Ben Zion Tavger: The Physicist Who Changed Hebron

Prof. Ben Zion Tavger was a renowned physicist who initiated the rebuilding of historic Hebron landmarks in post-1967 Israel.

13.3.16, 17:28
Ben Zion Tavger was a physicist, advocate for immigration to Israel from the Soviet Union and a key activist in repatriation of the Jewish community to Hebron. He initiated the rebuilding of the Avraham Avinu synagogue and the excavation of the ancient Jewish cemetery, which is detailed in his autobiography My Hebron, published in Hebrew as Hevron Sheli. He published numerous papers on crystallography, the experimental science of determining the arrangement of atoms in the crystalline solids.
Below are selections from his book, a brief biography, and remembrances from his neighbors in Hebron. 
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(Video in Hebrew of Prof. Tavger with interviews featuring friends and neighbors.)

Dedication of a Torah Scroll at the Avraham Avinu Synagogue
On the 18th of the Hebrew month of Iyar, 5741 – May 22, 1981, a ceremony was conducted in honor of the introduction of a Torah scroll to the Avraham Avinu Synagogue, in the heart of Hebron. For a long time before the anticipated event expectations had been mounting, mingled with a sense of apprehension...
While I was in the Synagogue, waiting for the Torah Scroll to be brought in, I looked around once again at the walls of the building. The synagogue was now splendidly built, more or less approximating its original form... There might have been a few minimal changes here or there, and perhaps not everything had been completed and it was still necessary to fix something or other, but on the whole, the synagogue now looked beautiful, it appeared splendid. One could even say that it was impressive, though not very modern.

(Photo: The interior of the Avraham Avinu Synagogue as it looks today.)
I let my eyes wander around the interior of the synagogue. I had time to think and recall its previous state, five or six years ago, and thought of the sequence of events that had transpired. When I first came here, the place had indeed gone by the name of “Avraham Avinu Synagogue”, but its name had seemed completely disconnected from its essence. Nothing about it had indicated that it was a synagogue. It had been used as a goat shed. On its eastern side there had been a familiar, or rather, a notorious structure – the public latrine – which had been erected for the use of those who frequented the adjacent... wholesale market, and the rest of the site was used as a garbage dump.
During the ceremony, more than a few people who had somehow managed to come from Kiryat Arba and from other places, came up to me and congratulated me, shaking my hand and wishing me “Mazal Tov!” I received praise from people who were completely unknown to me and also, of course, from acquaintances, who congratulated me and commented on past events. I don't know why I didn't feel very comfortable. It might have been due to a sense of unease that took hold of me, in spite of the fact that I realized that my own actions had been decisive in this achievement, because until 1975 the site of the synagogue had been used as a goat shed, and all the efforts of so many people had not brought about a change in its status. To me it had seemed obvious that we had to dig and clear out the refuse and rubbish from the site, to reveal the splendor of the synagogue for all to see. I won't deny that I had played a major role, because I took an active part in initiating the work from the very beginning and in seeing it through to its completion. But still I felt a bit embarrassed, because I didn't always know how to reply to the congratulations and praise that was so profusely heaped upon me.

(Photo: The synagogue being used as a sheep pen in the 1970s.)
When an acquaintance began to congratulate me, I said the achievement was not mine alone, but rather belonged to all the Jews. He answered me simply: "Even though all the Children of Israel entered the Red Sea, the first one to do so was a single individual, Nachshon ben Aminadav – only after he jumped into the sea did the others follow him." This man had not spoken because of a need to say something nice. Rather, his education since his youth had had been such that he always knew how to slip into his conversation an appropriate reference from our ancient sources.
...And so, the Torah scroll was brought to the synagogue, the procession emerged from the market alleys. The mud that had stuck to the feet of the Torah bearers and those who accompanied them would later dirty the synagogue floor. The two cantors, one Sephardic and the other Ashkenazic, passed the Torah from hand to hand, sang and expressed their devout joy.
Four residents of Kiryat Arba held poles with the “Chuppa”, canopy above the scroll. The procession gradually approached the synagogue accompanied by dancing and singing. I was also drawn into the flurry, I was pulled and given one of the poles holding up the canopy and then I was given the scroll itself. Like the others, I sang and danced with supreme joy. After me, Zeev Hever, known as Zambish, and Rabbi Moshe Levinger and others, were given the scroll in their turn. We all finally entered the synagogue. The Chairman of the Religious Council favored me with a special honor by bidding me to open the Holy Ark. With profound emotion welling up in me, I opened the doors of the Holy Ark, as the singing of the cantors and the congregation echoed in the air around us. When the prayer was over, traditional blessings were recited and I was also given the honor of closing the Ark.

