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                   Friday, July 9, 1999
 

                                             Hebron diary
 
                     By Neri Livneh

                     What really happened to the Jews of Hebron in 1929? Noit Geva,
                     whose grandmother survived the massacre, thought she knew. But in
                     making a documentary film about the carnage, she found a different,
                     more complex story

                     Noit Geva was 33 years old before she learned the details of the
                     enormous trauma that had darkened her grandmother's life and
                     continued to have a strong influence on her father - a trauma that
                     concerned not only her family history, but also the complex story of
                     the city of Hebron in particular and the history of Zionism in general.
                     Now that Geva and her husband Dan have completed their
                     documentary film, "Things I Saw in Hebron" (Dvarim She'ra'iti
                     be'Hevron), about the slaughter of the Jews of Hebron in August
                     1929, she knows more. A lot more.

                     Noit Geva's grandmother, Zemira Mani, who was the granddaughter
                     of Hebron's Sephardic chief rabbi, Eliyahu Mani, survived the
                     massacre. An Arab from Hebron saved her. "My attitude was - 'How
                     nice! Good leftist that I am, this story of an Arab saving my
                     grandmother really suits me to a tee," says Geva. "And here, despite
                     the fact that I basically set out to make a film about the
                     humanitarianism of the Arabs, I ended up with a film about the horrors
                     that they perpetrated. But it's not a question of mentality. It's a
                     question of leadership. Religious extremists on all sides are the ones
                     responsible for the carnage. In short, as always, reality is very
                     complex, and it's all shades of gray. And we urgently need to find a
                     solution for peace."

                     Noit, 33, hardly remembers her grandmother Zemira, who died when
                     she was four years old. Noit herself grew up in Rehovot, the second
                     of four children. Her father, Asher Meshorer, is a biology professor
                     and her mother lectures on Yiddish literature at Bar-Ilan University. "I
                     knew that my father grew up in Jerusalem and that his mother was
                     born in Hebron. But in general, talking about Hebron was taboo in
                     our house, just as it was taboo to talk about the Holocaust, since my
                     mother came to Israel in 1948, after the war."

                     Geva studied film and theater at Tel Aviv University. While she was
                     studying for her master's degree in communications at the Hebrew
                     University in Jerusalem, she worked for four years as a production
                     coordinator at the city's film school. That's where she met Dan Geva -
                     "the school's outstanding student, who asked me to tape one of his
                     productions. We've been a team ever since." The Gevas have made
                     several documentary films together (including an episode of "Tekuma"
                     - the recent television series depicting the history of the State of
                     Israel), moved to Hof Dor, and now have an 18-month-old daughter,
                     Aria.

                     Toward the end of Noit's pregnancy, her father and his twin brother
                     Yaakov paid her a visit. It was then that they told her for the first time
                     that her grandmother Zemira's life had been saved by an Arab in
                     Hebron, and they suggested that she name her daughter after her.
                     They also told her that Zemira documented the story of her rescue.
                     After the birth of their daughter, Noit and Dan read Zemira's story
                     and realized they had excellent material for a film. They submitted the
                     story to the film competition sponsored by the Film Service, the
                     Jerusalem Cinematheque and Noga communications, won the
                     competition and received $100,000 to finance the production. The
                     film will have its premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival and later be
                     aired on the Culture, Science and Nature Channel, as well as on
                     several foreign television networks.

                     Grandmother Zemira's testimony

                     This is what Noit's grandmother Zemira, who was 16 at the time,
                     wrote in an article published in Ha'aretz in 1929: "On Saturday,
                     August 24, at eight in the morning, I saw through the window that a
                     large group of Arabs was gathering next to the auto garage. New
                     groups were gathering all the time. They were all armed with sticks,
                     clubs and daggers. I heard yelling. An Arab stood on top of a car and
                     gave a short speech. We couldn't hear the speech, just a few
                     scattered words reached our ears. From their movements and their
                     shouting, I understood that they were arguing over whether to attack
                     the Jews in the Old City first, or those who lived outside of it."

                     "About a half hour later, I saw groups of Arabs coming back, carrying
                     packages on their backs. Women ran out barefoot and took the
                     packages from their husbands, then they ran home to hide them. Even
                     8- to 10-year-old children were carrying sticks and running after the
                     adults, to watch the massacre and to rob the victims. After about half
                     an hour, we heard a lot of noise from the courtyard - the sound of
                     doors bursting open and people screaming. Since the doors to the
                     courtyard were open, and there was not one policeman in the Jewish
                     courtyard, there was nothing to stop the Arabs from coming in. One
                     group attacked from the direction of the field - they broke doors and
                     climbed up.

