“True liberal? Come talk to me too!”

Two weeks ago, I spoke to an Israeli settler for the first time in my two years in Israel.

Why did it take me so long to do it? I guess after months of exposure to the anti-settler narrative that is so dominant in Tel Aviv, I had succumbed to the same negative stereotypes about settlers that are bandied about by the Left – settlers are violent, fundamentalist, expansionist zealots who hate Arabs, hate peace, and tarnish Israel’s reputation on the international stage. I’ve heard several liberal Israelis say, “I don’t want my children to be deployed in Hebron during their IDF service. Why should they put their lives on the line for lunatics and a plot of land that we should have returned to the Palestinians long ago?”

I believe strongly in the importance and virtue of talking to Palestinians in the West Bank to listen to their grievances and understand their perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I got the chance to do the same with several “Israeli settlers” (or “Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria”) on the Hebron Dual Narrative Tour offered by Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem.

On this tour, participants are first guided through the Israeli side of Hebron by an Israeli tour guide (a “settler”), and then taken through the Palestinian side by a Palestinian resident of Hebron. This tour is not for the faint of heart – it’s a day of mental gymnastics and heightened emotions in a hot spot of animosity and fear, where participants are presented with two persuasive but contradictory narratives of victimisation.

Our Israeli tour guide, Gavriel, started the tour outside the Cave of the Patriarchs, where it is believed that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are buried. The building is shared by Muslims and Jews, and there are separate entrances for the two religious groups. The IDF soldiers stationed there are very adamant that Muslims stay away from the Jewish entrance, and that Jews do not approach the Muslim entrance. In fact, throughout the day, each time our tour group approached the Jewish entrance, the soldiers stopped us, singled out the same three dark-skinned bearded men (including me), and asked us if we were Muslim. (There was actually one Muslim man in our tour group, and he was barred from entering the Jewish side, but the soldiers also barred Gavriel from entering the Muslim entrance.)


Cave of the Patriarchs

“Hebron was divided in 1997 into H1 and H2 – the Palestinian and Israeli sections respectively,” Gavriel explained. “H1 makes up 80% of Hebron, and H2 makes up the other 20%. But of that 20%, Jews can only live in 3% of the area, while the other 17% is under Israeli control but with Palestinian residents.” I imagine most of the clashes between Israelis and Palestinians happen in the 17%. But that’s not the point Gavriel was trying to make. His real beef with the current situation is that in the world’s first Jewish city, where there has been a continuous Jewish presence for centuries, Jews are free to live in just 3% of the area.

Gavriel added one caveat to his claim about the centuries-old Jewish presence in Hebron: this continuous Jewish presence was interrupted in 1929 when the Arabs massacred 67 Jews. In those days, the Jewish residents of Hebron refused help from the Haganah – the Jewish self-defence force – because they believed that the social harmony between Jews and Arabs in Hebron could weather the communal tension throughout Mandatory Palestine. But they were proven wrong, and the British decided to expel the Jews from Hebron to keep the peace – at least according to Gavriel. From 1929 till the “Israeli liberation of Judea and Samaria” in 1967, the Jews of Hebron held on to their title deeds and house keys, demanding to return to the houses that was “stolen by Arabs”. Sounds familiar?


“I have to confess – I’ve never heard this story before,” I admitted to Gavriel. He nodded and replied, “That’s why more university students need to come on this tour and listen to our grievances as well.” At that exact moment, we walked past a large banner outside someone’s house exhorting liberal Israelis to be open-minded and listen to his side of the story. The banner exclaimed:

“!ליברל אמיתי? תדבר גם איתי” (True liberal? Come talk to me too!)


“!ליברל אמיתי? תדבר גם איתי” (True liberal? Come talk to me too!)

Gavriel continued, “The Jews in Hebron do not see themselves as colonialists or as religious zealots, but as natives of the land. When Palestinians and others adopt anti-colonialist narratives against the Jews in Hebron, they also adopt anti-colonialist tactics like BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and terrorism. But people who see themselves as natives will not budge in the face of such tactics – they will only dig in their heels.” In other words, this is a classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.


