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Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel

By David Wilder
5/3/2009, 12:00 AM

Miriam Levinger- “We felt as if the souls of the murdered of this place had come and gathered with us. I wanted say to them, ‘You can rest, now we have returned.'
Hebron Jews: A Community of Memory
Prof. Jerold S. Auerbach

Israel recently marked two momentous events in its brief history: two years ago it observed the fortieth anniversary of the Six-Day war, followed last year by the sixtieth anniversary of independence. Although each offered an appropriate occasion for celebration of a stunning historic achievement, both provoked prolonged lamentation by many Israelis, first over Israel’s shameful responsibility for “Naqba,” the Palestinian dispersion in 1948 that accompanied the rebirth of a Jewish state; and then over the “Pyrrhic” victory and “occupation” of “Palestinian” land since 1967. 

Two anniversaries this year, if noticed at all, are likely to attract even sharper criticism. Hebron Jews will commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the horrific 1929 massacre, which led to the expulsion of a 400 year-old Jewish community from the City of the Patriarchs. But they also celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of their return to inhabit abandoned Jewish property after five decades of forced exclusion from Hebron. Together, these commemorative occasions will demonstrate the power of Jewish memory in a community of Jews committed to preserving the historical links between biblical antiquity and modern Israel, between Judaism and Zionism.

Yet no Jews are as reviled as the Jews of Hebron. Vilified as “zealots,” “fanatics” and “fundamentalists” who illegally “occupy” someone else’s land, they are the Jewish settlers whom legions of critics love to hate. It is seldom noticed that their most serious transgression, settlement in the Land of Israel—the return of Jews to their historic homeland— defines Zionism.

Living in the ancient biblical city south of Jerusalem, Hebron Jews are clustered near Me’arat HaMachpelah, the Cave of Machpelah, the oldest Jewish holy site in the world. There, according to Jewish tradition, Abraham purchased the first parcel of land owned by the Jewish people in their promised land to bury Sarah. There, too, the other patriarchs and matriarchs were entombed. Since biblical antiquity Jews have lived and prayed in Hebron and made pilgrimages to the Machpelah shrine. Conquered, massacred, expelled and exiled over the centuries, they have always remembered Hebron and they have always returned. 

One of the four ancient holy cities, Hebron was honored with designation as a city of refuge and a priestly city. It became King David’s first capital, an important administrative center for King Hezekiah in his eighth-century war against the Assyrians, and a crucial battleground during the Maccabean and Bar Kokhba uprisings. There, at the beginning of the Common Era, King Herod built the massive stone enclosure around the burial tombs that remains the oldest intact structure in the entire Land of Israel.

But Jews were not alone in finding sacred meaning and inspiration in Hebron. Over the centuries, Christians and Muslims attempted to make Hebron exclusively theirs. Beginning in the mid-thirteenth century, Muslim rulers prohibited Jews (and other “infidels”) from entering Machpelah to pray at the tombs, permitting them to ascend no higher than the seventh step outside the enclosure. But itinerant Jewish travelers persisted in making pilgrimages to the ancient burial site and some elderly Jews moved to Hebron to be buried near their biblical ancestors. 

Following the expulsions from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century, a small group of pious Jews built a community of study and prayer in Hebron on land purchased for them by a wealthy benefactor. Sephardic Jews trickled in from villages and cities in the Middle East, subsequently joined by Hasidim from Eastern Europe. Gathered around the Avraham Avinu (“Our Father Abraham”) synagogue, in a dark and cramped quarter adjacent to the market in the center of town, they clung tenaciously to their precarious foothold, dependent for economic survival largely on emissaries dispatched to benefactors scattered throughout the Jewish world.

During much of the nineteenth century, a time of impressive community expansion, Hebron Jews maintained relatively harmonious, if largely subservient, relations with their Muslim neighbors, who treated them as dhimmis. Hebron became widely known for its Talmudic scholarship and learning. Yeshivas sprouted, a medical clinic opened, and the first paved road from Jerusalem linked Hebron to other Jewish communities in Ottoman Palestine.

