Why Are Hebron Apartments a Big Deal to the New York Times?
In a six-column article, The New York Times (on Oct. 17) reported on Israeli plans to implement “a significant expansion” of settlements in the “occupied West Bank.” In a familiar refrain it noted that “most of the world” — including, to be sure, the Times — considers settlements “a violation of international law.” Receiving special attention was the planned inclusion of new apartments “in the volatile city of Hebron” — indeed, “in the heart” of that “contested and volatile city.”
Hebron has been embedded in Jewish texts and memory ever since the biblical narrative described Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, the first parcel of land owned by the Jewish people in their promised land, as a burial site for Sarah — and, subsequently, for Abraham, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. King David reigned from Hebron for seven years before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. The towering Machpelah enclosure above the burial tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people was built during the reign of King Herod, centuries before the birth of Islam.
Prohibited by 13th-century Moslem rulers from entering their holy site, Jews could not worship there until Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War enabled them to return to Hebron and begin to rebuild their ancient community, decimated during Arab rioting in 1929. For the first time in 700 years, Jews could pray inside the Herodian enclosure above the tombs of their biblical ancestors.
The approval of housing construction in Hebron for the first time in fifteen years, The Times of Israel noted, represented a pointed Israeli response to the UNESCO initiative in July that declared Hebron an endangered “Palestinian” heritage site — a preposterous rewriting of Jewish history. The controversial new apartments would be built on land under Jewish ownership prior to 1948, when Jordan seized control of the West Bank. Located in one of four Jewish neighborhoods in Hebron, now totaling 500 Jews, their residents will remain vastly outnumbered by 200,000 Palestinian inhabitants in a thriving city that has become the commercial hub of the West Bank.
With Palestinian legal appeals pending, the planned new apartments are neither imminent nor likely to significantly impact Hebron demography should they survive legal challenges. But a Peace Now representative, accusing Israel of “bending the law and trampling the basic principles of democracy,” cautioned, “If there is anything that harms Israel’s reputation in the world, it is the settlement in Hebron.”
It is hard to imagine that the addition, at most, of several hundred Jews will decisively impact Hebron or significantly diminish its overwhelming Palestinian majority. Embedded in the deepest collective memory of the Jewish people, Hebron is a symbol no less than a city, revealing the unrelenting determination of a tiny group of Jews to return to the site of their most ancient home in the Land of Israel and restore a Jewish presence there. That, indeed, is the meaning of Zionism.
Just as Jews were driven from Hebron in 1929 by murderous Arab rioting, so they were expelled from the Old City of Jerusalem by the Jordanian army in 1948. For nineteen years, until the stunning Israeli victory in the Six-Day War, the holiest Jewish sites — the tombs of their biblical ancestors and the Western Wall site of their ancient Temples — were inaccessible. Since 1967, when Jews returned to Jerusalem and Hebron, they have fulfilled their yearning to return to their ancient capital cities. There is no reason why Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, should not continue to cohabit Jerusalem and Hebron and enjoy full access to their revered holy sites.
P.S. Contrary to The New York Times, Israeli settlement throughout the West Bank — biblical Judea and Samaria — is explicitly protected by international agreements dating back nearly a century. Affirmed by the United Nations Charter, they assure Jews the right of “close settlement” west of the Jordan River. That includes Hebron.
Jerold S. Auerbach is author of “Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel” (2009).