A 300-year-old Torah scroll stands in this synagogue as testament to the deep roots of the Jewish community in Hebron

But surely the violence that the IDF and settlers employ against Palestinians is unjust and delegitimises the settlers’ narrative? “The Jews in Judea are not the Americans in Afghanistan or the whites in South Africa, but we are acting like it,” Gavriel replied. “We use violent tactics to ensure our safety and security.”

The reality on the ground is obviously more complex than that. There are numerous reports by human rights NGOs of settlers who unnecessarily harass Palestinians, whether by throwing rocks through their windows or cutting down their olive trees. As I would hear from Muhammad, our Palestinian tour guide, later on, the checkpoints set up by the IDF are also mind-boggling in their complexity and inconvenience, restricting Palestinian movement in many areas, which adversely affects Palestinian agriculture and industry.


This street is called Al-Shuhada Street in Arabic and King David Street in Hebrew. It’s also called Apartheid Street by the Palestinians, because it is closed to Palestinian pedestrians, cars and businesses.

To be fair, Gavriel did acknowledge the extremity of settlers’ actions, and he claimed that he takes a strong public stand against such actions. But he also emphasised the acts of violence perpetrated by Palestinians against innocent Jewish settlers, some of which are shockingly barbaric. For instance, he brought the tour group to the spot where a one-year-old baby was shot by a Palestinian sniper.

“The Palestinians have their stories of victimhood, but so do we,” Gavriel said. “The unfortunate reality is that both sides employ the weapon of victimisation to convince the international community that the other side is evil.”

Gavriel took us to meet Miriam (not her real name), who works at a museum dedicated to the Jewish history of Hebron. She spoke about how her grandmother was almost killed by rioting Arabs in 1929 but was saved by an elderly Arab man. Unfortunately, her father was not spared during the violence that followed the signing of the Hebron Agreement in 1997 – he was killed in his sleep by a terrorist.

In a tremulous voice, Miriam said, “Bibi Netanyahu signed the Hebron Agreement. He is the reason my father is dead.”

There was a palpable sense of bewilderment in the room. In academic circles and the mainstream media, there is much nostalgia for the heady days of the Oslo process (which includes the Oslo Agreement of 1993, Oslo II signed in 1995, and the Hebron Agreement of 1997). But from the perspective of Israeli settlers, every agreement signed with the Palestinians has only brought more chaos and bloodshed. I asked Miriam, “Don’t you think that the Oslo process was necessary to bring an end to the violence of the First Intifada?”

“Oslo made things worse,” she replied. “It empowered incitement against Jews amongst Palestinians through their media and their education system.” Needless to say, she rejects not only the Oslo process but the two-state solution. Instead, she subscribes to a one-state solution under the leadership of Naftali Bennett and his party, the Jewish Home. She claimed that even if Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza, there will still be a Jewish majority in the foreseeable future because Jewish birthrates have overtaken Arab birthrates, so an expanded Israel can remain both Jewish and democratic. “Arabs can live alongside the Jews just like they did in Hebron before 1929 – as long as they don’t want to kill them,” she said.

We bid adieu to Miriam and the museum, and headed towards an observation point, where we enjoyed a panoramic view of Hebron. Gavriel pointed out the tombs of Ruth and Jesse, the great-grandmother and father of King David. “King David used his power to make sure that there was justice and righteousness and goodness throughout the land – not just peace and quiet,” Gavriel declared. “I often tell my own community that we need to stop talking about our Jewish rights and start talking about our responsibilities and obligations to make sure that there is justice and righteousness for all the inhabitants of the land. We fail to do this because we let military leaders decide what is going to happen tomorrow instead of thinking of a long-term vision of how we will live together.”

After his impassioned speech, Gavriel tried to paint a picture of “normal life” in Palestinian Hebron. “Hebron is called the Palestinian engine of economic growth. There are 17,000 factories and businesses, three universities, four hospitals and a shopping mall in the Palestinian part of Hebron,” Gavriel claimed. Of course, he’s probably never seen them up close since he’s not allowed to enter the Palestinian side, but if Hebron is truly an economic engine, I was hoping to get a look under the hood.