But there was little connection between Hebron Jews and the nascent Zionist movement. The secular Jews who rode the swift currents of nineteenth-century nationalism largely abandoned the religious Judaism that had framed Jewish life during 2,000 years of statelessness and exile. At the founding Zionist convention in Basel in 1896, Max Nordau insisted “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.” Like other emancipated modern Jews, these iconoclastic Jewish nationalists were prepared to cast off a religion that looked backward to the past and inward to divine revelation and sacred texts. Only Zionism, stripped of religious content, could provide an answer to the Jewish Question—the place of Jews in modern society—by relocating them within the boundaries of their own homeland.

In 1929, after nearly a decade of British rule in Palestine following World War I, Hebron Jews suffered another of the horrific pogroms that had long punctuated Jewish history. Incited by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, Arab rioting swept through Palestine. The venerable Hebron Jewish community was suddenly attacked. Sixty-seven Jews were murdered; scores were assaulted, severely wounded, even mutilated. After British soldiers removed traumatized survivors from their homes and evacuated them to Jerusalem, Hebron became Judenrein. Two years later an attempt to rebuild the community failed. During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Hebron was conquered and absorbed within the Kingdom of Jordan. In the old Jewish Quarter remnants of its past— synagogues, yeshivas, even the ancient cemetery—were desecrated and virtually obliterated.

Nineteen years later, when the Israel Defense Forces swept into biblical Judea and Samaria near the end of the Six-Day War, Hebron—along with Jerusalem—was restored to Jewish control after 2000 years. For the first time since 1267, Jews could pray inside the Machpelah enclosure. Israelis visited Hebron by the thousands, and then tens of thousands. On a single June day, 70,000 Jewish visitors flooded the city. Inside the venerable shrine a Yemenite man blew repeated blasts on his shofar while a Moroccan woman, wailing Ima, Ima (“Mother, Mother”), kissed the cenotaph marking Sarah’s tomb.

The return to biblical Judea and Samaria was the unanticipated consequence of an unwanted war. Determined to erase the lingering humiliation of 1948 and annihilate the Jewish state, Israel’s Arab neighbors—Egypt, Syria, and Jordan—had inadvertently compelled secular Zionists to confront their Jewish past and future. The sudden presence of Israeli soldiers and tourists in Hebron provoked vigorous debate in government circles over the fruits of victory, the rights of conquest, the claims of history and possibilities for peaceful co-existence—a debate that continues to divide Israeli society.

The Labor government acted with alacrity in Jerusalem. It bulldozed the Arab neighborhood abutting the Western Wall and annexed the Old City and east Jerusalem. In the Old City, where the Jewish Quarter had been abandoned since 1948, ancient Jewish history and modern Zionism converged in an outpouring of nationalist and religious enthusiasm. There was virtually no question, either in government circles or in an exultant nation, but that the Western Wall would remain under Israeli sovereignty and the historic Jewish Quarter would be rebuilt.

But the government remained ambivalent, at best, about Hebron. A symbol of the old religious yishuv that secular Zionists spurned, Hebron was problematic in ways that Jerusalem was not. Yet former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, meeting with Israeli Cabinet members, insisted: “On Jerusalem we must not budge. We have to quickly establish a large Jewish settlement there. The same with Hebron.” And in a ceremony at the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives two months after the war, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan boldly proclaimed, “We have returned to all that is holy in our land….We have returned to the cradle of our people, to the inheritance of the Patriarchs….We have returned to the Mountain [the Temple Mount], to Hebron and to Nablus. We will not be parted from the holy places.” 

Not all Israelis appreciated the encounter with their ancient heritage. A promising young writer, Amos Oz, confessed: “I don’t have any feeling that Hebron’s part of my homeland. But I do feel this about Holon,” the dreary town outside Tel Aviv where he first fell in love. Archaeologist Yigal Yadin sharply denounced the embrace of national and religious relics as “idolatrous.” As passionately (and publicly) as he had previously celebrated his own discovery of the bones of nine hundred suicidal Jewish Zealots at Masada, he now ridiculed Jews for praying inside Machpelah, which he dismissed as the likely site of tombs of Arab sheikhs. 

