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October 4, 2010 3:02 pm

A Spiritual Night in Hebron

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Photo: wikipedia.org.

Israel is a magical country but to experience one of its greatest wonders you have to travel out to what the world calls the West Bank and the Bible calls Judea and Samaria. There, its crown jewel is the city of Hebron, first capitol city of the Jewish people and where its patriarchs and matriarchs are buried.

Many Jewish and Christian tourists to Israel skip Hebron, declaring it too dangerous, and indeed four Israelis, including a pregnant woman, were killed there just a few weeks ago with another two shot last week. But terrorists dare not determine whether me and my children make pilgrimages to Judaism’s holiest sites, and besides terrorists incidents have declined dramatically and the city, comparatively speaking, is safe.

The first thing you discover about the residents of Hebron, whom the world derisively describes as settlers – as if Jews living in their own ancient capitol are newcomers – is their warmth, friendliness, and hospitality. I arrived with twenty guests and our host, a wise and dedicated communal activist named Yigal, prepared a feast fit for a king. We ate in his Sukka, surrounded by a tranquility and quiet that I, in my busy life, rarely experience. The night air was cool and enervating.

All around us children were playing, utterly carefree, on pristine playgrounds. So many Jews in Hebron have been killed in terror attacks over the years. Yet the residents in general, and the children in particular, live unafraid. They are also liberated from hatred. When their friends die they mourn them, bury them, commemorate them, and get on with their lives. There are no calls for revenge attacks, there are no mass demonstrations braying for Arab blood. Their response, rather, is to demonstrate, in the most peaceful manner, that they are there to stay. (And yes, I know all about Baruch Goldstein. My house in Oxford was firebombed, with my children sleeping inside, just a few hours after he perpetrated his mass-murder. But his criminal abomination was committed alone, seventeen years ago, without any accomplice).

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For nearly a thousand years, the Islamic rulers of the Holy Land forbade Jews from entering the tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, allowing them to climb only seven steps into the tomb but beating them mercilessly if they rose any higher. When Israel captured the tomb in 1967, Jewish pilgrims came to Hebron swearing never again to be separated from their origin. Even amid the worst terror attacks, property values in Hebron and Kiryat Arba never decline. There are no fluctuations in the commitment to pray by the graves of those who gave the world monotheism.

Yet these residents have been demonized by the entire world. They face daily character-assassination in the media by those who would decry their simple desire to walk in the footsteps of Abraham. World leaders regularly engage in extreme defamation of families whose only wish it is to raise their children in the Judean hills of King David. President Obama rises at the United Nations and calls for a further moratorium on building in the settlements, as if it’s a crime for peaceful people to have children and add rooms to warm and hospitable homes that welcome innumerable guests.

Worse, my close Israeli friends in Tel Aviv tell me that they hate the ‘settlers’ because their children are forced to ‘defend a bunch of fanatics who live surrounded by 100,000 Arabs.’ I quickly remind them that, first, the residents of Hebron themselves serve in elite combat units of the Israeli military; second, if a nation can’t hold fast to the tomb of its ancestors (and remember that the tomb in its present form was constructed by King Herod 2000 years ago from the very same stone as the Kotel) then it scarcely deserves to call itself a people; three, I know many Jews, particularly in Britain, who wonder why they should have to defend and raise money for the six million Jews who have ‘settled’ in Israel, surrounded as they are by half a billion Arabs; and finally, give up Hebron and, as we discovered with Gush Katif and Sderot, you now bring hostile forces to bear directly on Jerusalem.

Abraham, at whose tomb I prayed with my children, is the father of all peoples, and Arabs and Jews, who share both a celestial and terrestrial father, must learn to live peacefully together in the land. Neither group should be asked to abide a moratorium that stifles the natural expansion of either population. It is not the spiritual-seekers of Hebron who threaten peace but the death-groupies of Hezbollah and Hamas, who seek to make all Israel judenrein.

Just a few yards from the spot where Shalhevet Pass, a ten-month-old Israeli infant, was famously shot and killed by a Palestinian sniper while sitting in her stroller in March, 2001, I danced with my children to celebrate the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

The streets of Hebron were alive with joyous with residents dancing to the music of a mystical hippie band whose flowing locks and mesmerizing music set my soul alight. I was electrified to be dancing in a city that in 1929 saw the massacre of 67 Jews and the destruction of nearly all the Synagogues and Jewish buildings. We American Jews live with so many infantile fears, like the fear of not being able to keep up with the Joneses or suffering a decline in standards of living during this recession. But dancing in Hebron I felt liberated, free of fear, and deeply grateful to the residents who live without material extravagance and who taught me that even in a place of stress and danger one can find  inner tranquility and peace.

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