                     "They said that most of the Jews in the ghetto hid in cellars or ruins left
                     behind from the days of the earthquake. Old people, women and
                     children lay under the heaps of rubble, hiding from the killers. They
                     abandoned their homes and that's how they survived. My parents and
                     I remained in our home, and we expected to become the killers' prey
                     at any moment. We lived on the fourth floor, so it took them longer to
                     get to us. We heard moans and calls for help coming from the first
                     floor, but we couldn't go out. The field next to the house was filling up
                     with a mob of men, women and children. They started throwing rocks
                     at us. Windshields were shattered and the door was almost opened.
                     Suddenly we heard a knock on the door from the side of the
                     courtyard, and a calming voice saying, 'Don't be frightened, don't be
                     frightened.' My father went to the door and saw that it was an Arab
                     that he knew, Abu 'Id Zeitun. He had a club in his hand and a dagger
                     on his hip. Two more Arabs were standing behind him - I later
                     learned that these were his brother and his son.

                     "When I saw the daggers, I thought that they had come to kill us. My
                     faith that I would survive disappeared. So I ran to go up on the roof
                     so I could throw myself off. I started to climb. Suddenly, I felt myself
                     being pulled back. My parents went down the stairs, with the two
                     other Arabs defending them with their daggers, while he [Abu 'Id]
                     himself pulled me off the stairs. My mother and father called out to me
                     to follow them, because Abu 'Id was saving us. He held me in one
                     hand and a dagger in the other.

                     "On our way down the steps, I bumped into a body and almost
                     stepped on it: the hair was all disheveled, the man was dressed only in
                     a jacket, his chest was exposed, his pants pulled down and his
                     stomach showing. I took a glance: it was our neighbor - Hacham
                     Avraham. His head was laying on the last step. His twisted body was
                     dirty with blood and his hands and legs were jerking. Blood was
                     spurting from his guts and a rounded dagger was sticking out of his
                     stomach."

                     Geva only had a few faint memories of her grandmother, such as her
                     custom of preparing a soup "that looked like it was made out of
                     blood" that was actually beet soup. But armed with what her
                     grandmother had written, and what she herself had read in "Sefer
                     Hebron" ("The Book of Hebron"), Geva decided to try to track down
                     survivors. "In 'Sefer Hebron,' there's a list of families that survived. I
                     took the list and I think I made a thousand phone calls until I was able
                     to locate 15 survivors. Most were small children at the time of the
                     riots, and most don't live in Israel. I decided to tell the story of the
                     riots through the survivors, through what my grandmother wrote,
                     through my father and his brother, and also through the children of
                     Abu 'Id Zeitun."

                     In the course of her research, Geva also learned about her father's
                     great-grandfather on his mother's side - Eliyahu Mani. Mani came to
                     Israel on foot from Baghdad in the middle of the 19th century. "He
                     was already married when he got here, and his three children were
                     born here. The youngest of them, Yaakov, who was also a rabbi, was
                     my father's maternal grandfather. Zemira, my father's mother, named
                     her twins Yaakov - after her father - and Asher.

                     "When we went around Hebron, people told me that Grandfather
                     Eliyahu was so accepted and admired by the Arabs that they called
                     him 'Sheikh.' And that when he died - 100 years ago - the Jews
                     buried him in the Jewish cemetery, but the Arabs wanted him to be
                     buried near them, so they stole the body and buried it in the Muslim
                     cemetery. The Jews had to snatch the body back and stand guard
                     over the grave."

                     And you never knew about any of this as a child?

                     "No. I didn't know anything. Because my father didn't tell me
                     anything, just like his mother didn't tell him anything. All she said to
                     him was that on that day - that is, on the day of the riots in Hebron -
                     she stopped believing in God."

