and that is what they do — even when they are harassing Palestinian residents in their own homes.

Hebron is also the place where Elor Azaria shot Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the head, killing him. Al-Sharif was lying on the pavement at the time, wounded and disarmed after he had attempted to stab a soldier at a checkpoint. Azaria, who shook the hands of a couple of notorious settler leaders after he shot the Palestinian man, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

A visit to Hebron is a deeply disturbing experience. It can leave one feeling emotionally hung over for days. Richard Gere, who is active on behalf of human rights, has expressed strong criticism of Israel’s military occupation. He told Haaretz reporter Allison Kaplan Sommer that he had been ambivalent about visiting Israel, fearing he would be lending credibility to the Netanyahu government and its policies.

Clearly, his visit to Hebron was meant to provide balance. On the one hand he attended a gala screening of his new film at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque; on the other hand he visited Hebron and made some blunt, insightful comments about the situation there to the Israeli media.

The situation in Hebron is not a secret. Radical settlers are not popular in mainstream Israeli society and the ugly videos that show those settlers attacking Palestinians without provocation are often broadcast on Israel’s prime time news hours.

Outrage, however, has not translated into change. There is no reason to suppose that a visit from a glamorous American film actor will have any impact on the status quo. But it is sobering to hear his unfiltered expressions of shock in response to the sordid reality of Israel’s 50-year-old occupation of the Palestinian territories.

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    1. R5

      Actors are so wise. Just the like Jim Crow, where the black people would lynch the white people at every opportunity…

      Reply to Comment
    2. i_like_ike52

      Oh, wow, a celebrity has denounced Israel! I guess we are all going to lose sleep over than one. At once time, great thinkers and people who had a record of accomplishment were the ones who articulated public morals. Now it is actors and rock musicians.
      I wonder if Gere is aware that the goal of the Arabs of Hevron is not “to open Shuhada street” but to drive the Jews out of the city where they have been living more or less continuously for 4000 years and which was done in 1929 and 1936.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        “Why Do A Third of Israelis Want To Leave the Country?”


        A third of Jewish Israelis would leave the country if they could, according to a poll conducted by Masa Israeli, a group looking at the divisions of Jewish society in Israel.

        It found that secular Jews were the most likely to want to immigrate, with 36% saying they would leave the country if they could. Orthodox Jews were the least likely to want to immigrate; only 7% said they would leave.

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          Anti-Israel have been bandying around items like this since 1948. Already, in the 1950’s, Tunisia’s Bourghiba was saying maybe the Arabs should make peace on the basis of the 1947 UN partition lines and since it says in the Qur’an that the Jews are cowards and not a nation, Israel would fall apart on its own. Didn’t happen. After the Yom Kippur War and the big oil boom in the Arab countries, it was predicted that the Arabs would invest in education and modernize their counties and then be in a better position to confront Israel. Instead the Arab world has fallen apart and is destroying itself. The money was squandered on useless weapons, luxury goods for the Arab elite and attempting to spread Islam around the world, which has made Westerns suspicious of Muslims.

          It should be noted that Israel has one of the LOWEST emigration rates in OECD countries. Also be aware that most who say they may want to go will not in the end. Finally the sector that most says it wants to stay is the most healthy demographically. Food for thought.

          Reply to Comment
      • Jan

        Shuhada Street was closed to Palestinians by Israel in 1994 after the Jewish terrorist and Kiryat Arba resident, Dr. Baruch Goldstein went into the mosque in Hebron and murdered 29 men and boys at prayer.
        After the slaughter, the IDF did not punish the Jews of Hebron. It was the Palestinians who were punished. They were put under curfew and every Palestinian shop on Shuhada Street was permanently shuttered by the Israeli military.
        Palestinians living on Shuhada street are not permitted to leave their homes through the front door. They have to leave by the rear of the home which often necessitated that they had to climb over the roof of the house behind them.
        Insuring that there would be apartheid in Hebron, the Israelis made two different paths on Shuhada Street, , one for Jews and one for Palestinians. It isn’t hard to guess which group got the better path. It wasn’t the Palestinians.
        Today in Hebron settlers often attack Palestinians. There are several youtube videos showing settlers and their children throwing rocks at Palestinian women and children. In the videos, IDF and Border Police can often be seen not interfering in any way with the settler rock throwers. There is no need to wonder what would happen to the Palestinians if they were throwing rocks at Jewish women and children. The arrests and beatings would soon follow.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Itshak Gordin Halevy

