On Jewish Hebron

By Erich Isaac

March 2006 / Outpost / AFSI

Today 500 Jews live in Hebron in the midst of 120,000 Arabs, famed for their fanatic hatred of Jews — given the extent to which Palestinian Arabs generally are steeped in hatred, a high bar to surpass. Many may wonder why Jews came there, why they persist in living there, despite the difficult living conditions, the daily dangers, the hostility of their own government, the indifference (or worse) of most of the Israeli public. They are there quite simply because, second only to Jerusalem, Hebron has the densest religious and historical associations for Jews. After the Six Day War of 1967, years went by before there was any serious effort to create Jewish settlements in the hills of Judea and Samaria, despite the fact that this was the core area of the historic Land of Israel (much of modern Israel sits on the Philistine coastal plain). Not so in the case of Hebron. In 1968, less than a year after Israel’s stunning victory, a group of religious Jews under Rabbi Moshe Levinger rented Hebron’s Park Hotel for Passover – and then refused to leave. In a compromise move, the government shifted them to a military compound outside the city which became the nucleus for Kiryat Arba (the earlier Canaanite name for Hebron), which has grown to be a community of 6,000 Jews.

Jews were now close to Hebron, but not within it. In April 1979 Jews from Kiryat Arba, including the Levinger family, intent on reestablishing a Jewish presence within Hebron itself, moved into the abandoned building of Beit Hadassah in the old Jewish quarter of Hebron. A year later, after Jews returning from prayer services at the Tomb of the Patriarchs were attacked, Menachem Begin’s Likud government agreed to refurbish the crumbling Beit Hadassah and allow Jews to move into adjacent buildings in the old Jewish quarter. There the community has remained, since Oslo a thorn in the side of successive Israeli governments first bent on exchanging “territory for peace,” more recently on “separation” from Arabs.  Perched high on the north-south mountain axis of Judea, boasting a favorable climate and soils, Hebron is only 23 miles south of Jerusalem. From ancient times it was a trade center for it links the mountainous interior westward with the coastal plain’s via maris (the biblical route known as derech eretz plishtim) and eastward with the rift valley and beyond it with the towns of the King’s Highway on the desert frontiers of ancient Edom and Moab. Because of these characteristics, Hebron played a role in the earliest days of the patriarchal migrations.

But it was Abraham’s purchase of the Machpela cave from its Hittite owners and its dedication thereafter as patriarchal tomb that first gave Hebron its religious sanctity. Even earlier, Abraham had built an altar to God in the terebinth grove of Mamre (Gen.13:18). Clearly Abraham also valued Hebron’s strategic location for he mustered his men and, allied with his confederate Mamre, achieved his striking victory in the War of the Kings (Gen 14:24). The account of this war, followed closely by the narrative of the purchase of Machpela, suggests that for Abraham seizure by force of a holy place was out of question; it could only be obtained by a meticulously negotiated, even ritualized purchase. This makes Hebron an early precursor for the Torah’s prohibition of using the metal of swords (Ex 20:22), for construction of an altar. It will be remembered that God denied David’s wish to build the Jerusalem temple—his role as warrior king overrode even his virtue as loyal servant of God (I Chr. 22:6-8). Centuries after the patriarchs, Hebron becomes significant in the conflict over the conquest of Canaan. The twelve scouts Moses sent to spy out the land returned to their desert staging area with an ambivalent report. They stressed the land’s extraordinary fertility, bringing wiith them a giant cluster of grapes from Hebron’s vineyards. (To this day vineyards dominate Hebron’s agriculture. In the Crusader period, it was reported that Hebron vines were the foundation stock for the vineyards of the Rhine and Mosel valleys.) In an aside, the text mentions that Hebron is older than Zoan of Egypt (Nu 13:22), the comparison probably suggesting itself because Zoan (Tanis), was the dominant grape growing area of Egypt.  Nonetheless the majority of scouts were against the conquest of Canaan, arguing that its cities and peoples were too strong (Num. 13). Only two argued for immediate conquest: Caleb, son of Jephunne and Hoshea [later Joshua] son of Nun, insisted that for all their apparent power Canaanites were a weak, decadent people.(Num:6-9). Their reward came decades later, after the conquest under Joshua, when Hebron became part of the portion of the clan of Caleb (Josh.15:15). In fact, the old Kiryat Arba may have been renamed Hebron after a descendant of Caleb (I Chron 2:42).

