A New Neighborhood in Hebron
The upcoming Torah reading on Shabbat — Chaye Sarah — recounts Sarah’s death in “Kiryat Arba, now Hebron.” Abraham, in his grief, approached Ephron the Hittite to purchase a burial place. To assure its indisputable permanence he paid the full price of four hundred shekels of silver for the Cave of Machpelah. In time, it also became the burial site of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, and Rebecca.
Ever since, Machpelah and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have remained the most revered Jewish holy sites. Centuries before King David relocated his throne from Hebron to Jerusalem, Hebron Jews formed a unique community of Jewish memory. Designated as a city of refuge and a priestly city, Hebron became the site of a massive shrine, known as Machpelah, built during the reign of King Herod.
But in the mid-13th century Muslim rulers prohibited Jews and other “infidels” from worshiping there. Following their expulsion from Spain two centuries later, handfuls of Jews built a community of study and prayer in Hebron. Over time, Hebron became a sacred place of Jewish residence and worship. By the late 19th century archaeologists had testified to its antiquity and artists depicted its hallowed allure. With yeshivas, a medical clinic, and a paved road linking Hebron to Jerusalem, it became a flourishing Jewish community. But during Arab riots in 1929, 67 Hebron Jews were murdered; scores were assaulted, mutilated, and terrorized. Hebron became Judenrein.
During the Six Day War, Hebron, along with Jerusalem, was restored to Jewish control. For the first time since the 13th century, Jews could pray inside the Machpelah enclosure. One year later a group of predominantly religious Zionists, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, came to Hebron to celebrate Passover and restore the Jewish community there. Ever since, Hebron Jews have embraced the synthesis of religion and nationality that sparked the settlement movement. Their passionate blend of Judaism and Zionism continues to arouse the wrath of secular Israelis and Diaspora Jews. But every autumn, thousands of Jews (I was twice among them) visit Hebron for Shabbat Chaye Sarah. Inside Machpelah on that day, when history, memory, and ritual are entwined, the boundaries of time collapse and Jews burrow as deep into the Jewish past as possible.
Recently, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman approved a plan, endorsed by the cabinet, to build a new housing complex in Hebron, the first major Israeli building project there in nearly two decades. To be known as the Hezekiah Quarter, located near the Hebron Yeshiva on land owned by the Chabad Hassidic movement, it will provide space for 31 apartments, two kindergartens, a dormitory, and a public park. It is a sharp rebuke to the recent UNESCO identification of Hebron as part of “occupied Palestine.” The Hebron Jewish community, currently numbering eighty families, responded enthusiastically: “Building in the City of the Patriarchs by the Israeli government is a Zionist, just, necessary, and blessed step.”
But on the Israeli left, predictably, Meretz Party chairman Tamar Zandberg, naming the existing Jewish enclave in Hebron “the most extreme, dangerous, and destructive settlement,” condemned the decision to expand the Jewish community. Peace Now, appropriately joined by the Hebron (Arab) municipal government, has appealed the decision. Unnoticed was the fact that the Hezekiah Quarter, named after the King of Judah between 715-686 BC, was under Jewish ownership until 1948.
In Hebron, 500 Jews are confined to a tiny sliver of land, where they are greatly outnumbered by thousands of Palestinian residents. Of necessity, following devastating terrorist attacks, it is constantly patrolled by IDF soldiers. The newcomers will not be noticed by 215,000 Palestinians on the affluent side of the security barrier, who inhabit the Arab sector of Hebron. It is the commercial hub of the West Bank, with multi-story shopping malls and two universities.
Returning to the Land of Israel, and rebuilding ancient Jewish communities there, has always defined Zionism. Hebron is no exception. Those on the Israeli left could benefit from a history lesson that would restore Hebron to its deserved importance in the Land of Israel ever since Abraham’s purchase. It is difficult to conceive of the State of Israel “occupying” one of its two holiest ancient capitol cities in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).