      French-Russian actor Gerard Depardieu and French Actress Fanny Ardant who are not Jewish were in Israel last week. They told that they felt at home here.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben

      Here comes the predictable “he’s just an actor” caviling. Next somebody will say “and he’s second rate and a has been and I don’t like his movies.” At least, with his long record of protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet they can’t trot out the usual “why is he fixated only on us?” nonsense. Gere doesn’t mindlessly deploy terms like “the Arabs” and “the Jews.”

      ‘Norman’ star had a hard time deciding whether to come to Israel for local premiere: ‘I had people living here who told me, “Look, no good will come of this. The bad guys will use you.”‘

      “…Yet he pulls no punches when it comes to politics. Like on his previous visits, Gere has been meeting with a variety of organizations working toward Palestinian-Israeli coexistence and reconciliation. In the past, he tended to focus on the positive and hold back when it came to criticizing the Israeli government’s policies. Not this time.
      “Obviously this occupation is destroying everyone,” he says. “There’s no defense of this occupation. Settlements are such an absurd provocation and, certainly in the international sense, completely illegal – and they are certainly not part of the program of someone who wants a genuine peace process.” He pauses before adding, “Just to be clear about this: I denounce violence on all sides of this. And, of course, Israelis should feel secure. But Palestinians should not feel desperate….”

      Reply to Comment
    5. Seb Crawford

      I have also been to Hebron so completely get what Richard experienced. I was so enraged at the poor treatment of the Palestinian people who on getting to know them were the lovliest people we had met whilst in the area. We saw the market place where there was netting to catch the stones and rocks that were deliberately thrown down into the market stalls by the Israeli settlers. It just beggars belief.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Seb Crawford

      I have also been to Hebron so completely get what Richard experienced. I was so enraged at the poor treatment of the Palestinian people who on getting to know them were the lovliest people we had met whilst in the area. We saw the market place where there was netting to catch the stones and rocks that were deliberately thrown down into the market stalls by the Israeli settlers. It just beggars belief. Also like Gere says, Israelis walking around freely whilst Palestinians are afraid to cross the street. We passed a group of Isreeali young men all armed with Machine guns whilst being informed that it is illegal for Palestinians to be armed. It was truly frightening. We were also told that the Israelis don’t take too Kindly to westerners seeing the realities of life in Hebron and the Westbank and potentially wouldn’t think twice about shooting one of us if they felt we were seeing too much.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Bruce Gould

      Did anyone actually watch the videos? The title of the article is “Its exactly like the old south”.

      Reply to Comment
      • R5

        In the Old South, whites walked around safely and blacks cowered in fear in public places, black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, across every street in every city – because white terror ruled the width and breadth of society. Hebron is a tiny bubble of Jews who need tons of security to protect them in a small enclave of an Arab city with shopping malls, business districts, and wealthy neighborhoods that are 100% Arab and have no Jewish security presence – it actually forbidden for Israeli JEWS to visit most of Hebron. But if the Jews left their bubble, they would be in mortal danger. Palestinians on the other hand can visit the vast majority of the city without any fear and no threat whatsoever from the settlers. Anyone who thinks the Old South and Hebron are comparable is either incredibly ignorant, incredibly stupid, or just playing a part. Pointing at one street, or even a small district closed to Arabs and drawing conclusions on this alone is idiotic and trivializes Jim Crow. Richard Gere is old enough to understand all of this, but is a coward and is just trying to be cool.

