At Home in Hebron
Shabbat marked the 87th (Hebrew calendar) anniversary of the horrific 1929 Hebron Massacre in which Jews were raped, mutilated and murdered. Rampaging Arab mobs killed 67 Jewish residents and yeshiva students in the biblical holy city, where the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people are entombed and King David ruled. One of the American survivors recounted that he had witnessed “greater horrors than Dante in hell.” Three days later British soldiers evacuated the surviving remnant of the world’s most ancient Jewish community. Hebron was Judenrein.
So it remained for 50 years, until 10 women and 35 children, led by Miriam Levinger and Sarah Nachshon, arrived from nearby Kiryat Arba at 4:00 A.M. and entered Beit Hadassah, the former medical clinic in the heart of the destroyed Jewish Quarter. Inside the dilapidated building, excited children sang v’shavu banim l’gvulam, God’s promise that the children of Israel would return to Zion. When an astonished Israeli soldier asked how they had entered, a four-year-old girl responded: “Jacob, our forefather, built us a ladder and we came in.” Hebron, Mrs. Levinger proclaimed, “will no longer be Judenrein.”
Seven hundred Jews now live in the ancient Jewish Quarter, a few hundred meters from the Cave of the Patriarchs (Me’arat ha’Machpela) shrine. Their community has endured terrible tragedies, from random murders to a 1980 terrorist attack that killed six Jews returning to Beit Hadassah from the weekly Machpelah Shabbat service. In 1997, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, bowing to American pressure, signed the Hebron Protocol that has confined Jews to a tiny ghetto and restricts their access to Machpelah.
Early this week, Haaretz reported Defense Ministry approval for the building of “a handful of homes” in an Israeli military outpost on land that once belonged to the Jewish community. The predictable response from the US State Department (echoed by Peace Now) was to condemn the “deeply concerning step of settlement expansion” as “corrosive to the cause of peace.” Had state department spokesman Marc Toner known the word, he doubtlessly would have labeled it a shanda.
In a welcome response to the housing announcement (if slightly ironic, in light of his own capitulation two decades ago) – and to commemorate the anniversary of the Hebron massacre – Prime Minister Netanyahu noted in a Facebook post that “Jewish settlement in Hebron has intensified and grown stronger under Israeli sovereignty. . . . In the face of those who would uproot us, we will continue to deepen those roots.”
My annual reminder of Hebron arrived this week in the form of a calendar for 5776. Distributed by the Hebron Fund, it always includes an array of enticing reproductions of paintings by the talented Hebron artist Baruch Nachshon. His illumination of verses from the Book of Proverbs, Jewish songs, and prayers are riveting.
Nachshon had been living in Jerusalem when the Six-Day War erupted. In memory of a friend killed in the fighting, he decided to “do something”: move to Hebron. His wife Sarah hesitated. Visiting the city she was told by an Israeli government official that the presence of Jews there would be “a bone in our throat.” She promptly decided they would live there. The Nachshons and their four children moved into a single room in the military compound. Their son’s bris was held secretly in Machpelah. Six months later, when Avraham Yedidia suffered crib death, his parents disregarded military prohibitions and buried him in the ancient Jewish cemetery, where no Jews had been buried since 1929. There she said: Abraham had buried Sarah in Hebron. “Now the circle has been closed, with Sarah burying Abraham.”
New Jewish homes in Hebron will close another circle. A community of Jewish memory even older than Jerusalem, Hebron remains the place where the Jewish past will forever be home.
Jerold S. Auerbach is author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).