In the spring following the Six Day War, a group of predominantly religious Zionists, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, came to Hebron to celebrate Passover. Levinger, born in Jerusalem in 1935, had attended a Bnei Akiva yeshiva, served in the army, and studied at the Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem. Then he joined Kibbutz Lavi, near the Golan Heights, where he combined rabbinical duties with shepherding.

Shortly after the 1967 war, Levinger visited Hebron to explore the possibility of rebuilding the community. In the desecrated Jewish cemetery, he experienced “an awakening of tempestuous spirits.” The visit, he recalled, created “an internal turmoil that left me restless for days and weeks.” He decided to return to Hebron and restore a Jewish community there. Early in the spring of 1968, he contacted the military governor of Hebron to request permission to hold a Passover Seder and spend the night there.

In recognition of the historic Jewish presence in Hebron, Labor Minister Yigal Allon had already floated a proposal for a Jewish neighborhood nearby, perhaps an “upper” Hebron on a hill overlooking the Arab city (modeled on Upper Nazareth in the Galilee). But the government did not respond to Levinger’s inquiries. Meeting with Hanan Porat, who had led the return to Gush Etzion after the war, and Elyakim Haetzni, a maverick lawyer, the decision was reached to go to Hebron without government permission.

Rabbi Levinger negotiated a rental arrangement with the owner of the Park Hotel for Passover week in April 1968. The hotel, a nondescript two-story stone building, had fallen on hard times, losing nearly its entire clientele now that prosperous Jordanians no longer vacationed there. Posing as Swiss tourists, the Levinger group negotiated a rental agreement for one dollar nightly for each guest. Levinger left a substantial deposit for “an unlimited amount of people for an unspecified period of time.” The hotel owner assured Levinger that they could extend their stay if they wished. Some Israeli government authorities learned of the plan, but they did not interfere. Central Command General Uzi Narkiss told Levinger, “What do you want? To settle in Hebron? I don’t care. I know nothing. Rent a hotel, put up tents….I know nothing.”

A sizable group of Israelis—estimates range between sixty and eighty—arrived in Hebron to celebrate Passover and restore a Jewish presence in the city. The Levingers, clearly intending to stay, brought their four children, a refrigerator, and a washing machine. The kitchen was made kosher, and mezzuzas were attached to door-frames. “We never told anyone that we were going only to celebrate Passover,” Rabbi Levinger recalled. “The government authorities knew that we wanted to settle.” 

Rabbi Chaim Druckman, another graduate of the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, led the Seder. Hanan Porat attended. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a recent immigrant from France who would lead Ateret Cohanim, the movement to restore a Jewish presence throughout Jerusalem’s Old City, joined the celebration. So did veteran Irgun fighter Shmuel Katz and Maariv journalist Yisrael Harel. Elyakim Haetzni, accompanied by his wife, mother, and four children, described the Seder nearly forty years later as “a once in a lifetime experience.” Miriam Levinger sensed “an historical breakthrough, and we all felt deeply moved and excited.” After the festive meal, exulting participants, joined by a Druze soldier who was guarding the hotel, danced and sang v’shavu banim l’gvulam (“your children shall return to their borders”).

The next morning the celebrants, singing and dancing through the streets of Hebron, carried Torah scrolls to Me’arat HaMachpelah. That evening, after the end of the Jewish Sabbath, some of the older participants left the hotel to return to their homes, but younger Israelis and yeshiva students remained behind, soon to be joined by newcomers. The next day, in their exuberance, they sent a telegram to Labor Minister Allon: Blessings for festival of our freedom to you from Hebron City of Patriarchs from first of those returning to it to settle in it in the name of 30 families Rabbi Moshe Levinger.

The new settlers remained in the Park Hotel for six weeks while the government debated what to do about them. In a compromise solution, they agreed to be relocated to the former British and Jordanian police building, now under Israeli military control, on a hill overlooking the city. There they remained, in miserably cramped quarters, while the government debated their future. After two years of hesitation that ended only after a terrorist attack wounded dozens of Jews awaiting entry to Me’arat HaMachpelah during Sukkoth, government ministers finally decided to decide. The new settlement of Kiryat Arba was built on a twenty-two-acre tract overlooking Hebron on an empty hill that had been seized after the war by Israeli military authorities.