        Reply to Comment
        • I am an Israeli Jew and I’ve been all over Hebron. So clearly it’s not forbidden.

          The Jews of Hebron “leave their bubble” all the time. They travel to work, usually in Jerusalem; on Fridays before shabbat they stroll over to Palestinian villages to stop the local residents by force from digging wells on their own property or from harvesting their own olives; also, they carry out price tag attacks, like throwing molotov cocktails through the windows of homes in Palestinian villages while the inhabitants are sleeping.

          Hebron is home to its Palestinian residents. They should not need “permission” to “visit” any part of it. It’s their city so it’s their right to move about freely. That right is denied by soldiers of a foreign occupying power.

          Jews can move freely anywhere in the West Bank. The white-font-on-red-background signs forbidding Jews entrance to Area A are posted by the Israeli Army — not by the PA. But as anyone who travels around the West Bank knows, those signs are routinely ignored and the policy is not enforced.

          The essential difference between Hebron and the Jim Crow south is that both blacks and whites in the US were citizens of the same state, so the blacks could fight for their constitutional rights through the state’s institutions — i.e., the courts and the legislatures. The Palestinians are not citizens of Israel, but they are forced to submit to Israel’s will while denied the right to fight for their rights in the Israeli courts and legislature. They are simply disenfranchised.

          So your analysis of the situation is fundamentally erroneous.

          Reply to Comment
          • i_like_ike52

            The situation in Hevron is anomalous because the Palestinians refuse to make peace with Israel and because the dream of the Arabs is to drive the Jews out of the city, as they did in 1929 and with greater finality in 1936. Jews have been living more or less continuously in Hevron for 4000 and NO ONE is going to say they can’t live there now, even if the Arabs don’t like it. The strict security is a result of Arab violence. When Rav Levinger and the first Jews moved there around 1970, he went to the Arab Hevron Municipality and asked to be put on the rolls as a taxpayer. They refused to accept him. However, Jewish residents moved freely around the city until the the wave of terrorist attacks starting in 1980. It is Arab violence that is the cause of the strict security. The Jewish area, H2, is about 1% of the area of the municipality and all Jews living in Hevron are restricted to that area, and are even largely prevented from moving into Jewish owned property in that sector.
            BTW, Hevron is the industrial center of the West Bank, and I was told by someone who lives there that the Arab manufacturers have close relations with the Jews of the area who help market their products. The Israeli presence weakens the corrupt Palestinian Authority which is a drag on the Arab entrepeneurs of the town.

            Reply to Comment
          • David

            THE HEBRON RIOTS, 1929:
            In 1925, Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Zionist zealot from Poland, founded the fascistic Betar or Brown Shirts along with the Revisionist Party (origin of today’s Likud) which advocated “revision” of the British Mandate to include forcible Jewish colonization of then Transjordan in addition to Palestine. Such Jewish extremism, along with the racist rants of Rabbi Kook and threats against the Dome of the Rock by Revisionist demonstrators led to the terrible and bloody riots of 1929.

            Vincent Sheean, an eminent American journalist who arrived in Palestine as a pro-Zionist just days before the 1929 riots erupted, was shocked at what he saw: As he later wrote: “I was bitterly indignant with the Zionists for having, as I believed, brought on the disaster…. [W]hy couldn’t the Zionists leave it [Palestine] alone, it would never hold enough Jews to make even a beginning towards the solution of the Jewish problem; it would always be a prey to such ghastly horrors as those I saw everyday and every night….” (Vincent Sheean, Personal History, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. 1935)

            Hundreds of Hebron’s Jews were taken in and protected by Muslims. Tragically, 64 of Hebron’s Jews died, but 650 were saved by their Muslim neighbors and the Arab police. Throughout the country, a total of 133 Jews were killed and 339 wounded while Palestinians suffered 116 dead and 232 wounded.