Unfortunately, Muhammad, our Palestinian tour guide, didn’t show us the “economic engine” of Hebron, and focused solely on the grievances of the Palestinians. Of course, I don’t mean to belittle the hardships that Palestinian Hebronites face everyday. I just wanted a holistic understanding of Palestinian life in Hebron, including “ordinary life” at school and work. Surely there must be some semblance of normalcy in Hebron – and allowing me to see it should not detract from the injustice of the Israeli occupation.

But this was a Dual Narrative tour after all, and it was now time for the tour group to listen to the Palestinian story of oppression at the hands of heavily-armed Israelis. We sat at a coffee shop and listened to Muhammad condemn the injustice of Israeli military law, under which Palestinians are guilty until proven innocent. He railed against the forced eviction of Palestinians from their homes, the harassment of Palestinian farmers, the humiliation of checkpoints, and the violence of IDF soldiers.

While talking about the Palestinian identity, Muhammad claimed that Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Canaanites, who were present in the land even before the Jews. “I see myself not as a Palestinian Arab, but as a Palestinian who speaks Arabic,” he said.

At some point, someone in the group asked Muhammad for his proposed solution to the conflict. In ironic agreement with Miriam, he declared, “I want a one-state solution.” But he envisions a secular democratic state, which he admitted requires education on both sides of the conflict. “Palestinians need to educate themselves and to renounce violence,” he said.

Muhammad’s subsequent elaboration on the phrase “secular state” was illuminating. “Why should Judaism be the religion of the land? There should be no special treatment for the Jewish religion,” he asserted. Herein lies the fundamental difference between Muhammad’s and Gavriel’s narratives. According to Gavriel, the Jewish identity is a national identity. Jews around the world have common ancestry, a common language, and a plethora of customs and traditions that were developed over centuries in the land of Israel. In the same way that Poles are from Poland and Greeks are from Greece, Jews are from Israel.

But in Muhammad’s eyes, the Jewish identity is a religious identity, predicated on a set of religious beliefs and practices. Most Israelis today are descendants of foreigners who came from Europe, America, and elsewhere in the Middle East, and had their own separate national identities. As for those Jews who had been in the land for generations, they identified themselves as Palestinians before the State of Israel was created.

Someone else asked, “Why did Hebron elect a convicted terrorist as mayor last week?” The newly-elected mayor of Hebron was given a life sentence in the 1980s for killing six Israeli settlers in cold blood, but was released after three years in a prisoner exchange. “The other candidates were funded by Hamas, and we don’t want Hamas in Hebron,” Muhammad explained. “Besides, the mayor only takes care of municipal issues like water and electricity.” Of course, that’s not the way Israelis interpret the election of a murderer as mayor, but we didn’t have time to continue the conversation – coffee break was over, and it was time to start walking.


Muhammad took us through the main marketplace, where businesses have been adversely affected by the conflict and infrastructure is in disrepair because the IDF doesn’t allow the Palestinians to fix it, according to Muhammad. A few minutes into our walk, Muhammad showed us the infamous “ceiling net” which hangs above a section of the marketplace. Israeli settlers throw trash at Palestinians from the apartments above, and the net sags under the weight of the trash that didn’t get through.



We walked further along, and our tour came to an abrupt halt as we witnessed four IDF soldiers trying to arrest two Palestinian teenagers – presumably for stone-throwing. One teenager broke free and ran away, with one soldier in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, the three remaining soldiers tried their best to restrain the other teenager who was violently thrashing about. A small crowd started to gather.

Spectators started shouting at the soldiers. “Stop choking him! He can’t breathe!” shouted one European girl. Agitated but still mostly composed, one of the soldiers responded, “We know this boy. We are trying to arrest him without hurting him. Of course he can breathe – he’s still shouting.”

Finally, the soldiers dragged the teenager behind a gate. After several minutes, in perfect synchrony, a dozen Palestinian children picked up stones, threw them over the gate, and fled in all directions. The IDF responded with a loud (non-lethal) flash bang behind the gate.


