Jewish Life and Memory in Hebron
The Torah portion of Chayei Sarah last month recounted Abraham’s purchase of a burial cave for Sarah, marking the beginning of Jewish history in the Land of Israel. It elevated Hebron to a place rivaled only by Jerusalem in the millennia-old saga of the Jewish people.
This week began with an announcement by Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett that planning had begun for a new Jewish neighborhood in the ancient biblical city, where centuries of Jewish history had been brutally destroyed in 1929 as rampaging Arabs tortured, castrated and murdered 69 Jewish men, women and children.
The tiny Jewish community in Hebron, restored to life after the Six-Day War returned Jews to their biblical homeland in Judea and Samaria, has nonetheless struggled to survive. Murderous Palestinian attacks were ignored by an indifferent Israeli government that resisted efforts to rebuild, enlarge and protect the Jewish enclave. Several years after the deadly rampage of Baruch Goldstein in 1994, which killed 29 Muslims in prayer at the Machpelah shrine in retaliation for the repetitive murders of Hebron Jews, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bowed to American pressure and accepted the Hebron Protocol.
It divided Hebron into Arab and Israeli zones, returning Jews to a ghetto in their ancient holy city. Even there, they were vastly outnumbered by Palestinian residents. Inside Machpelah, Jews were only permitted to pray in the majestic Isaac Hall (where the Goldstein massacre occurred) several days each year, including on Shabbat Chayei Sarah. Since then, thousands of Israelis and Jewish visitors have returned to the burial site of their biblical patriarchs and matriarchs in their ancient capitol city, where King David ruled before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. Ironically, the obstacle to the return of Jews to Jewish-owned property, even where Jewish legal title is indisputable, has been the government of Israel.
As I know from several visits to Hebron, including twice to Machpelah to celebrate Shabbat Chayei Sarah, the Hebron partition agreement has confined Jews to a tiny, vulnerable enclave. Israeli soldiers in full battle gear are always on patrol. There are few pedestrians. Many shops are shuttered closed. Decrepit empty buildings, which the Israeli government has refused to permit Jews to renovate and inhabit, fill the desolate Jewish neighborhood. Much of the Jewish sector resembles a war zone.
Few Israelis, or Jews anywhere, care about the history of their ancient community. But Hebron Jews remain determined and persistent. For three thousand years, Hebron has symbolized something that is ineradicable from Jewish consciousness: the power of memory. In every generation, tiny handfuls of Jews have retained a deeply primal connection to the hallowed burial site of their biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Just as Zionist pioneers returned to their biblical homeland to revive Jewish sovereignty, so Jews have returned to Hebron to restore their ancient holy city.
In his history of the Jewish people, Paul Johnson writes: “When the historian visits Hebron today he asks himself: where are all those peoples who once held the place?” Canaanites, Edomites, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Mameluks and Ottomans “have vanished into time, irrevocably. But the Jews are still in Hebron.” Jews, he concluded, “are the most tenacious people in history. Hebron is there to prove it.” Jewish Hebron, writes Kiryat Arba historian Arieh Klein, “connects the nation to its past . . . to its identity.”
Yet Hebron Jews are the pariahs of the Jewish people, the Jews most relentlessly castigated for returning to their biblical burial site and capital city. To Israeli historian Idith Zertal and journalist Akiva Eldar, they epitomize “the hothouse of the entire settlement project with its subversion and defiance of the law and of Israeli democracy.” Rarely in modern Jewish history have Jews been so reviled by other Jews as the Jews of Hebron. Yet they remember what their critics are determined to forget: Jewish history in the Land of Israel.
The Israeli defense minister’s announcement indicated that planning has begun for a new Jewish neighborhood near the old Hebron market, land under Jewish ownership for nearly two centuries. Creating “territorial continuity” between the existing Avraham Avinu quarter and the Machpelah holy site, it would double the number of Jews in Hebron. There was predictable outrage from the Israeli left. One Knesset member condemned “the war against peace”; another described Hebron as “the capital of Israel’s apartheid” community.
But Hebron Jews know that any claim that the burial site of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people — and their first capitol city — is inconsequential denigrates millennia of Jewish history.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).