Hebron Besieged

Passover, 1968: several dozen Jewish families returned to Hebron to celebrate the holiday of Jewish memory.  They remembered slavery in Egypt, the exodus to freedom, and the journey to the promised land.  But they also remembered the unique place of Hebron in Jewish history and they intended to restore a Jewish community in the most ancient Jewish city in the world.

In Hebron (according to the Biblical narrative), Sarah was buried on land purchased by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite.  Rejecting the generous offer of a gift, Abraham paid Ephron's full asking price -- 400 silver shekels -- to assure the indisputable legitimacy of title.  It was the first land holding of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah were also buried there.  From Hebron, King David reigned for seven years before relocating his throne to Jerusalem.  Over the ancestral burial site King Herod built the magnificent edifice that is still intact two thousand years later, known to Jews as Ma'arat Hamachpela.

With the Muslim conquest the Machpelah shrine was converted into a mosque which, for seven centuries, Jews were prohibited from entering.  During the Arab massacres of 1929 that swept through Palestine, sixty-seven Hebron Jews were brutally murdered.  British authorities removed terrified survivors from the city and Hebron became Judenrein for nearly forty years.  When Israelis entered Hebron after the Six-Day War they discovered the abandoned Jewish Quarter in ruins, synagogues destroyed, and the ancient cemetery desecrated.

Now seven hundred Jews live in Hebron, two hundred yeshiva students study there, and seven thousand Israelis live in nearby Kiryat Arba.  It has been a precarious existence, repeatedly punctuated by Palestinian terrorist attacks.  Six Jews were killed outside Beit Hadassah, the restored medical clinic.  A yeshiva student had his throat slit in the market; another was murdered on his way to evening prayers at Machpelah.  Two Soviet refuseniks were killed at the entrance to Kiryat Arba.  A rabbi was stabbed to death in his trailer home on Tel Rumeida, the site of ancient Hebron.  A ten-month-old girl was shot in the head by a sniper.  A dozen Israeli soldiers and security guards were ambushed and murdered by Palestinian members of Islamic Jihad.

Each terrorist attack spurred renewed attempts to build the community.  The major obstacle, for nearly forty-five years, has been the government of the State of Israel.  Regardless of the party in power, prime ministers from Levi Eshkol in 1967 to Benjamin Netanyahu in 2011 have thwarted the growth of the Hebron Jewish community.

The government has made it virtually impossible for Jews to buy property from willing Arab sellers, or build new homes on Jewish-owned land (including property purchased in 1807).  The Supreme Court has ruled that for "security" reasons there is no obligation to return property to its original Jewish owners, thereby leaving Hebron residents even less secure.

Little more than a year ago eight families were forcibly evicted from a building purchased for the community by a New York businessman whose parents and grandparents had lived in Hebron.  A community representative noted bitterly that when Abraham purchased Machpelah "there was no Supreme Court, Attorney General or government to take it from him."

When Prime Minister Netanyahu recently announced his intention to "refurbish Israeli heritage sites," Hebron was conspicuously omitted.  (Imagine a list of American heritage sites that excluded Plymouth or Gettysburg.)  Under intense political pressure, he relented and added the Machpelah shrine.

But the struggle over Hebron, among Israelis no less than between Muslims and Jews, continues.  Foreign countries and the European Union have provided millions of dollars for Arab housing that will flank the only road linking Hebron and Kiryat Arba, posing a severe security danger to Jewish residents of both communities.  But the Israeli government has declined even to replace a shredded tarpaulin covering the main courtyard of Machpelah, a Jewish prayer site, with a permanent roof lest Muslims take offense.

Whenever there is discussion about which settlements will remain part of Israel in any peace agreement Hebron is omitted.  Why?  Because it is the flash point for the continuing struggle over Zionist legitimacy.  Hebron Jews are routinely demonized as Jewish "fanatics" or "zealots" by their fanatical and zealous secular opponents.

Should Hebron once again become Judenrein religious Zionists -- and the Jewish people -- will lose a vital living source of memory and identity.  That is sufficient reason for secular Zionists to want to excise it from the Jewish state.

Not long before his incapacitating stroke in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked a journalist: "Can you conceive that one day Jews will not live in Hebron?...If we were a normal nation, when a visitor arrived here we would take him not to Yad Vashem but, rather, to Hebron. We'd take him to where our roots are. ... No other people has anything like it."

Settling the Land of Israel -- in Hebron no less than Tel Aviv -- has always defined Zionism.  But a nation that forgets its heritage relinquishes its primary source of spiritual sustenance.  Indeed, according to the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Hassidism, forgetfulness "leads to exile."  That is why, every Passover, Jews remember their liberation from slavery.  Hebron is the most tenacious community of Jewish memory in Israel.  Should it be abandoned, Zionism itself would slide into Jewish exile.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009). His newest book, Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena, will be published in May by Quid Pro Books.
Passover, 1968: several dozen Jewish families returned to Hebron to celebrate the holiday of Jewish memory.  They remembered slavery in Egypt, the exodus to freedom, and the journey to the promised land.  But they also remembered the unique place of Hebron in Jewish history and they intended to restore a Jewish community in the most ancient Jewish city in the world.