Hebron’s importance for all of Israel was underlined when it was designated a Priestly and Levitical City (Josh 21:l3; 10:11). In addition it became the southernmost City of Refuge, responsible for sheltering from pursuing blood avengers those that had killed unintentionally (Deut 4:42; Josh 20:7). In both these capacities Hebron was associated with David’s rise to kingship. As a City of Refuge, Hebron was an attractive destination to David’s followers, a band of desperate, detribalized and impoverished men, including some from King Saul’s own family (I Chr.12). As a city of priests, Hebron became a shelter for the survivors of Saul’s massacre of the priests of Nob (I Sam 22:19). One such refugee had already joined David’s camp at Ziklag bringing with him the sacred Ephod, and had accompanied David and his followers to Hebron (I Sam 22:20; 23:6).

It was in Hebron that David became king over Judah (II Sam 2:4) which he ruled from Hebron for seven and a half years. As the first royal seat of David’s line, which later would acquire near mystical messianic status, Hebron acquired additional sanctity. It was at a sanctuary in Hebron that David concluded the covenant that made him king over all of Israel (II Sam 5:13). It was only after the final fall of the house of Saul that David decided to rule the entire country from Jerusalem.

Thereafter, while the significance of Hebron as a political center declined, because of its holiness, it did not vanish. It was to Hebron’s holy sanctuary that David’s son Absalom resorted in his abortive attempt to legitimize the dethronement of his father (II Sam 15:7;9-10).

The attachment to Hebron continued despite national calamities. It was one of the first places to which exiled Judeans, priests prominent among them, returned from the Babylonian exile, settling in its ancient quarter Kiriath-arba (Neh. 11:25). Nonetheless as a result of their sparse numbers, and their uncertain relations with the Persian empire, Jews were unable to prevent Hebron from falling under Edomite rule. The town was recovered for Judea by the Maccabean John Hyrcanos (128 B.C.). Later King Herod, himself of Edomite descent, catered to the popular veneration of the Machpela by building a magnificent structure around it. (Today’s building, modified by Crusader and Muslim additions, rests upon the Herodian foundations). The fall of the Judean commonwealth in the war against Rome ushered in one of Hebron’s darkest periods. Overcoming the city’s zealous defenders under Shimon bar Giora, the Romans burned Hebron down. Perhaps to dramatize the complete erasure of Jewish independence in Judea, the Romans located the major slave market at the grove of the terebinth and the nearby fort of Botna. St. Jerome in his Bible commentary written four centuries later describes the vast numbers of Jewish captives sold there in 70 A.D. and following Bar Kochba’s defeat in 135 A.D. He writes that as a result the annual Hebron fair was bitterly hated by Jews. Indeed, a Jewish edict (by R. Yochanan) banned attendance at Hebron’s annual market.