(Photo: Torah scrolls from the 1500s returned and in current use in the Avraham Avinu Synagogue.
...In this sense, I must say that I have always been fortunate. Even in my scientific endeavors, I had never felt my name or my contribution had been disregarded, that my rights had not been acknowledged. I had never felt that someone was stealing my achievements and taking credit for something at my expense. In any case, I felt very festive during the ceremony and was completely overcome by joy.
...we were indeed experiencing a most festive moment. This place, where previously there had been a goat shed, which had symbolized our disgrace and humiliation, was magnificently renovated and the ancient synagogue was at its center. We can pray in it! 

This is not something insignificant! It is a great thing, but it is not the conclusive thing, at least not from my point of view. When I had begun to dig here I had not set a goal for myself only to renovate the synagogue and not even the entire Jewish Quarter. My aim had been to change the atmosphere that had enabled the entrenchment of a state of affairs wherein on the site where a synagogue had once been standing in full glory, suddenly three “magnificent” establishments are standing: a goat-shed, a public toilet facility and a garbage dump...
...In order to contribute to that, I must make use of the great amount of material and experience I had accumulated in Hebron.And indeed, I had frequently been asked by friends why I was not writing about the events in Hebron. After all, this is so important from the educational, historical aspect as well. In general, it is important to know the truth!
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The physicist who changed Hebron: The 30th Anniversary of the passing of Prof. Ben Zion Tavger
by Noam Arnon
July 18, 2013

Some people you encounter can change your life. As Rabbi Moshe Levinger before him, meeting with Prof. Ben Zion Tavger changed my life, and the history of Hebron in recent times.
Looking back, it was not at all obvious. Prof. Tavger was very far from the definition of a "charismatic leader." I did not know him in his courageous Zionist activity and struggle against Communist rule in the Soviet Union. All of these, like his great scientific achievements were for us, a small group of young people gathered around him in Hebron somewhere in the mid-1970s, a distant rumor. He was not the leader that leads enthusiastic crowds to a decided goal, not an exciting speaker who persuades a cheering crowd.
He knew quite basic Hebrew, and spoke calmly, using simple language. Actions were quiet and minimalist, reflecting a personal example, substantive action and hard work. The logic that led him at first seemed to us strange and unacceptable. Nevertheless, in the end, he was a man not to be forgotten, a mentor to many, leading the redemption of Hebron in our generation.

