In the upcoming Torah reading of Shabbat Chaye Sarah (Genesis 23:1-20), Abraham reveals his need to purchase a burial site for Sarah. The local Hittites, praising him as “the elect of God,” offer “the choicest of our burial places,” the Machpelah cave. Declining their generous gift, Abraham asks them to intercede with the owner, Ephron, so that he may buy it “at the full price.” Ephron emerged from the group, and repeated the offer of his cave and the surrounding field as a gift. When Abraham insisted on paying full price, Ephron sold it to him for 400 shekels of silver. Abraham’s purchase marked the beginning of Jewish history in the Land of Israel.
Following the first-century Roman conquest, no Jews remained in Hebron. Centuries later, after the rise of Islam, Muslim sources would claim that the prophet Mohammad had stopped in Hebron during his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. Like the Western Wall, embraced by Muslims as the place where Mohammad’s horse was tethered, Machpelah—crowned by a massive Herodian edifice—became a Muslim holy site.
Jewish pilgrimages to Hebron were tolerated, and Jews were even granted permission to inhabit their ancient holy city, only to be expelled after the 11th-century Crusader conquest. In 1267, a Muslim edict prohibited non-Muslims from entering Machpelah; Jews were permitted to ascend only as far as the seventh outside step. A visitor watched “poor Israelite pilgrims … prostrated, stretching their necks like a burrowed fox in order to try to press their lips against their ancestors’ tomb.” That prohibition endured for exactly seven centuries. Dependent on the mercy of local rulers, Hebron Jews could only hope for a life of piety and burial near their ancestral tombs.
Jews came to Hebron, a visitor observed, only “to pray and die.”
Western interest in Hebron was aroused by the British artist David Roberts, whose 1839 visit was inspirational. Perched on the Tel Rumeida hillside overlooking the city, he painted the evocative lithograph of Hebron—with Machpelah as its centerpiece—that appeared in his magisterial The Holy Land, published in 1843. Karl Baedeker’s Palestine and Syria guidebook (1876) provided an enticing but cautionary itinerary. Visitors to Hebron were “earnestly” warned that its Muslims “are notorious for their fanaticism, and the traveler should therefore avoid coming into contact with them.” According to Cook’s Traveler’s Handbook, 600 Hebron Jews “attract attention by their pale faces and long ringlets.”
Sir Moses Montefiore, the generous Jewish benefactor, was blocked from visiting Machpelah by a crowd of screaming Muslims. But he was not deterred from sponsoring three censuses of the Hebron Jewish community between 1855 and 1875. They revealed a demographically bifurcated population of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, whose places of origin were Gaza, Jerusalem, Germany, Turkey, Damascus, Hungary, Lithuania and Poland. By the end of the 19th century, there were abundant signs of Jewish renewal, with four synagogues and three yeshivahs. A Jewish resident recalled that on the eve of Shabbat, the song “Lecha Dodi” (“welcoming the Sabbath Queen”) resounded through the neighborhood.
But in August 1929, Haj Amin-al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem (and future acolyte of Hitler), stoked fury among Arabs and violence in Jerusalem with his claim that Jews intended to “usurp” the Western Wall and endanger Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount. But Hebron Jews did not anticipate that their Muslim neighbors, with whom they had lived in relative peace for centuries, intended to harm them. One week later, screaming Itbach al Yahud (“Kill the Jews”), Arabs broke into the spacious home of community leader Eliezer Dan Slonim, where terrified Jews had taken refuge. Girls, mothers and grandmothers were raped. Rabbis and their students were castrated and murdered. The Hebron Jewish community of Hebron was exterminated.
But it was not forgotten. Nearly 40 years later, following the 1967 Six-Day War, exultant Israelis arrived in Hebron to explore their ancient biblical city. Graduates of the Mercaz HaRav yeshivah in Jerusalem had learned from Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook that redemption meant settlement in the entire Land of Israel. Led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who negotiated a Passover rental agreement with the owner of the Park Hotel, several dozen Israelis arrived for the Passover 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”). Confined by the government to a military compound overlooking the city, they refused to accept a future without Hebron residence.
In 1970, under pressure from the settlers and their supporters, the government announced plans to build an “upper Hebron” to be called Kiryat Arba (the biblical name of Hebron), a short downhill walk to Machpelah. But Kiryat Arba was not Hebron. Nine years later and 50 years after the massacre that destroyed the Jewish community, the decision was made to return. At 4 a.m. one morning, 10 women and 35 children arrived by truck at the rear of Beit Hadassah, the former medical clinic in the heart of the Jewish Quarter. 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 Israeli soldier on a nearby roof came to investigate the noise, a 4-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 liberal Jews in Israel and the United States. Indeed, Hebron Jews are the only Jews whose critics can malign them without being accused of anti-Semitism. (Amos Oz described settlers as “a stupid and cruel messianic sect … that emerged from some dark corner of Judaism.”) Their passionate embrace of Jewish memory reflects the biblical admonitions zachor (“remember”) and lo tishkach (“do not forget”). These commands have assured Jewish survival through centuries, indeed millennia, of dispersion and tragedy.
Whether Zionism retains any connection to the ancient sources and sites of Jewish history is entwined with the future of the Hebron Jewish community. While Arab Hebron (where Jews are prohibited from entering) has flourished demographically and economically, the Israeli government has stifled population growth and development in the tiny Jewish Quarter. Yet these pariahs of the Jewish people are custodians of Jewish history in our biblical homeland.
Visiting Machpelah recently with my son and grandson, I stood before Jacob’s tomb. I was reminded of my own grandfather, Jacob, in whose memory I was named. I experienced a strong bond of identification with the history of the Jewish people, indelibly implanted and forever secured in Hebron ever since Abraham’s purchase. As a historian, I cannot be indifferent to its prominent place in Jewish history. As a Jew, I cannot relinquish my abiding attachment to Hebron and admiration for its devoted Jewish residents, who preserve Jewish memory where Jewish history in the Land of Israel began.
Jerold S. Auerbach, professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College, is the author of “Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel” (2009).
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