But Kiryat Arba was not Hebron. Despite Levinger’s fiery insistence that “no government has the authority or right to say that a Jew cannot live in all parts of the Land of Israel,” the time was not right, the issue was too sensitive, or there were security problems, budgetary constraints, or American pressures to consider. The Likud government of Menachem Begin, in principle at least, seemed to favor the expansion of Kiryat Arba until it reached the size of Hebron, thereby creating separate Jewish and Arab cities. But exploratory discussions went nowhere. Then, in 1978, the government stunned settlers when it signed the Camp David accords with Egypt, committing it to return the entire Sinai Peninsula and grant “autonomy” to West Bank Palestinians. Settlers sensed that opportunities were slipping from their grasp.

Fifty years after the 1929 massacre, Kiryat Arba residents decided that the time had come to return to Hebron. By community consensus, the issue would be forced by women and children, who were least likely to provoke a harsh response from the government or military. One week after Passover, at 4:00 A.M., ten women led by Miriam Levinger and Sarah Nachshon, joined by thirty-five children, eight of whom were Nachshons, arrived by truck at the rear of Beit Hadassah, the former medical clinic in the heart of Hebron. Assisted by teenage boys from Kiryat Arba, they quietly climbed ladders, cut wires to the windows, and unloaded mattresses, cooking burners, gas canisters, water, a refrigerator, laundry lines, and a chemical toilet.

Safely inside the dilapidated building, the excited children sang v’shavu banim l’gvulam, God’s promise that children would return to Zion. Hearing their voices, an astonished Israeli soldier came down from his observation post on a nearby roof to investigate. When he inquired how they had entered the building, a four-year-old girl responded, “Jacob, our forefather, built us a ladder and we came in.”

In their first message from Beit Hadassah the women declared, “When we went to live eight years ago in Kiryat-Arba . . . it was because of compromise and going towards the government. Our wish was and still is Jewish settlement within Hebron.” At the end of their first Shabbat in Beit Hadassah, yeshiva students from Kiryat Arba came to dance and sing outside. Miriam Levinger described that moment: “We felt as if the souls of the murdered of this place had come and gathered with us at the window...to rejoice with us at the sight of Jews dancing on Saturday evening in the streets of Hebron. I wanted to calm them and say to them, ‘You can rest, you have waited for many years, now we have returned. What was in the past in Hebron is what will happen in the future.’”

“With the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other,” wrote journalist Amos Elon disapprovingly, Hebron settlers had the temerity to insist that “deeds contracted in the late Bronze Age are the legal and moral basis for present claims”—as though biblical roots in the Land of Israel were not the deepest source of Zionism itself. Hebron became the ideological vanguard of the Jewish settlement movement that has embedded nearly 300,000 Israelis in Judea and Samaria.

Seven hundred Jews, joined by 200 yeshiva students, now live in Hebron, surrounded by 160,000 Palestinian Arabs. For thirty years, the government of Israel has stifled growth in the Jewish Quarter, obstructed property purchases by Jews, and constricted population enlargement. With their impassioned blend of Zionist nationalism and religious Judaism blamed for undermining Israeli democracy and jeopardizing Middle Eastern peace efforts, Hebron Jews may be the only Jews in the world whose critics can viciously malign them without incurring the taint of anti-Semitism.

Their determination to remember, in the very place where Jewish memory may be said to have originated, places them at the epicenter of a polarizing conflict within contemporary Israel—as acrimonious as the struggle between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs—over the identity and future boundaries, both external and internal, of the Jewish state.

A year ago, the sole surviving member of a Jewish family that had owned property in Hebron since the 15th century Spanish expulsion, appeared before the High Court of Justice with registration records to document his claim. Yosef Ezra was the seventy-five-year-old son of Yaacov ben Shalom Ezra. Father and son had been the only Jews to remain behind in Hebron between 1936 and 1947. Yosef praised Hebron Jews as “true pioneers, among the last who are putting Zionism into practice.”

Jerold S. Auerbach is professor of history at Wellesley College. This essay is drawn from his forthcoming book, Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel, to be published in July by Roman & Littlefield. 

First posted in: http://mideastoutpost.com/archives/000556.html