Hebron Past and Present
In his run-up to the Israeli election Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to annex the Jewish neighborhood of Hebron and the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, while extending sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley. It stirred predictable outrage from his left-wing critics. There can be little doubt, not only because Israeli media and The New York Times said so, that it was part of his desperate last-minute effort to solidify his right-wing base and garner enough votes to extend his legacy as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. While election results suggest that his tenure may soon be ending, his annexation plan — and the inclusion of Hebron and neighboring Kiryat Arba — is nonetheless deserving of scrutiny.
Netanyahu was the last prime minister, twenty years ago, to visit Hebron. He recently became the first to deliver a public address in the ancient Jewish city where, according to the Biblical narrative (Genesis 23), Abraham purchased a burial cave for Sarah from Ephron the Hittite. Rejecting Ephron’s offer of the cave as a gift, he insisted on paying full price to secure legal title forever. So, the Biblical narrative recounts, “Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre — now Hebron — in the land of Canaan.”
The specificity of the Biblical account of Abraham’s purchase surely was intended to remove any doubt about its legitimacy. In time King David, securing his claim to be the rightful inheritor of the patriarchal tradition, ruled from Hebron before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. Long before the appearance of Moslems, they were the sacred cities of Jewish history and memory. Decimated and destroyed during murderous Arab riots in 1929, the Hebron Jewish community was slowly restored following the Six Day War, despite persistent Israeli government efforts to stifle its growth. It has been the target of liberal wrath, in Israel and among American Jews, ever since.
The New York Times predictably joined, and occasionally led, the chorus of disapproval of Hebron Jews. It lacerated Jews living in the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people as the major obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. More than a decade ago Jerusalem Bureau Chief Steven Erlanger described the tiny Jewish neighborhood of Hebron as “occupied” by Jewish settlers. Columnist Nicholas Kristof, without any evident familiarity of its place in the Biblical narrative or Jewish history, wrote a diatribe against the “illegal” settlers who represented “the worst side” of Israel. Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren described Hebron Jews as “squatters.” After the brutal murder of a thirteen-year-old girl in her Kiryat Arba home, adjacent to Hebron, the Times noted only that she was related to Israel’s “right-wing housing minister.”
A Times editorial last week (September 12) predictably castigated Netanyahu for his pledge that, if elected, the tiny Jewish neighborhood of Hebron and its Kiryat Arba suburb would be annexed by his government. But “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” the enduring front-page motto of the Times ever since publisher Adolph Ochs implanted it after his purchase of the newspaper nearly 120 years ago, has conveniently overlooked flourishing Arab Hebron. Inhabited by more than 200,000 Palestinians who enjoy high-rise apartments, shopping malls, and three universities, it is the commercial hub of the West Bank.
By contrast, Hebron Jews, numbering fewer than one hundred families, live in the old and decrepit Jewish Quarter, a tiny segment of the city under Israeli military protection. It is, in effect, a ghetto. Even in their own neighborhood they are greatly outnumbered by Palestinians. Streets and shops are empty and boarded and Israeli soldiers are constantly on patrol.
During a recent visit to Hebron with my son and grandson our first stop was the majestic Machpelah enclosure, built by King Herod to mark the burial site of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Although I had been there before, it was once again deeply moving to stand at the tomb of Jacob, after whom I was named in memory of my paternal grandfather. In nearby Beit Hadassah, once a hospital for Jews and Arabs that was ravaged during the 1929 Arab riots, we were welcomed by English-language spokesman David Wilder, who was immensely helpful when I was researching my book on the history of Hebron Jews.
Hebron is where Jewish history in the Land of Israel began. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent visit surely was intended to shore up his right-wing support in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Declaring that Israelis would always remain there, he seems to understand, even if his liberal critics in Israel and The New York Times do not, that a people divorced from history and memory cannot endure.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009) and Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel 1896-2016, recently published by Academic Studies Press.