Inside the Hebron Lions’ Den
The Lions’ Den, a fascinating collection of essays by journalist Susie Linfield, focuses on Zionism and the political left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky. She makes it clear from her opening page that she identifies herself as a left-wing intellectual who is also a Zionist. “I believe in a state for the Jewish people,” she explained to a group of startled left-wing intellectuals at a dinner party, adding “along with a Palestinian one.”
Linfield appropriately chastises political leftists who are not only repelled by the “brutal Israeli occupation” and “oppression of the Palestinians.” Indeed, they are repulsed “by the existence of Israel itself.” She pointedly cites their “double standard” that enables them “to support regimes far more repressive and violent, and far less egalitarian and politically open” than Israel — “even the Israel of the Occupation.” Only for Israel, she understands, is “a nation’s right to exist” challenged.
Clearly Linfield is not among them. But her own embrace of Zionism, she quickly reveals, is conditional and restricted. In 2012 she visited Hebron with Partners for Progressive Israel, aligned with the left-wing Meretz party, which “works against the Occupation and the Likud.” In Hebron, she writes, “a Palestinian city of about 200,000 inhabitants … a few hundred ultra-nationalist Israeli settlers have established themselves.” Claiming to represent Zionist values, they “have recreated the despised, endangered, and ghettoized position of the Jews that Zionism was designed to eradicate.”
By contrast, as a quick Google search would inform her, Palestinian Hebron is the commercial hub of the West Bank, with high-rise apartment buildings, shopping malls, and universities. She might have wondered why she and her progressive partners — because they are Jews — are forbidden from entering that flourishing city. Instead, surrounded and protected by Israeli soldiers (she does not consider why such protection is necessary), they walk along “a designated Israeli street.” She is clearly upset that Palestinian boys nearby “are prevented from crossing over to our side of the street from theirs.” It is, she writes, “bizarre, ludicrous, mortifying.” She added, “I am ashamed to be a Jew.”
Linfield seems oblivious to the history of Jews in Hebron, which Partners for Progressive Israel and her own commendable research talents conveniently ignore. That history began with the biblical narrative of Abraham’s purchase of a cave from Ephron the Hittite as the burial site for Sarah. In time Abraham, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah were also buried there. But Hebron became far more than the burial site of the patriarchs and matriarchs. It was where King David ruled before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. Millennia before the emergence of Islam, Hebron was deeply embedded in the biblical narrative and Jewish history. At the beginning of the Common Era, King Herod built the massive stone enclosure surrounding the burial site, known as Me’arat ha’Machpelah, which still looms over the city.
In time, although Jews were prohibited by Moslems from entering their sacred enclosure, Hebron Jews became a unique community of Jewish memory. But during the 1929 Arab riots, the Hebron Jewish community was chosen for slaughter. Marauding Arabs murdered sixty-seven Jews, traumatized survivors were evacuated, and Hebron became Judenrein. Following the Six Day War, for the first time since the 13th century, Jews prayed inside Machpelah at the tombs of their ancestors. It was not long before a group of religious Zionists, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, came to Hebron to celebrate Passover and begin to restore the ancient Jewish community. They succeeded, although within stringent limits imposed ever since by the Israeli government.
Susie Linfield is not impressed, and it is unlikely that the Partners for Progressive Israel who guided her visit revealed the millennia-old history of Hebron Jews. To be sure, as I know from repeated visits to research their history, there is far more to Hebron than the shabby Jewish Quarter where successive Israeli governments have stifled new construction and growth. To celebrate Shabbat Chaye Sarah in Machpelah, when the Torah passage recounting Abraham’s purchase is read, is an unrivaled experience. Then and there Jews return to their most ancient holy site and embrace the Biblical narrative. There the Jewish past in the Land of Israel began — and, despite a history of sorrow inflicted upon it, endures.
It is regrettable that Susie Linfield permitted her embrace of “progressive” Israel, and her evident writing talent, to distort and defame the biblical city of Hebron and its devoted and determined Jewish residents. There, under different guidance, she might have understood that even a “progressive” Jew can embrace Jewish history in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Instead, obsessed with Israel as an “occupier,” she neglects to mention that Hebron Jews, and 400,000 other settlers, “occupy” Judea and Samaria, which is that biblical homeland.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).