What on earth had we just witnessed? The entire tour group was horrified. I didn’t know what to feel. I still don’t know what to feel about the whole situation. I don’t know what the Palestinian teenagers did, and I don’t know what else the soldiers could have done. But I feel utterly despondent that 20-year-old conscripts and 16-year-old kids fight on a daily basis; that little children throw rocks to solve their problems and soldiers respond with weapons; and that political leaders are comfortably dragging their feet on this issue.


Walking through the sparsely-populated Palestinian marketplace

Muhammad, on the other hand, was visibly pleased that we had witnessed the scuffle. I was slightly perturbed that he had nothing to say about the children throwing rocks. Didn’t he just say a while ago that he advocates non-violent solutions? Stone-throwing may be less violent than shooting bullets, but it’s certainly not non-violent. I asked him about this: “What do you think about the children who threw rocks at the soldiers just now?”

“I’ll tell you what I think: if those children were above the age of 16 (which is the legal adult age under Israeli military law, not 18), they would be put in jail for 15 years,” Muhammad replied. “Last year, I was arrested by the Israelis halfway through my tour because they thought I had thrown stones. But they had no evidence because I didn’t do it. So they showed me pictures of others who had thrown stones and asked me to rat them out, and I refused to be their informant.”

He completely dodged my question. But his account was harrowing, and what he said about disproportionately long jail sentences is true (you can read more here).

With that unanswered question, the tour came to an end. In fact, I think everyone in the tour group had more questions than answers – which was the main objective of the tour after all. But to end off on a more optimistic note, Gavriel recounted the story of Abraham’s burial. “In the book of Genesis, it says that both Isaac and Ishmael buried their father Abraham together,” said Gavriel. “In the same way, it is our hope that the two nations that descended from these sons can live in peace.”

Can this happen in a situation of violence and clear power disparity and economic inequality?


Happiness in the Hermit Kingdom


Is happiness a right or a privilege? Upon googling this question, almost every response is along these lines: “Happiness is neither a right nor a privilege – it’s a choice”.

This cliche self-help-book answer actually makes a lot of sense. Before we can even ask if a state should guarantee its citizens “happiness” in the same way that it guarantees economic well-being and security, we should ask if happiness is something that can be guaranteed.

The US Declaration of Independence famously proclaims that all men are entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. It is not happiness itself that is guaranteed, but the individual’s right to pursue it, in recognition of the fact that happiness is defined by the individual and not by the state. If happiness is self-defined, it cannot be guaranteed by an external agent, and thus the cliche Google answer is right after all. The terms “right” and “privilege” are irrelevant if no one other than the individual can decide if he/she is happy. Perhaps all a state can and should do is to protect the right to chase that happiness.

The North Korean regime doesn’t seem to believe that. In the Hermit Kingdom, happiness is defined by the regime – along with its pursuit, its expression, and its limits. It is the most extreme example in the world of total subjugation of the individual in the (supposed) pursuit of collective prosperity, dignity and well-being. In North Korea, the logic appears to be that the individual is happy if the collective is happy. In reality, the word “collective” can easily be substituted with the word “regime”.

While reading Barbara Demick’s journalistic tour de force on North Korea, Nothing to Envy, I couldn’t help but ponder the tragedy of the imbalance of happiness in the world. I realise that since happiness is self-defined, there cannot be a perfect basis for comparison between the happiness of different individuals, and it is theoretically possible for a poor villager in Cambodia to be as happy as a real estate tycoon in Hong Kong. But am I really to believe that a North Korean citizen who has been cut off from the rest of humanity and is treated like a cog in the world’s most repressive state machinery can ever be as happy as a middle-class American?

Through her interviews with North Korean defectors living in South Korea, Demick provides a harrowing account of the callousness, brutality and obstinacy of the North Korean regime. The book reads like a thriller and stabs like a dagger to the heart. Her raw delivery of horrific stories of famine and repression in North Korea in the 1990s dredges up the darkest emotions of the reader’s soul. Unsurprisingly, the last time I felt a similar level of anger and despair was while reading Orwell’s 1984.

