Lighting a candle in Hebron beyond the seventh step

Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs was a reminder of both Jewish rights and the intractable and irrational nature of a conflict that Palestinians don’t wish to end.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog attends a ceremony on the first night of Hanukkah at the Cave of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron, Nov. 28, 2021. Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog attends a ceremony on the first night of Hanukkah at the Cave of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron, Nov. 28, 2021. Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Is there something controversial, if not awful, about the president of the state of Israel visiting one of Judaism’s holiest shrines to celebrate the start of Hanukkah? According to many on the Jewish left and among Israel’s Palestinian foes, the answer is “yes.” As far as they are concerned, Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s decision to light the first candle of the “Festival of Lights” at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron was an outrage.

Herzog’s critics believe the fact that the holy site is integral to Jewish history and Judaism was no excuse for going to a place that is a flashpoint for the conflict with Palestinians, as well as being home to what is arguably among the most militant Jewish communities in the territories. Lending the imprimatur of the man who is Israel’s head of state to Jewish Hebron was seen as a provocation that would inflame Arab anger and encourage Jewish extremists.

Or at least that was the argument made by groups such as Americans for Peace Now, Israel’s Meretz Party. Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas not only regard the presence of Jews in the West Bank city as illegitimate but consider the Machpelah shrine, which tradition holds to be the burial place of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people, to be solely a Muslim site rather than one that is holy to both religions.

What then could have motivated the former head of the Labor Party—and a man who has always identified as a member of his country’s moderate left as well as a supporter of a two-state solution to the conflict—to go to Hebron?

According to Haaretz political columnist Ansher Pfeiffer, it’s simply a product of ambition. Pfeiffer thinks Herzog has been tilting to the right ever since he stepped down as leader of the opposition to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2017. The following year, Herzog was chosen to lead the Jewish Agency for Israel, and after serving in that capacity for three years, he was elected to the presidency by the Knesset this past June by an unprecedented margin of 87-27 over Miriam Peretz.

Pfeiffer’s theory is that Herzog—the son of the late Chaim Herzog, a former general and diplomat who served as Israel’s sixth president who served from 1983 to 1993—is positioning himself for a return to the political fray when his seven-year term ends in 2028 in what will presumably be a post-Netanyahu era.

While that’s a dubious long-shot scenario, if that’s what Herzog intends, then he didn’t do himself any harm by going to Hebron. More importantly, he gave the world, as well as Israelis and Arabs, a reminder that history matters, and that denying it is incompatible with both truth and peace.

In this case, the history is not just that of the Jewish people in their own land, which one might say began in Hebron. The great British historian Paul Johnson began his classic book History of the Jews in Hebron. The city was King David’s first capital of the ancient kingdom of Israel before Jerusalem was conquered. But long before that, it was the place where the 4,000-year journey of the Jewish place can be, as Johnson put it, “anchored in time and place” because it was there the patriarch Abraham made the first recorded purchase of property in the Promised Land when he bought a burial place for his wife, Sarah. The tombs of the next two generations—Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah—are also there in what was once a cave but is now a massive building.

The small Jewish community in Hebron remained even after the mass expulsions of the Jews by the Romans. Herod enclosed the site with a massive 40-foot-high wall. After the Muslim conquest of the land of Israel 17 centuries after David’s time, the place became a focus of Islamic worship, and in 1266, the Mamluk rulers of the country forbade Jews from entering the shrine. The closest they could come to the reputed graves of their ancestors was the seventh step of the Tomb’s eastern entrance.

While empires and their armies came and went through a strategic area that linked Africa and Asia, the Jews remained in Hebron, albeit as a dhimmi people (those who hold second-class status) who were protected by Muslim authorities though still treated as inferior. In 1518, there was a terrible massacre of the Jews in Hebron by an Ottoman Turkish army. Another pogrom against the Jews in the city took place in 1834.

The same pattern was repeated in the 20th century when Arabs—egged on by the incitement of Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem—led a pogrom in 1929 in which 69 Jews were murdered with scores of others wounded, maimed or raped. Jewish life in the city didn’t fully resume until after it was taken by Israeli forces in 1967, an event that also signaled the end of religious discrimination at the Tomb of the Patriarchs with worship for both faiths allowed inside as Jews were finally allowed past the seventh step.

The memory of the atrocities of 1929 hang heavy over the small community that has restarted Jewish life in properties that Jews owned before 1929 with terrorism from their Arab neighbors a constant threat. Nor is it odd that Herzog should also be affected by memories of 1929 since his great-grandmother, Faya Hillman, survived the massacre by feigning death among the corpses of her neighbors.

Herzog noted that Jews are not the only ones who “trace their roots” to Hebron since it’s also considered sacred by Muslims. The shared burial place ought to be a connection for peace. Instead, it has become a focus of mutual hostility—the result not only of constant Arab attacks on Jews in the city but also the 1994 shooting attack at Machpelah by Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish extremist who murdered 29 Muslims who were worshipping at the shrine.

The problem that Hebron poses is not just one of how to protect the 1,000 Jews who live amid 200,000 Arabs, especially when both sides consider themselves to be living under siege.

It’s that the Arabs continue to regard the Jewish presence at a place where Jewish life began as illegitimate. Even if, as Herzog does, you support a two-state solution, the prospect of once again evicting the Jews of Hebron is unthinkable. Yet that is exactly the scenario envisaged even by the so-called “moderates” of Fatah, in addition to supporters of the extreme Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip but regards Hebron as a stronghold of their movement in the West Bank.

While many Jews on the left sympathize with the idea of throwing Jews they regard as extremists out of Hebron, the Palestinian stand about the ancient city is hardly surprising since Fatah and Hamas think of towns and cities inside pre-1967 Israel as every bit as much illegal as Hebron or the most remote West Bank hilltop settlement.

For all of the problems that come with Hebron, if Jews have no right to live there, can their presence in any other part of the country be considered legitimate? Palestinians and their anti-Semitic allies abroad who masquerade under the banner of anti-Zionism don’t think so.

By lighting a candle in Hebron, Herzog sent a loud message to the Palestinians that they need to give up their delusions about evicting the Jews or returning to a situation where they wouldn’t be able to ascend beyond the seventh step to Machpelah. Those who encourage them to hold onto those destructive fantasies about Hebron or any other part of the country are not promoting peace or interfaith harmony. On the contrary, those opposed to Jewish life in Hebron are encouraging an endless cycle of violence fueled by anti-Semitic and anti-Israel hate.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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