Nonetheless the pull of the Machpela remained so strong that in 570, a century after Jerome, the Christian pilgrim Antoninus Placentinus writes: “(Jews) come in untold numbers to prostrate themselves on the patriarchs’ tombs.” This attachment to Hebron is all the more remarkable because its tiny Jewish population suffered severely under Byzantine rule. The Jewish farmers had been reduced to exploited coloni under imperial conductores (called by Jews mazikim—persecutors) who administered the area for the empire. After the Arab conquest, the Jewish community of Hebron (renamed by the Arabs Khalil a’Rachman in honor of Abraham “beloved of the merciful God”) began to grow somewhat. But by the eighth century, confiscatory taxation and land expropriations took their toll. The small struggling community nevertheless managed to support a pious group, the “Fellowship of Patriarchal Graves” which functioned as the Machpela’s caretakers. In the early Crusader period Jews were prohibited from residing in Hebron. But even so, Jews held on to Hebron as a sacred place for burials. Shlomo ben ha’Yatom (early 11th cent.), tells of the many who transport their dead, sealed in caskets, for burial in Hebron. The traveler Benjamin of Tudela (circa 1170) writes that on coming to Hebron, he found stacks of caskets filled with ‘bones of Israel’, waiting for burial. Jewish pilgrims continued to come, despite the dangers of land and sea travel. One of the most famous was Maimonides who came in 1165 with his father and brother to pray in Hebron.

The Mamluk reconquest of Palestine made a rebirth of the Hebron Jewish community possible. But once again, initial tolerance gave way to harsh restrictions. After Hebron became the Mamluk capital of Palestine in 1260, Jews were prohibited from entering the Machpela. Henceforth Jews (and Christians) were only allowed to step up to a small wall opening outside the Machpela. The Muslim claim of exclusive rights to the patriarchs’ tomb was described by the 14th century Christian traveler Sir John Maundeville: “…they suffer no Christians to enter the place, except by special grace of the Sultan; for they hold Christians and Jews as dogs, and say that they should not enter into so holy a place.” Moslems enforced this prohibition to our days. A small, fluctuating number of Jewish families managed to maintain themselves in Hebron from the 14th to the late 17th century mainly thanks to outside Jewish contributions. Hebron’s Jews sent emissaries abroad asking for donations to help them sustain themselves and most urgently, to pay off rapacious pashas and local sheiks. For example, one pasha threatened to burn half the Jewish community and sell the rest into slavery if he was not paid a huge sum. The Jews of Italy, especially Verona and Venice, came to the rescue with funds, which the community treated as a miracle, making a special “Purim for Hebron” on the 14th of Tevet. This was celebrated for many years. Still, under these conditions, the number of Jews declined. By 1481 Meshulam of Volterra found only 20 Jewish families in Hebron.

In the Ottoman period, especially in the 17th century, there was an upswing in numbers. A substantial augmentation of the community followed the expulsion of Jews from Spain and a movement of some of the sages of Safed to Hebron (notably the Kabbalists Elijha de Vida and Isaac Archa). Pilgrims from Yemen also came, including one of Yemen’s greatest Hebrew poets, Yahia al’Dahari, who came in 1567 and decided to stay. Among the pilgrims were many Karaites, some coming all the way from the Karaite centers of the Crimea. Considering the mutual aversion of Rabbinic and Karaite Judaism, it is to Hebron’s credit that it helped abate it, at least locally. One Crimean Karaite (Moshe ben Eliahu Halevi,1654-55) praised the kindness of Hebron’s Jews, a sentiment shared by a Crimean Karaite traveler more than a century later (Binyamin ben Eliahu, 1785-1786).

Even when the size of the Jewish community in Palestine grew substantially in the 19th century, settlement in Hebron lagged, partly as a result of the widely feared fanaticism of Hebron’s Muslims, considered the most extreme in Palestine at that time. Warring Arab clans, tribal vendettas, and even full fledged battles in the region reinforced the reluctance to join its oppressed community. In 1917, near the end of World War I, the survival of the remaining Jews was seriously endangered. The Turkish Pasha addressed the notables of Hebron with a fiery anti-Jewish rant reminiscent of more recent Moslem outbursts: “All the Jews are spies and traitors, and they alone are the cause of Turkish defeats,” etc. Fortunately, the Arab leaders of that period, recognizing that such incitement was likely to unleash mob upheavals that would endanger their own life and property, kept the town reasonably quiet between the flight of the Turks and arrival of the British.

