Hevron: Where an elevator is not just an elevator
Hevron: Where an elevator is not just an elevator

The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron is visited by nearly a million people annually, Jews, Muslims, Christians who come to worship at the burial site of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives Sarah, Leah and Rivka, and tourists who come to experience the culture. But some of those who make the trip have to stand at the bottom of the hill and watch as others climb the multitude of steps up to the entrance of this amazing historical and holy place.

Once the entire region was under Muslim control and Jews were not allowed to go higher than the seventh step. When Jews were even allowed into Hevron, that is. We were dhimmis (second class) under the Muslim thumb. Ever since 1967, when Jews regained access to Hevron, however, we have become dhimmis to our own fears, afraid to move forward and build an elevator that would render the site accessible to all. We disempower ourselves.

Just over a week ago, the human rights organization, Btzalmo, began a new campaign pushing for the construction of elevators that would make the Cave of the Patriarchs accessible to Jewish and Muslim disabled, the elderly and pregnant women and others who cannot climb their way to the halls of worship. The NGO, Access Israel, sent an email to the Knesset committee charged with promoting this project, encouraging them to approve construction and move forward. 

At the same time, Members of Knesset, Matan Kahana (New Right) and Michael Malchieli (Shas) submitted Motions for the Agenda asking the Knesset to discuss obstacles preventing construction of the elevator on the Jewish side. They join Keti Shitreet (Likud) who has been actively promoting the accessibility project.

The request to make the site accessible to all was first submitted in 2003 by the Hevron Jewish Community Committee to the military authority. This was followed by repeated attempts by a number of organizations to raise awareness of the dire need for an elevator. When no action was taken, supposedly because of security issues and concerns of changing the status quo between the Jewish and Palestinian populations in the city, Btzalmo took up the mantle and, for the last few years, has been campaigning tirelessly by writing letters to those with the power to carry out the project and by ensuring that the media keep the topic alive. 

 Linda Olmert, Deputy Director of Haliba, the Movement for Civil Rights for Jews on the Temple Mount, noted that “the case can be made that this is a human rights issue that liberals and the left should be supporting and as a result of which potential world opposition to a one-sided Israeli action here should be neutralized.”  

The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset last held a discussion on this subject in June 2019.  Everyone present at the meeting agreed that it is imperative to make the important holy site accessible to all who wish to worship there.

Several discussants commented that this is not a political issue but a humanitarian one. At the same time, they talked about its sensitivity given that the land belongs to the Muslim Waqf. Yet, they asked, how long will Israel wait for the Hevron municipality to agree to meet and coordinate the building of elevators for both the Jewish and Muslim entrances?

In concluding the two-hour session, Chairman Avi Dichter said:

“…We will not let this issue disappear… we have been discussing this uncomfortably because we do not have serious, respectful, humane, not to mention Jewish, responses to the fact that the Cave of the Patriarchs is not accessible to all. I tell you that at least from our perspective this is something we intend to carry out – I hope that we will not need to have too many meetings – such that by next Passover, God willing, there will be an elevator to the Cave of the Patriarchs.” 

Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged before the September 2019 election to advance the provision of an elevator to the site but as yet, nothing has come of that promise. In fact, Avi Roe, Advisor to the Defense Minister, claims, in communications with Shai Glick, CEO of Btzalmo, not to know anything about the Passover deadline. Furthermore, he writes that there is no plan, no designated budget and no timetable.  An anonymous source who was involved in many of the committee sessions told me, however, that there was, in fact, a timetable but that the deadline for making decisions to act without waiting for the Hevron municipality was constantly moved. 

Yishai Fleischer, International Spokesman of the Hevron Jewish Community, wonders what there is to discuss. He told me that the main obstacle appears to be apprehension regarding reactions of the Arabs if we were to build an elevator without getting their agreement first. He then reminded me of the fear that the whole Arab world would respond violently to the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem, and yet that passed quietly.

Fleisher ended our conversation with:

“This is our cherished heritage site. It is time to overcome our fears and normalize things. The people who stand against this are those who want to see fewer Jewish rights and less normalization in Judea and Samaria.”

So is the elevator political, after all? Olmert said that “the case can also be made that the issue of accessibility to the Cave of the Patriarchs is political with implications regarding the status of Hevron, Judea & Samaria and the Temple Mount.“

On November 3, after much pressure by Btzalmo and a number of MKs, a letter was sent to all the pertinent bodies responsible for making the site accessible. The letter, signed by Asaf Doron, Head of Security, promises to ensure that the site is accessible by Passover 2020 to people of all faiths who cannot manage the stairs. It appears that humanitarian considerations finally gained the upper hand.

It remains to be seen if the elevator will become a precedent for other changes to the status quo, as some may fear, or if it will stand alone as a much needed accommodation to the needs of those who could not otherwise worship at one of Judaism's most holy sites.