                     History repeats itself

                     For Noit Geva, making the film was an educational experience. "Now
                     that I've made the film, I still know that there were Arabs who saved
                     Jews - for example, they saved my grandmother and there were
                     another 18 families aside from the Zeitun family who saved Jews, but
                     I also know that, apart from the Holocaust, the riots in Hebron
                     constituted the most awful horrors ever perpetrated upon the Jews.
                     The testimonies that I read in 'Sefer Hebron' are the worst things that
                     I have ever read. When we made the film, we took out the most
                     horrifying testimonies. [In the film], when I say, 'unnatural death,' it's
                     referring to a 13-year-old girl who is raped by 13 Arabs who,
                     afterward, hang her upside down by her legs, light a 'primus' stove
                     under her head and let her burn to death this way. Or to the castration
                     of old men and boys, to limbs being hacked off and eyes gouged out
                     of living people's heads. I took out these parts because I wanted
                     people to be able to watch the film, but the question that's constantly
                     torturing me is this: Okay, so there were riots. Let's say they incited
                     the Arabs and told them that the Jews in Jerusalem had killed
                     hundreds of Arabs, and that a great mass of Ashkenazi Jews had
                     come to evict them, and that anyway the Arabs decided to kill Jews in
                     response to all of this ... Let's say that's logical. But if so, why
                     castrate? Why rape? Why gouge out eyes? Why cut off limbs? They
                     could have just shot them."

                     And how do you answer this question?

                     "I don't have the answer. What's certain is that there are bad people
                     and good people - those who saved Jews - and there are bad people
                     and good people on our side, too. In the film, there is one survivor
                     named Meir Kedmi who was four years old at the time of the riots.
                     When Baruch Goldstein massacred the Arabs at the Cave of the
                     Patriarchs, Kedmi felt he had to go visit the wounded and tell them
                     that despite the fact that his family had been slaughtered in the 1929
                     riots, he was very sorry for what Goldstein had done. In the film, he
                     also says that afterward, he felt as if Goldstein's massacre closed a
                     circle with the Hebron riots."

                     The Gevas have screened the film a few times, and not all of the
                     viewers have understood Kedmi's statement in the same way. "Some
                     understood what he said about closing the circle as if he were saying,
                     'Now we're even' - in other words, Goldstein's deed is revenge for
                     the riots. Others understood it in the way that I did, which was that he
                     was basically asking the Palestinians for forgiveness for Goldstein's
                     behavior, that he was ashamed of Goldstein's behavior, but that the
                     horror doesn't only exist on one side. There's good and bad on both
                     sides."

                     The new Ashkenazim

                     In the Gevas' film, the survivors - now people in their twilight years -
                     describe the Hebron that existed before the riots as a kind of paradise
                     surrounded by vineyards, where Sephardic Jews and Arabs lived in
                     idyllic coexistence. The long-time Ashkenazi residents were also
                     treated well by the Arabs. The only ones who really aroused the
                     Arabs' anger were the ones they referred to as the "Ashkenazim" -
                     students of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who came to redeem lands in the
                     Holy Land and established a community in Hebron.

                     According to the survivors, the Arabs used to share their fruit with the
                     Jews and bring their children to play with the Jewish children.
                     Everything was wonderful until the Muslim clergy started spreading
                     the rumor that Jews in Jerusalem were slaughtering Arabs. On Friday,
                     August 23, 1929, disturbances broke out in Jerusalem. The riots in
                     Hebron happened the next day.

                     The survivors interviewed in the film say that the Arabs from the
                     villages essentially wanted to kill only the new Ashkenazim. When the
                     riots started, representatives of the Arabs came to the Ashkenazi
                     rabbi, Rabbi Slonim , with a proposal: If he allowed them to kill 70
                     students from the yeshiva in Hebron, they would not kill the other
                     Ashkenazim or the Sephardim. Rabbi Slonim told them, "We Jews
                     are all one people." He was the first person to be killed in the riots.

                     Geva's grandmother came to Jerusalem as a refugee from Hebron
                     when she was 16. Her mother died a few weeks after the riots -
                     "literally, from heartbreak." Her father traveled to Baghdad to try to
                     raise money for the refugees from the riots, and he was killed there.
                     Zemira Mani was left all alone. She married Avraham Meshorer
                     (formerly Zingerman), who had emigrated from Poland in 1926. "And
                     this was a step down in honor to marry an Ashkenazi," explains Geva.
                     "Because in Hebron, the Sephardim were the elite. In Jerusalem,
                     suddenly the situation was reversed."

                     The clergy's guilt

                     When he was 11 years old, Geva's father - Asher Meshorer - found
                     the article that his mother had written for the newspaper. "My mother
                     basically lived her whole life under the trauma of the pogrom," says
                     Meshorer. "She would mention the word 'pogrom' once in a while,
                     but she refused to talk about it. She was a sad woman. Basically, she
                     was depressed. She was very intelligent and educated and she
                     functioned so well that no one noticed it."

