The Torah reading for Shabbat Chaye Sarah (November 23) begins with Abraham, describing himself to Hebron Hittites as “a resident alien,” revealing his need to purchase a burial site for Sarah. The Hittites, praising him as “the elect of God,” offer “the choicest of our burial places,” the Machpelah cave. Rejecting their generous gift, Abraham asks them to intercede with Ephron, owner of the cave of Machpelah, so that he may pay “the full price.” Ephron emerged from the group and offered his cave and surrounding field as a gift. When Abraham again insisted on paying full price Ephron sold it to him for four hundred shekels of silver. Abraham’s purchase marked the beginning of Jewish history in the Land of Israel.
I knew nothing about Hebron until a brief visit, more than half a century ago, provided a glimpse of the magnificent Me’arat haMachpelah edifice, built by King Herod over the burial site of the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. I was fascinated by its ancient legacy and riveted by what I learned about the determination of Jews over many centuries, although prohibited by Muslims from entering the sacred Jewish memorial, to live near their Biblical holy site.
Murderous Arab riots in 1929 destroyed the millennia-old Jewish community, leaving Hebron Judenrein for nearly forty years until the Six-Day War sparked the renewal of Jewish life in Hebron. Then, for the first time since the 12th century, Jews could pray inside Machpelah. One year later a group of predominantly religious Israelis came to Hebron to celebrate Passover, reclaim their biblical patrimony and restore the Jewish community. Led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who negotiated a rental agreement for the holiday with the owner of the Park Hotel, several dozen Israelis arrived for the Seder – and the restoration of a Jewish presence in the city. After the festive meal celebrants danced through the streets of Hebron singing v’shavu banim l’gvulam (“your children shall return to their borders”).
In 1970 the Israeli government, pressured by settlers and their supporters, announced plans to build an “upper Hebron” to be called Kiryat Arba (the name of biblical Hebron), a short downhill walk to Machpelah. Five years later nearly 1500 Jews lived there. But Kiryat Arba was not Hebron. So, one morning at 4:00 am, ten women and thirty-five children arrived by truck at the rear of Beit Hadassah, the former medical clinic in the heart of the Hebron Jewish Quarter.
They climbed ladders, cut window wires and unloaded mattresses, cooking burners, water, and a refrigerator. Once safely inside the children began to sing v’shavu banim l‘gvulam, God’s promise that the children of Israel would return to Zion. When an astonished Israeli soldier on a nearby roof came to investigate, a four-year-old girl explained: “Jacob, our forefather, built us a ladder and we came in.” Miriam Levinger vowed: “Hebron will no longer be Judenrein.”
Ever since, the presence of Jews in Hebron, with their synthesis of religious Judaism and Zionist nationalism, has incurred the wrath of many liberal Israelis and American Jews. Pariahs of the Jewish people, Hebron Jews are among the only Jews whose critics can malign them without being accused of antisemitism. Castigated by left-wing Israelis (Amos Oz described settlers as “a stupid and cruel messianic sect . . . that emerged from some dark corner of Judaism”), they nonetheless remain determined to remember what most Jews prefer to forget.
Some eight hundred Hebron Jews cite the Biblical narrative and millennia of Jewish history to legitimate their presence. Their passionate embrace of Jewish memory focuses on the Biblical admonitions zachor (remember) and lo tishkach (do not forget). But successive Israeli governments have stifled population growth and development in the tiny Jewish Quarter, even refusing Jews permission to inhabit abandoned Jewish property or purchase Arab-owned buildings.
Shabbat Chaye Sarah, as I learned during two visits to Me’arat haMachpelah on that special day when the Biblical shrine is for Jews alone, is the foundation of memory in the Jewish calendar. There I felt the power of Jewish history and the determination of Jews to return to their ancient capitol city, the oldest sacred site in the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people. To repress the Hebron Jewish community, no less force its abandonment, would constitute an unforgivable desecration of Jewish memory.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).