Hebron IsraelRuth and I are currently in Istanbul, after winding up a study tour of Israel – our first visit to both places.  The Israel study tour, coordinated by our Denver synagogue, included a variety of tours, speakers and experiences designed to provide a look at the country’s past, present and future.  In addition to getting a crash course on Israel’s complexities, I had several impressions that are relevant to those of us involved in downtown and community development.

In most places, we take boundaries for granted.  In the States, city boundaries are determined by a number of fairly innocuous factors – land forms, major roads, the occasional grab for a revenue-producing development.  Some boundaries have deeper meanings, such as the boundary limits placed on many cities (including Denver) during the school desegregation era to stop the expansion of forced busing.

In Israel, boundaries are about faith.  It starts in Jerusalem’s Old City, a square mile that houses some of the planet’s most sacred sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians.  The Old City has four quarters (Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian) with distinctly different characteristics.

This pattern of faith has been replicated within the West Bank, the disputed lands west of the Jordan River that Israel occupied after the 1967 war.  When we read about the challenges of peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, this is where most of the action is.  Palestinians seek a self-governing Arab State, while Israel has added Jewish settlements in the area, an action receiving condemnation from much of the world.  

An Israeli map of the West Bank does not reveal neat or concise boundaries, but rather a patchwork that is the result of a conflict management strategy that has been in place since the end of the Second Infatada about 15 years ago.  About one-fifth of the West Bank is under Palestinian rule in several disconnected clusters of cities and towns.  Another fifth offers a hybrid where Palestinians rule Arabs and Israelis rule Jews.  The remaining 60% of the West Bank is under Israel.   A Palestinian map would offer a different interpretation, providing emphasis on the 1967 boundaries or perhaps prior to the U.N. partition back in 1947.

Both sides are looking at faith to be the end game of political boundaries.  Just as we see Denver and Aurora on a map, Israelis and Palestinians see Jews and Arabs on a map of the West Bank; however, the context is very different.  In Israel, the boundaries are about centuries of heritage and destiny.  The whole boundary issue creates an ongoing tension that permeates everyday life.  This is visible in the several hundred miles of retaining walls that Israel has constructed to separate the Palestinian-controlled lands and the checkpoints that allow limited access between both sides.  But there is also a palpable tension in the air – the whole place seems to be on edge 24/7, and it left me wondering how much the geography of faith plays into this.

Our study group had a chance to experience the most extreme case of faith-based boundary separation in Israel – in the heart of the city of Hebron.  Home to a religious site revered by both Arabs and Jews, Hebron is a divided city populated by about 200,000 Arabs with the majority governed by the Palestinians.  However, the sacred site and several hundred Jewish settlers are located right in the city’s core.  This is different from most Israeli settlements which are found on open land or the periphery of cities, looking much like garden variety California suburbs.  But in Hebron, the geography of faith creates a gaping no-mans-land right in the core of the city.  The result is a peninsula of blight – where a vibrant Arab market with hundreds of businesses once operated, the real estate is now completely vacant.

Hebron, an extreme case of the Israeli separation policy, was fascinating to me.  It’s Israel’s Detroit by design.   It’s been purposely emptied to create a separation between Arab and Jew, and then enforced by a military infrastructure where Israeli soldiers nearly outnumber the settlers within.   Our tour of Hebron was led by Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli soldiers that once served in the area and are now aiming to educate the country on what they perceive to be a dysfunctional policy. 

Ironically, there are similarities to American cities that endured decades of blight through another type of social separation – racial and now income segregation.  In the States, we have been working for decades to improve these areas and have developed a variety of reconstructive initiatives and tools. 

In Hebron, urban blight is an acceptable by-product to enforce the geography of faith.