When he's not praying with me in Bnei Brak (see this post from a week ago), Michael is a full time peace and human rights activist. Much of his job is done around Hebron, where 600 hateful zealots are holding tens of thousands of Palestinians hostage with the aid of a well armed military presence, thus encouraging zealotry and hatred on the other end. Michael is fighting to allow Palestinians the right to walk on the streets on which they live (many of them are only allowed to leave their houses via the rooftops), to prevent settlers from taking over their stores and houses, and to keep people aware of the violence and abuse that take place in that city daily.
He called me today to apologize for not returning my phone call from yesterday. "I took a day off with Yaelle and we went to the old city of Jerusalem," he explained, then told a bit of their fine adventures.
"I was actually in your turf." I told him. "I went to Hebron to give free hugs."
A short pause of bafflement ensued.
"Yeah, you see, I met this German girl at a party in Jaffa, I talked about volunteering with you in Hebron, she talked about the free hugs phenomenon, you know what it is."
"Yeah, sure I do. Keep going."
"So we decided to combine the two and give the free hugs where they are most needed. A friend of hers came along to document it. we created posters in Hebrew, English and Arabic and hit town. Now, of course if you walk with a sign in Arabic down Shuhada street, that's considered a leftist provocation. so the police gave us plenty of trouble, but that was only after we got to do quite a bit of hugging. We hugged settlers, soldiers, Palestinians, everybody."
"I can't believe you went. There are lots of people there now for the holiday."
"All the more free hugs."
Michael was overjoyed, which meant a lot to me. Hebron needs serious activism and I wasn't sure hugging there fell into that category. it was more of an experiment and an act of goodwill. If somebody who cares so much for the Hebronites likes our idea, it was probably appropriate. "Can I tell the guys about this?" he asked, meaning members of his organization "Children of Abraham"
"Of course, and tell them that I learned a lot. I was surprised that the settlers were not hostile towards us, but that the police was. It demonstrated to me once again that the problem is not necessarily the settlers, that they are just a symptom. The problem is official Israeli policy. I mean, the cops were civil with us, since we are not Arab, and I understand they're extra nervous around the holiday, but it was sad all the same. They kept asking us if we are related to any peace organization, saying 'peace' like someone might say 'terrorism'. I said that we weren't but that I guess hugging was a sharing of peace, whereupon they let us know that if we hug once more they will arrest us."
A note on the images: The first shows a rare instance of man-woman hug. In general all societies living in Hebron are quite traditional, Pamela could only hug women and I could only hug men. The Israeli soldiers come from a bit of a different universe.
The second image was taken on a street where only Jews and non-Arab visitors are allowed to walk. This is the very heart of Hebron's bubble of hatred. I was pleased and surprised to see the settler lady hugging Pamela while she was holding the sign in Arabic.
In the third image we are being interrogated by plainclothesmen. At the same time, one of the policemen says a benediction on the "four species", a collection of plants that is revered during this holiday. The source and meaning of this custom is lost. It's interesting that someone who engages in it would consider our behaviour strange.