            Bitterly ironic is the fact that most Jews living in Hebron in 1929 were anti-Zionist. They were the descendants of the Sephardim who had founded the city’s Jewish Quarter near the tomb of the Patriarchs in the 1500s after Jews were expelled from Spain and then welcomed and given sanctuary in the Arab world. Their numbers increased somewhat during the early 1900’s with the arrival of Hasidim from Poland who came to study. Many Muslims who were driven out of Spain by the Christians also moved to Hebron.

            Prior to Zionism, Jews and Muslims lived together harmoniously in Hebron for 400 years with the Jews always forming a small minority. There were very few if any Christians in the city.

            In 1930, a report issued by a British commission of enquiry attributed the 1929 clashes to the fact that the Palestinians “have come to see in Jewish immigration not only a menace to their livelihood but a possible overlord of the future.” (Another 1930 British report, trying to find a way to reduce tension between Zionist alien Jews and native Palestinians, revealed that there was no additional land available for agricultural settlement by new Jewish immigrants.)

            The friendship that existed between Muslims and Jews in Hebron was attested to by Israeli journalist, Chaim Hanegbi, whose great grandfather was the city’s last Rabbi: “My grandfather lived very peacefully with his Arab neighbours…. His family joined the grape harvest every year, and the [Muslim] neighbours cooked kosher food so the Jews could share the feasts with them.” (Canada’s Globe and Mail, February 18, 1997)

            BTW, according to the Palestine government (British Mandate), Jews privately owned a mere one per cent of sub-district Hebron’s land. Palestinians privately owned 96% and state land comprised four per cent.

            Reply to Comment
          • R5

            @Lisa Goldman: You’re being intellectually dishonest on all of my points and you’ve refuted nothing. #1 – Yes, useful idiot Israelis (especially those who can speak Western-accented English) can travel around Hebron with the cooperation of politically sympathetic Palestinians. Wow, stunning observation. Settlers don’t do this and can’t for security reasons as you well know. Whether that’s because they’re also assholes doesn’t diminish my point. #2 – You understand perfectly well that I meant that Hebron’s Jews don’t visit the rest of Hebron, not that they literally stay in their enclave 24/7 and never see Jerusalem or other places where they have adequate security. Settlers may feel secure in the Palestinian countryside, where obviously, yes, they behave in shameful behavior. But I’m talking about Hebron. The vast majority of Hebron is a 100% Arab city with no settlers or IDF patrols. It is consistently misrepresented in the Western media, which would have you believe the whole place is run like Shuhada street. You know of course is this complete nonsense. So to sum things up – this article and your response illustrate perfectly the hypocrisy and stupidity of your entire clique and its echo chamber. You can’t argue for shit, and you think its clever to try and win arguments by changing the subject. Actually, its juvenile and unpersuasive. Intelligent people aren’t convinced by this type of non-reasoning. Which is why you, Mairav, Tom and the rest of the gang are effectively navel-gazing, self-promoting narcissists. You make shitty arguments that have no hope of persuading anyone to take policy decisions that could benefit the people who you claim to help. You only benefit yourselves and your shallow careers as anti-Israeli polemicists. In time, when your way of thinking has passed out of fashion, I actually think you’ll look back and regret what you’re doing with your life right now.

            Reply to Comment
          • I’m afraid that your information is incorrect. Israeli Jews can move around Hebron freely; they do not need the help of “sympathetic Palestinians.” If Hebron Jews choose not to move around the city outside their armed camp, that is their prerogative. There is no physical impediment to their roaming the city outside Tel Rumeida. If they are afraid, perhaps they should consider living where it is legal and safe for them to live — i.e., inside Israel.