In Hebron (according to the Biblical narrative), Sarah was buried on land purchased by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite.  Rejecting the generous offer of a gift, Abraham paid Ephron's full asking price -- 400 silver shekels -- to assure the indisputable legitimacy of title.  It was the first land holding of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah were also buried there.  From Hebron, King David reigned for seven years before relocating his throne to Jerusalem.  Over the ancestral burial site King Herod built the magnificent edifice that is still intact two thousand years later, known to Jews as Ma'arat Hamachpela.

With the Muslim conquest the Machpelah shrine was converted into a mosque which, for seven centuries, Jews were prohibited from entering.  During the Arab massacres of 1929 that swept through Palestine, sixty-seven Hebron Jews were brutally murdered.  British authorities removed terrified survivors from the city and Hebron became Judenrein for nearly forty years.  When Israelis entered Hebron after the Six-Day War they discovered the abandoned Jewish Quarter in ruins, synagogues destroyed, and the ancient cemetery desecrated.

Now seven hundred Jews live in Hebron, two hundred yeshiva students study there, and seven thousand Israelis live in nearby Kiryat Arba.  It has been a precarious existence, repeatedly punctuated by Palestinian terrorist attacks.  Six Jews were killed outside Beit Hadassah, the restored medical clinic.  A yeshiva student had his throat slit in the market; another was murdered on his way to evening prayers at Machpelah.  Two Soviet refuseniks were killed at the entrance to Kiryat Arba.  A rabbi was stabbed to death in his trailer home on Tel Rumeida, the site of ancient Hebron.  A ten-month-old girl was shot in the head by a sniper.  A dozen Israeli soldiers and security guards were ambushed and murdered by Palestinian members of Islamic Jihad.

Each terrorist attack spurred renewed attempts to build the community.  The major obstacle, for nearly forty-five years, has been the government of the State of Israel.  Regardless of the party in power, prime ministers from Levi Eshkol in 1967 to Benjamin Netanyahu in 2011 have thwarted the growth of the Hebron Jewish community.

The government has made it virtually impossible for Jews to buy property from willing Arab sellers, or build new homes on Jewish-owned land (including property purchased in 1807).  The Supreme Court has ruled that for "security" reasons there is no obligation to return property to its original Jewish owners, thereby leaving Hebron residents even less secure.

Little more than a year ago eight families were forcibly evicted from a building purchased for the community by a New York businessman whose parents and grandparents had lived in Hebron.  A community representative noted bitterly that when Abraham purchased Machpelah "there was no Supreme Court, Attorney General or government to take it from him."

When Prime Minister Netanyahu recently announced his intention to "refurbish Israeli heritage sites," Hebron was conspicuously omitted.  (Imagine a list of American heritage sites that excluded Plymouth or Gettysburg.)  Under intense political pressure, he relented and added the Machpelah shrine.

But the struggle over Hebron, among Israelis no less than between Muslims and Jews, continues.  Foreign countries and the European Union have provided millions of dollars for Arab housing that will flank the only road linking Hebron and Kiryat Arba, posing a severe security danger to Jewish residents of both communities.  But the Israeli government has declined even to replace a shredded tarpaulin covering the main courtyard of Machpelah, a Jewish prayer site, with a permanent roof lest Muslims take offense.

Whenever there is discussion about which settlements will remain part of Israel in any peace agreement Hebron is omitted.  Why?  Because it is the flash point for the continuing struggle over Zionist legitimacy.  Hebron Jews are routinely demonized as Jewish "fanatics" or "zealots" by their fanatical and zealous secular opponents.

Should Hebron once again become Judenrein religious Zionists -- and the Jewish people -- will lose a vital living source of memory and identity.  That is sufficient reason for secular Zionists to want to excise it from the Jewish state.

Not long before his incapacitating stroke in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked a journalist: "Can you conceive that one day Jews will not live in Hebron?...If we were a normal nation, when a visitor arrived here we would take him not to Yad Vashem but, rather, to Hebron. We'd take him to where our roots are. ... No other people has anything like it."

Settling the Land of Israel -- in Hebron no less than Tel Aviv -- has always defined Zionism.  But a nation that forgets its heritage relinquishes its primary source of spiritual sustenance.  Indeed, according to the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Hassidism, forgetfulness "leads to exile."  That is why, every Passover, Jews remember their liberation from slavery.  Hebron is the most tenacious community of Jewish memory in Israel.  Should it be abandoned, Zionism itself would slide into Jewish exile.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009). His newest book, Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena, will be published in May by Quid Pro Books.