Young Men In Hebron

I remember him, in particular.  The one who stuck his head out the window, where the other protestors were standing.  He yelled that they would never give in, that they would fight, that they would do whatever it took.

It was Beit Hashalom, a disputed home in Hebron.  Jews had gathered more than a million dollars and bought the house from the Palestinian residents.  But the government still would not let them live there, and demanded they leave.  The Jews, of course, refused, and, instead, hundreds more took residence in the large house, and claimed they wouldn’t let the government kick out the families living there.

They had learned their lesson from the Gush Katif evacuation.  Those people had tried nonviolent protest, tried reasoning with the soldiers, appealing to them, reminding them that their job was to drag families from their homes.  It didn’t work.

This time would be different, they would resist violently.

I remember being struck during my second visit there at how peaceful they all were, how fun-loving, almost like hippies.  While journalists camped around the house, recording their every movement, they relaxed and acted like they were on vacation.

That’s why, even when the woman who led the group of protestors spoke out of the window and gave a rousing speech, I was inspired.  They were protestors.

But then he spoke.  After she was done, she walked away somewhere, and he stuck his head out the window.  And he screamed.  He yelled, and I couldn’t keep up with it all, but it was clear: he was angry, and he wouldn’t let anyone control him.

Most of them didn’t take notice or take it seriously.  You could tell there was a mainstream group of protestors.  But a few other young men took notice and shouted in support.

My entire time that I visited Beit Hashalom, there was this stark contrast between the mainstream and the few angry ones.  All young men.

There was something violent in them, something unhinged.  They were tolerated by the others around them, but you could tell they weren’t totally accepted, they were on the fringe, getting angry together, rabble-rousing each other, while the others played bongos, sang songs, and played soccer.

The Other Men

Later in the day, another group of men joined us.

The government had finally sent in troops to kick out the protestors.  I was hanging out outside watching the journalists and protestors play soccer together, admiring the peacefulness of the environment when suddenly a young dude came running like he was being chased by the devil and screaming something I couldn’t make out.  Before I had a chance to react, the soldiers and police were lining up outside the house, preparing to round up the protestors.

It was mayhem from then on out.  Flash grenades going off everywhere.  Protestors screaming, crying, as they were dragged out.  Everyone everywhere trying in vain to fight.  Injuries all around.  One by one, people with broken body parts being taken away by the Haredi ambulance service.

All the while, the journalists snapped away.  I stood with them, but because I didn’t have a press badge and I had dreadlocks, the soldiers grabbed me from the group of journalists and threw me down a hill.  I was now a protestor.

And as I watched the scene, I noticed something that I could only understand in retrospect.

There were three distinct groups of soldiers kicking out the protestors: there were the police, who were trained, as far as I could tell, to be complete cruelty machines, not sympathetic, and only focused on strong-arming.  They were older, hardened.

Then there were the young men in the army.  They were different.  They were drafted, just normal kids from all over Israel.

And unlike the police, they were diverse.  Each one reacted to the situation differently.

I remember seeing some crying, standing to the side, allowing the others to do the work.  Then there were the ones that carried it out like a grim responsibility, that tried to ignore the protestors asking them how they could treat Jews this way or actually trying to argue with the protestors, almost like a brother.

Those were the mainstream.  The ones that didn’t like it, but did it.  The ones that beat when they were ordered to beat, but took no joy in it.  You could see it in their eyes.

But then there was another group, a small group.  The ones that took pleasure in it.  The ones that were angry, that had been waiting for this.

They were so few, but they were impossible to ignore.  When the soldiers stood in a line in a road to keep the protestors away from the house, the protestors would rush at them.  The soldiers who were crying were on the far ends so they wouldn’t have to be the ones who beat and injured the stylers who tried to break through.  The soldiers who did their job out of necessity were beside them, and made the majority of the line.  In the very center were those few angry young soldiers.  They mocked the protestors, insulted them, yelled angrily at them.  

They hated the protestors.

The Pattern

It was only in retrospect, only after some time away from the painful images from that day, that I was able to reflect on the similarities that I saw between those angry, vengeful soldiers who took glee in their fight and the angry young protestors.  Each group had this unhinged feel to them, this position in the group where they were both somehow the centers of their fights but also on the very fringes.  Each group seemed to be the ones inciting and causing the most violence.  Each side seemed to relish the opportunity to fight.

In the protestors’ case, they were truly young.  Some as young as fourteen.  Perhaps the oldest was seventeen.  The soldiers were clearly no older than nineteen.

I thought of these young men as Israel has descended further and further into another period of violence.  At first, I imagined how the energy of young men like this was so manipulated and molded by the likes of Hamas and other terrorists in the Palestinian territories.  Then, when the young Palestinian boy was killed, I was even more reminded, and I was saddened that I wasn’t surprised that there were young men in Israel who were also capable of this sort of thing.

It seems that in every revolution, good or bad, every violent movement, every war, there are these group of young men.  The ones who are looking for a passionate struggle.  The ones who are on the end of the bell curve and yet the center of the violence.  They are the inciters, the motivators, the fuel on the flame of conflict.

When I wrote my own article about the evacuation of Beit Hashalom, I was amazed to see that the press had characterized all the protestors as defined by the angry few.  The way they wrote, you would think that every man, woman, and child, was the fringe, angry, and violent.  It shocked me that a few minors, a few young men, were the ones who defined the story for these journalists.

This is an untold story, a nuance in the story of war and conflict that is rarely put in the perspective that it should be.

But perhaps that’s a reflection of a reality: these young men are often the engines behind conflict.  The driving force behind what happens on a larger scale.  The provocateurs.

It seems that the world continues to be driven by the choices they make, the internal power they have.

We’ve seen the power of young men to do good as well.  The way the Rebbe guided his charges to make the world a better place, using all that pent-up energy to go out in the streets and make positive change at very young ages, creating what he literally called a spiritual army.  Martin Luther King Jr. guided the energy of young oppressed blacks into nonviolent resistance.

One thing is clear: the energies of these young men will be directed somewhere.  And wherever that energy goes, the rest of the world will be shaped by it.  

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