            As to your assertion that most of Hebron is not like Tel Rumeida, that is correct. But it is also not important or relevant; it does not change the fact that the situation in Tel Rumeida, where the settlers live, is indefensible. Hebron ex-Tel Rumeida is not a Palestinian Bantusan where PA forces have complete control. Israeli soldiers can and do enter all parts of Hebron, including the parts where Jews have chosen not to live, at any time. I know all these facts from personal first-hand, on the ground experience. You simply do not know what you are talking about. You are asserting erroneous information as fact and you should stop doing that.

            As for your personal opinion of me and my colleagues, that is yours to keep. It is of no interest to me and I would not dream of engaging you on the matter.

            Reply to Comment
          • R5

            @Lisa Goldman: “[…] perhaps they should consider living where it is legal and safe for them to live — i.e., inside Israel.” Gee, thanks for conceding that Hebron’s settlers aren’t the swaggering Jim Crow masters of metropolitan Hebron, which was ACTUALLY my only point. To the rest – any intelligent person can see that every other assertion you’ve made against me is either a non-sequitur or a misreading. Not sure where you’re being dense or deliberately misrepresenting me, but that doesn’t matter. What DOES matter is having a frank debate about your credibility, since you claim to be a journalist, but at the same time proffer ideas about shockingly offensive and ignorant ideas about history. That you hope to set aside this subject as being “personal” to me makes sense. Your success as a polemicist goes hand-in-hand with discrediting pragmatic opposition to the occupation, as well as offering a pretext for exactly the policies you claim to oppose. One of your “colleagues” has admitted as much to me personally. I think this conflict of interest is much more important than anything that the 1000th visitor to Shuhada street might say. After all, is there any conflict that can be milked for publicity as successfully as this one? Could Burma, Sudan make the career of a Ben White, of a Max Blumenthal? The phenomenon of the anti-Israel polemicist should receive more attention. That you hope it doesn’t shouldn’t surprise anyone.

            Reply to Comment
          • Yael

            I’m Israeli and there are absolutely areas in Hebron that I can not go into and if I try I’m putting my safety at risk.

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          • i_like_ike52

            Your assertion that Jews should live “inside Israel” surprises me because several years ago you wrote about a demonstration that you attended in Yafo (Jaffa) which protested the arrival of a group of Religious Jews to a neighborhood in Yafo. The protesters even referred to them as “settlers”. In fact, the non-Jew murdered in the terrorist attack in Yafo some time ago was referred to by FATAH spokesman as “a settler”. Now, Yafo is clearly inside pre-67 Israel. Thus, having read that, I would think that you, like many ‘progressives’ view Jews as alien interlopers EVERYWHERE in what the Arabs call “Palestine”. Is that indeed your position?

            Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          So we see people lose it and start shouting with unrestrained name calling, blatant ad hominem, and lose the usual cool disdain—precisely when someone authoritative and knowledgeable in an on-the-ground way (Goldman) confronts them with their asserting erroneous information as fact.

          Goldman has that pegged.

          “Hebron is a tiny bubble of Jews…if the Jews left their bubble, they would be in mortal danger.”

          The real “bubble,” not tiny, is the assumptive world right wing Israelis inhabit and the reality-reversing propaganda they surround themselves and us with. That bubble just got popped here.

          Jim Crow South? Totally. Absolutely. How many accounts do we have to read of settler lords throwing garbage and excrement on Palestinians in Hebron? Who need overhead cages to protect them. All the while army troops do nothing but stand by and watch. How many accounts do we have to read of coddled, supremely entitled little settler lords, children, totally full of themselves, full of racism and haughty disdain taught then by their fathers, protected by troops, openly abusing Palestinians in the streets of Hebron? (And lording it over submissive army troops too!) “Jim Crow” is totally accurate.

          Reply to Comment
    8. May el Abd

      It’s good to see some balanced people who are not brain washed by the Media, thank you Richard Gere

      Reply to Comment
    9. Lamia

      Israel did not have the right to occupied Palastine.Israel is illegal.

      Reply to Comment
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