The ancient city of Hebron, twenty miles south of Jerusalem, has long been a source of seething conflict between Arabs and Jews. According to the biblical narrative (Gen. 23), Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah for four hundred silver shekels as the burial place for Sarah. It was the first parcel of land owned by the Jewish people in their promised land.
It has been a Jewish holy site ever since. King David reigned from Hebron before relocating his throne to Jerusalem to unify his kingdom. But just as Muslims claimed the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, so they wrested Machpelah from Jews, who were forbidden entry to their sacred shrine for seven hundred years after 1267. The centuries-old Hebron community was destroyed in 1929 when rampaging Arabs murdered sixty-seven Jews.
For more than a decade after the Six-Day War restored Hebron to Israeli authority, Jews were not permitted to reclaim abandoned and stolen property in their ancient city. A hesitant Israeli government was unwilling to allow Jews to inhabit Hebron, lest their presence rile local Arabs – and Israeli politicians who wanted nothing to do with holy sites or religious Zionists.
In 1979 a group of women led by Miriam Levinger and Sarah Nachshon, accompanied by several dozen young children, made a surprise nighttime return to Beit Hadassah, the former medical clinic. Hebron, asserted Mrs. Levinger, “will no longer be Judenrein.” A fledgling community sought to restore the “duality of nation and religion” that had been entwined in Judaism before Jews were forcibly exiled from their homeland nearly two thousand years earlier.
As difficult as it was to persuade Israeli courts to permit Jews to return to abandoned Jewish property, the government made it all but impossible to purchase property even from willing Arab sellers. Nearly a decade ago Morris Abraham, a New York businessman whose great-grandfather had lived in Hebron until the 1929 pogrom, purchased a large four-story building through an intermediary after prolonged negotiations with its Palestinian Arab owner.
On the road connecting Kiryat Arba to Hebron, it was located near the site where twelve Israelis had been murdered in a deadly terrorist attack three years earlier. After extensive renovations, Hebron Jews took possession of their new home in March 2007, naming it “Beit HaShalom,” house of peace. Eight families moved in, and Israeli soldiers promptly claimed the roof as a superb lookout post.
Then began a legal struggle that resembled Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. The Supreme Court ordered an investigation of the transaction. Police concluded that it was a legal sale. A local Hebron Arab told a reporter: “We will find the seller and chop him up into tiny pieces.” To protect his own life, the middleman for the seller denied the validity of the sale but the seller had been filmed receiving and counting his million dollar proceeds.
More than a year later the Attorney General initiated legal proceedings to expel the new residents – eight families who had endured a miserably cold winter in their unheated apartments – until a lower court determined the legality of the purchase. The Israeli Municipal Court ruled in favor of the Jewish owners, but Arabs appealed. Dismayed by the endless delays, Morris Abraham despaired of “Israeli democracy.”
Pending a final ruling, the government authorized the evacuation of Beit HaShalom. As protests mounted, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned against “attempts by small groups of radicals to undermine the authority of the state.” That December Israeli security forces stormed Beit HaShalom and, with the aid of stun grenades and tear gas, forcibly evicted its residents. Barak announced: “The building will be under IDF and state control until the court decides to whom it belongs.”
Now, five years later, the Supreme Court has finally decided, rejecting Arab appeals and upholding the legitimacy of the purchase. The responses were predictable. Housing Minister Uri Ariel celebrated the decision that Beit HaShalom “belongs to Jews.” Left-wing Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz, joined by Peace Now, urged that Jews not be allowed to live in the building. But David Wilder, spokesman for the Hebron Jewish community, exulted “Victory at last!”
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).