At the beginning of the week, the birthday of one of the oldest cities in the world, Jericho, was celebrated in the Palestinian Authority.
According to a report by Middle East Online, the 10,000th birthday of the ancient city was celebrated with a special PA cabinet meeting held on Sunday by PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
During the celebration, Fayyad said: “This occasion is not only a celebration, but is part of a national project to complete the building and preparation of the Palestinian state.”
PA-based Ma’an News Agency reported that Fayyad also said that Jericho’s birthday “is the completion of the building process and preparation for the establishment of independent state in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem.”
What Fayyad failed to mention during the celebrations, however, is that Jericho is a city to which Jews have a deep and historic connection. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Jericho is first mentioned in the book of Joshua, and was the first city that the Israelites conquered when they entered the Land of Israel. As the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) describes, the Jewish people marched around the city seven times blowing rams’ horns, at which point the walls surrounding the city sank into the ground.
At least two synagogues were built in Jericho during the 6th century CE: The Jericho Synagogue in the Royal Maccabean winter palace, dated from 70-50 BC, and the Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue, which dates to the late 6th or early 7th century CE.
In 1948, during the War of Independence, Jericho was conquered by Jordan. In 1967, during the Six Day War, Israeli troops conquered the city, at which time the Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue was discovered beneath an Arab house. The synagogue was found to have an intricate mosaic floor depicting a menorah and a shofar, with the Hebrew inscription “Shalom al Yisrael” (“Peace unto Israel”). The conquest and discovery enshrined the right to a Jewish presence at Jericho’s synagogue.
Although initially, the Arab living in the house above the synagogue charged admission to Jews wishing to pray at the site, in 1986 Israel turned the site into a National Park. In the early '90s, the house above the synagogue became the study hall of the Shalom Al Yisrael yeshiva, a Torah study academy. Bi-weekly Sabbath celebrations were organized.
In 1993, the Oslo Accords transferred control over the Jericho area to the Palestinian Authority. Then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin agreed to give the Shalom Al Yisrael yeshiva special status, which was supposed to ensure that Jews could continue to make use of the holy site. When Israel handed over control of Jericho to the Palestinian Authority, however, the Sabbath visits were outlawed by PA demand.
Jewish students still traveled to the synagogue daily. This went on until 2000 when the Second Intifada broke out. In 2000, Arab vandals destroyed Jewish sites in Jericho and Shechem , the Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue being one of the first. Exactly ten years ago, on October 12, 2000, the synagogue was vandalized by Arabs, who burned holy books and damaged the mosaic. The synagogue’s Torah scroll was saved and now rests in nearby Mevo’ot Yericho.
In 2005, IDF soldiers restored the site of the Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue. Today, the IDF allows monthly visits by Jews to the site, during Rosh Chodesh for the purpose of conducting prayer services. Thus, Jewish presence in Jericho is kept, despite PA attempts to deny any Jewish connection to the ancient city.