For the Jews of Hebron, as well as of the rest of Palestine, the British Mandate seemed finally to offer a safe and legally assured peace (although the religious community of Hebron had little truck with Zionism in the absence of the coming of the Messiah). Some Hebronites who had emigrated returned. In 1925 the community had a substantial increase when a Lithuanian Yeshiva of more than 100 students transferred with its teachers and their families to Hebron. Alas, a few years later the hopes of a renewed community were drowned in blood. In August 1929, at the call of their imams, the Arabs of Hebron slaughtered the Jews. Thus an uprising ostensibly against “the Zionist menace” massacred a pious apolitical community. As a result of the failure—and unwillingness— of the British to protect them, dozens were slaughtered, and the survivors left Hebron. Amazingly, only a year later some survivors came back. But the attempt to revive the community failed. The so-called Arab uprising of 1936 was the final nail in the coffin of Hebron’s Jewish community, and the Jews left, as was widely believed, this time never to return. Yet even then, the determination to one day make Hebron part of a Jewish state remained strong within important segments of the Zionist movement. A year later, when the Peel Commission partition proposal was being debated, Rabbi Meir Berlin (later Bar Illan, for whom the university is named), head of the Mizrachi Party, rejected the plan on the grounds that Jews “could not accept a Jewish state that would not include Jerusalem and Hebron.”

For decades this goal seemed impossible of fulfillment. In 1948, in Israel’s War of Independence, even the kibbutzim founded in the Hebron region (the Kfar Ezion group) were lost to the invading, British officered Arab Legion of the Transjordanian Kingdom of Jordan. Henceforth, Hebron, town of the patriarchs and first seat of Judea’s greatest king, now part of an area renamed Jordan’s “West Bank,” like Jerusalem’s Old City, was absolutely cut off even from Jewish pilgrims. Almost twenty years later, in the Six Day War, Hebron fell to the Israel Defense Forces virtually without a shot. The initial policy of Israel’s National Unity government (which included Menachem Begin’s Herut Party) was to offer to give up almost all the territory conquered in the war (including Hebron) for “peace.” When this offer was met a mere two months after the war with the three “nos” of Khartoum (to recognition, to negotiations, to peace) the government’s policy became essentially to sit on its hands—waiting for the Arabs to change their minds and take an offer the Israeli government hoped it could not in the end refuse.

When the Arabs showed no sign of budging, the way was open for a dedicated minority to seize the initiative and reassert Israel’s claim to Hebron. Ironically it would be a supposedly “right-wing” government, sensitive to Israel’s historic claims, that, under Benjamin Netanyahu, relinquished most of Hebron to Israel’s Arab enemies. In 1997 the Israel De-fense Forces turned over 80% of the city to the Palestinian Authority, retaining control of 20% of the city, including the section occupied by the Jewish community.

Yet even now Hebron retains its power to draw Jews. On February 14 of this year, in honor of Tu B’Shvat (the New Year for Trees), fifty new immigrants went there to plant trees adjacent to the Cave of the Patriarchs in the first ceremony of its kind to take place since the Tomb was reopened to Jewish pilgrims after the Six Day War. One of the visitors remarked how her children now “shared the same wonder and sense of connection to our history.”

Given the current direction of Israeli politics, it would seem the handwriting is on the wall for Hebron’s Jewish community. But small though it is, the Jewish community of Hebron is not likely to go gently into the good night of oblivion. Hebron means too much in Jewish religion and history and Jews have sacrificed too much to maintain their links with Hebron over millennia. If a Jewish government by its own hand makes Hebron once again off limits to Jews (in service of the fantasy that Israel can “disengage” from the Arab world by retreating behind a concrete barrier) this must have a profoundly alienating impact on much of Israel’s religious community, precisely the community most dedicated to the state. As Israel’s one-time defense minister Moshe Arens has warned, in the name of securing a democratic Jewish state, Israel’s government may yet establish an unbridgeable chasm within the nation. Nothing would contribute more to this than expelling Hebron’s Jews.   Erich Isaac is a retired professor of Geography at the City University of NY and a founder of AFSI.

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