Demick uses an unconventional but relatable love story between two North Korean students to ease the reader into the book. This is soon followed by a litany of agonising anecdotes about life in North Korea – or lack thereof. But a love story is a good, lighthearted starting point – even if this story involves a boy and girl separated by social class in a supposedly classless society, who resort to secret dates in the pitch-black darkness of North Korean suburbs and are afraid to hold hands for three years.

After this unnerving introduction to life in North Korea, Demick illustrates the paradoxical inequality of North Korea’s communist society through the story of Mi-ran, a girl whose life prospects were restricted by the regime simply because her father was originally from South Korea. To her dismay, she was rejected from several educational institutions despite her merit and studiousness. When she was finally offered a job as a kindergarten teacher in the middle of the famine, her job was essentially to feed starving children with scraps of food and regime propaganda. Her class size slowly shrank from 50 children to 15.

The famine remains the tragic overarching theme of the subsequent chapters. Demick’s interviewees claim that the famine was so severe that people were searching for undigested corn in animal droppings, and mixing sawdust into their meals of ground corn and tree bark. At some point, Demick writes bluntly about “tales of cannibalism” – at which point I had to put the book down momentarily.

The most intriguing chapter to me is “Mothers of Invention”, which narrates the stories of entrepreneurial women in a country dead set against individual enterprise. Sitting here in Israel, “entrepreneurship” is associated with the glitz and glamour of the cutting-edge startup ecosystem. But the author writes about innovation in a completely different context. During the famine, North Koreans had to come up with the most creative ways of making money, growing crops, and salvaging food in order to feed themselves, let alone their families. For instance, an electrician read a book and taught himself to make herbal medicines, and a textile factory worker learned how to bake cookies in a makeshift oven and sell them on the street. We’re told in Singapore that our economic growth is spurred by innovation – in North Korea, daily innovation is literally a matter of life and death.

One of the most painful stories recounted in this book is that of a young university student, Jun-sang, returning to his high school. Jun-sang loved reconnecting with his teachers, who were proud of his academic achievements. But his homecoming visits were soon overshadowed by reports of former teachers and classmates who had died of starvation. He couldn’t handle the stress and stopped going back.

That particular story tugged at my heartstrings because I’m about to head home to Singapore and catch up with old school friends. But almost every story provokes anger and dismay, whether it’s hair-raising stories of people scavenging for rotten pears in orchards, or sickening accounts of electricity being diverted from homes and factories to light up statues of Kim Il-sung. What’s even more disturbing on an emotional level is that North Koreans’ emotions are controlled as well – when Kim Il-sung died, people’s lives and career prospects depended on their ability to cry, or else their loyalty to the regime would be questioned.

Through telling the stories of North Korean defectors, Demick invites us to take a good look at our own lives. Imagine the psychological and emotional stress that these defectors felt upon learning that they had been fed a lifetime of lies. Every book they had read, film they had watched and song they had heard had been in exaltation of the regime. They had been completely sealed off from the Internet and satellite television. Of course, the fact that you’re reading this blog post means you have access to the largest repository of information in the world, but it’s still worth asking ourselves – are we truly making good use of our freedom to information? We may not be living in hermetically sealed nations, but are we limiting our intellectual horizons through fear, stubbornness, or laziness?

Even after decades of brainwashing, thousands of North Koreans have seen past the lies of the regime. I was struck by how the simplest of items could spark enormous epiphanies. Demick relates the story of a North Korean soldier who discovered America’s technological superiority in a humble American-made nail clipper. It dawned on him: if his own country couldn’t produce a simple item like that, how could their weapons rival America’s firepower? A nail accessory pushed him from caution to defection.

Another North Korean student was pushed over the edge when he saw a picture in the official media of South Korean workers on strike. The picture was meant to highlight the oppression of workers in a capitalist society, but the student was astounded that one of the workers had a jacket with a zipper and a ballpoint pen – items that we take for granted but are luxuries in North Korea.

Back to the original question: what is happiness? It’s not a right, it’s not a privilege, but is it even a choice for North Koreans? Or is it just an absurd masquerade coerced by a ruthless and pig-headed regime that teaches its citizens to sing, “We have nothing to envy in the world”?

One thing’s for sure – it is a privilege to think that the pursuit of happiness is a right.