                     The brothers learned what had happened to their mother from their
                     aunt. She too was born in Hebron, but left the city the day before the
                     riots. She also told them about the article in the newspaper. Asher
                     Meshorer: 0"My brother and I went to the B'nai B'rith library and
                     simply combed through the newspapers until we found the article. I
                     read it and I was stunned. I remember that I tried to talk to her. She
                     didn't want to tell us anything. All she said was that Abu 'Id saved
                     them. She said another thing - she said that the Arabs in Hebron were
                     friends of the family, and that it was the Arabs from the villages and
                     not the ones from Hebron who had done it. And she said that it all
                     happened because of the Ashkenazim. She apparently wasn't that
                     well versed in the issue of Zionism. She thought that it all happened
                     because in Hebron, there was an alienated Jewish community that
                     wore streimels, unlike the Sephardi community, which was deeply
                     rooted in the place. And the Sephardim spoke Arabic and dressed
                     like the [Arab] residents. The fact is that the slaughter was mostly
                     directed against the Ashkenazim. She talked very little about Hebron.
                     The little she did say had to do with the estrangement between the
                     communities."

                     How did the riots affect her attitude toward Arabs?

                     "Not at all. Her roots in the Land of Israel went way back. On her
                     mother's side, they'd already been here for 400 years. She didn't hate
                     Arabs at all. She just talked about a mob that had been incited. She
                     had harsh things to say about the Muslim clergy. She said that their
                     clergy, like ours, were inciting people. Her political views were on the
                     extreme left."

                     And yours?

                     "The same, though not as extreme."

                     Meshorer says his daughter's film has "only sharpened my recognition
                     that human nature is the same all over the world - we're no different
                     from them and they're no different from us. As a biologist, I know that
                     anything can happen inside a mouse cage. It all depends on the
                     conditions in which the mice are placed. There are no good and bad
                     people. There are good and bad situations. I'm totally against
                     nationalism of any kind."

                     Return to paradise

                     Geva decided to take her father and her uncle on a tour of Hebron.
                     She located 'Id Zeitun, the son of the man who had saved their
                     mother. They went to him to thank him. 'Id Zeitun had some
                     documents in his possession proving that his family had saved the
                     Mani family and the Kastil family in the riots. Geva recounts: "We
                     came to him and my father told him that he was the son of Zemira
                     Mani. He immediately knew what he was talking about, and he
                     showed us the documents. Not that it's any great honor in Hebron
                     today to be known as an Arab who saves Jews. He also showed us
                     documents about where the house was in which the Jews were hidden
                     - the house where he lived with his father. The IDF confiscated the
                     house, and today it houses a kindergarten for the settlers. That's how
                     they repaid the family for saving Jews. They took their house."

                     In the film, 'Id Zeitun is seen inviting Yaakov and Asher Meshorer to
                     come back and live in Hebron. "If the kind of Jews who lived here
                     once lived here instead of the settlers," he says, "it would be very
                     good here." Asher Meshorer explains to him that, in the present
                     political situation, even though he loves Hebron, he wouldn't come to
                     live here because he wouldn't want his return to the city to be
                     interpreted as support for the settlements, to which he vehemently
                     objects.

                     Dan and Noit Geva also made use of a rare film that was preserved in
                     the Spielberg archive of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, a film that was
                     shot by Yaakov Ben Dov the day after the riots. "I asked at the
                     archive if anyone had ever requested the film, and I found that it had
                     only left the archive once before - when a group of religious
                     extremists who had gathered at some hotel wanted to see how Arabs
                     could never be trusted."

                     The Gevas' film imparts a totally different message. All the survivors
                     say they don't hate Arabs at all. At most, they fear an incited mob.
                     Survivors and their descendants both talk about the need to make
                     peace. That way, Hebron could return to what it once was - a cool
                     paradise encircled by vineyards, where Jews and Arabs live side by
                     side. Noit Geva: "I learned a lot about the issue of Ashkenazim and
                     Sephardim. I discovered who I am, where I came from. I also
                     discovered another thing - that the government wants the settlers to sit
                     in the place where peace-loving Hebron Jews once resided. It's a fact
                     that they let the settlers stay there, while they don't allow other Jews
                     who want to return to do so. The reality is very complicated. There's
                     no black or white. We have to find a solution for peace quickly.".

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