When is a House a Home in Hebron?
by Jerold Auerbach
Seven years ago New York businessman Morris Abraham, through an intermediary and after prolonged negotiations, purchased a four-story building from its owner for nearly one million dollars. With expansive views of the surrounding hills, the valley below, and the city beyond, it could be renovated to provide a comfortable residence for Jewish families.
Abraham was attracted to the location because his paternal great-grandfather and members of his mother’s family had lived in the nearby city until 1929, when they barely escaped with their lives during a barbaric Arab pogrom in which sixty-seven Jews were ruthlessly slaughtered. Survivors were evacuated by British soldiers, leaving the city judenrein for the next fifty years.
The city is Hebron. There the first plot of land owned by the Jewish people in their promised land, purchased by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite, became the burial place for Sarah. Known as Me’arat haMachpelah, it also became the gravesite for Abraham, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. Hebron was where King David ruled for seven years before relocating his throne to Jerusalem, known as its “sister” city.
The building purchased by Morris Abraham for the community occupied a commanding site overlooking Hebron. It is adjacent to the main road, known as the worshippers’ path, leading down the hill from Kiryat Arba into Hebron to the Machpelah enclosure. Three years earlier twelve Israelis had been murdered nearby in a deadly terrorist attack.
As word of the acquisition spread through the community hundreds of residents, joined by yeshiva students, arrived to explore the building and dance in celebration. After extensive renovations, eight Jewish families moved in. Israeli soldiers arrived to protect them, staking out an observation post on the roof to provide security. Court-ordered investigations documented the legitimacy of the purchase; the Palestinian owner had been filmed receiving and counting his money. Learning of the transaction a Hebron Arab told an Israeli journalist: “If the Jews really did buy it, all the more power to them. But we will find the seller and chop him up into tiny pieces.”
Despite primitive living conditions during a brutally cold winter – unheated rooms with plastic sheets for windows – the residents of Beit HaShalom (House of Peace) endured. But Defense Minister Ehud Barak, disregarding the purchase and sale agreement and the video that documented the sale, relentlessly pursued their expulsion, which the Supreme Court authorized. The banishment of Jews from Hebron, long pursued through Palestinian terror attacks, had become Israeli government policy. Morris Abraham, noting that anywhere else such a purchase would be recognized as legitimate, despaired of “Israeli democracy.”
Barak was unrelenting. In December 2008 six hundred Israeli border police and soldiers, using stun grenades and tear gas and acting under his orders, stormed Beit Ha Shalom and dragged the resident families from their homes. Despite the violent expulsions the Hebron Jewish community remained resilient and persistent, pursuing their legal case in court.
Last week the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court upheld the legality of the Beit Ha Shalom purchase and ordered the government to return the property to the Hebron Jewish community within thirty days. “We have received a wonderful Rosh Hashanah present,” exulted community spokeswoman Orit Struck.
Not so fast. According to Israeli law the Defense Minister must sign permits for Jews to purchase property in Judea and Samaria, the biblical homeland of the Jewish people where 350,000 world-despised “settlers” live. To date, however, Ehud Barak has demonstrated stubborn unwillingness to permit Jews to purchase property in Hebron. A veteran Labor Party politician, he refuses to recognize that Jewish settlers are following in the footsteps of his own ideological predecessors by settling the Land of Israel. That, after all, is what Zionism is all about.
And, according to the conclusions recently drawn by the Levi Commission (comprising two former Supreme Court judges and an international law expert), Jewish settlements do not violate international law. Indeed, their legality is affirmed by ninety years of international law that guarantees to Jews the right of “close settlement” everywhere west of the Jordan River.
Since the recent court decision, Likud government ministers and Knesset members have urged Barak to authorize the return of Jews to their homes in Beit Ha Shalom. The Defense Minister “has the obligation to right the wrong that he created,” announced Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. According to MK Tzipi Hotovely, a rising star in the Likud Party, “Buying land in the land of Israel is making Zionism a reality.”
In the end, it is for Prime Minister Netanyahu to make certain that the recent judicial ruling is upheld and enforced. Surely a prime minister who can stand up to the American president can instruct his Defense Minister to enforce the law – or quickly find a replacement who understands Jewish history and obeys Israeli judicial rulings.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).