(Photo: Cover of Russian language version of My Hebron.
Ben Zion Tavger was a prominent physicist in the Soviet Union of the 1960s. He was recognized by the Soviet government as a result of his talents and was appointed a Senior Researcher, but even then he was not satisfied with the status quo, but combined with remarkable bravery, the struggle for Jewish identity and Zionism. The list of his scientific publications is at least as the list of arrests and harassment he suffered.  But in the end, he was victorious over the Soviet empire, and was able to break through the iron curtain and make aliyah to Israel, his primary objective. As a result of his scientific achievements, he was invited by Prof. Yuval Ne'eman to join the faculty of Tel Aviv University.
But Tavger, the freedom fighter and seeker of justice, could not be satisfied with tranquility and a prestigious Chair at Tel Aviv University.  The late Haim Mageni, Hebron’s first tour guide, introduced Tavger to the disgraceful situation at the ancient Jewish Quarter, left in ruins. He was shocked at the condition of the Avraham Avinu synagogue, which had been transformed into a garbage dump and animal pen.
This reality managed to shock even Prof. Tavger, who had experience struggling with a totalitarian rule. Among other struggles while in Russia there was a struggle for the establishment of a monument in memory of the Jews murdered by the Nazis at Babi Yar near Kiev. He was one of the activists who managed to prevent the desecration of the Jewish graves and motivate the government to build a memorial monument. But what he saw in Hebron were things he never saw even in Russia. "When a window gets smashed in a synagogue in Moscow, you can hear about it all over the world, and here there is a ruined synagogue, sitting beneath waste and stinking cattle dung, and that no one is talking about," he said. In his perspective this was, as he defined, "status quo of a pogrom."
When he began to try to find out what was the matter, he realized that the settlers in Kiryat Arba were still waiting for the government to decide to redeem the synagogue. Tavger, who never studied at "Yeshivat Merkaz Ha'Rav" and wasn't part of Gush Emunim, was not used to waiting for the government. "If a Jew sees a dirty synagogue - he needs to clean it, and not wait for the government to do it," he said. He did more than just talk about the situation, he entered the animal pen, and began clearing the trash with his own hands. The intensity of justice and truth that came from this operation were making waves. We were a few young guys and we couldn't just stand by, we joined him and his assistant, Eliezer Breuer, and got to work. It wasn't easy; it was a great effort: we removed, with our hands and wheelbarrows, tons of debris, garbage, trash and filth, with swarms of flies, next to the stinking bathrooms...

(Photo: Prof. Tavger and volunteer excavating the ancient Jewish cemetery of Hebron. Credit: Gershon Ellinson)
But it was no less difficult for us knowing that for the State of Israel - the destruction of the synagogue and the location of the animal pen instead of the synagogue, were legal, and we, who are trying to clean up and reclaim it, we were considered "lawbreakers". Prof. Tavger was taken into custody, time after time. But he continued quietly, professionally and politely, and without tumult, he would get in a police car, and when he returned - he continued to work.
This silence cried more than any outcry or demonstration. This silence ultimately led to public assistance and political activities of the Hebron Community leadership -- Rabbi Levinger and others -- leading to exposure of the synagogue and approval to renovate and rebuild it. After completion of the first stage of this project, I became responsible for uncovering and renovating of the synagogue. It's interesting to note that the approval to start the renovations were give to us by none other than Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Minister of Defense Shimon Peres.
Today, the Avraham Avinu Synagogue in Hebron has been rebuilt and restored to glory. It constitutes proof of the power of a single person, dedicated to a goal, quietly working, and proof of the power of truth to permeate, influence and change reality.
The lesson in democracy, in humility, in devotion and personal example that he taught, will never be forgotten. Tonight in Kiryat Arba, a memorial symposium will be held in his memory. Among the speakers who will take part in this event: Benny Katzover, Moshe Feiglin, Yehuda Etzion, Rabbi Dov Lior, Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, Dr. Shifra Mishlov and many more.
Even 30 years after his death, the story of Prof. Ben Zion Tavger's struggles, actions and achievements, the Avraham Avinu Synagogue, the Old Cemetery, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and more, have become a cornerstone and another chapter in the history of Hebron, a history of 4000 years of the first Hebrew city, renewed and restored in our generation.

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Ben Zion Tavger was born in Borisov, White Russia, on August 5, 1930. His family lived in Gorky, today's Nizhny Novgorod. From early childhood he had an insatiable curiosity. His nickname was “knows-all”, and even his older brother Shimon, who was killed in World War II, and his friends often turned to him with their questions. It was a rare instance that Ben Zion would be seen losing a game of chess.
At the age of 14, Ben Zion took part in three simultaneous competitions – in physics, mathematics and chemistry, among the schoolboys of the entire Gorky region. In all three he won first place, and the only difficulty for him was to be present in three different halls at the same time.
In 1947 he was accepted at the Faculty of Physics and Technology in the Moscow University. Two of his teachers, Lev Landau and Pyotr Kapitsa, were Nobel Prize winners. 
In 1949 Ben Zion transferred to Gorky University and in 1952 he graduated with honors, his fellow students remembering him as a most outstanding and brilliant scholar.
Due to the rise of Judeophobia in the last years of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, Ben Zion was refused acceptance as a post-graduate student. This fact subsequently made his involvement in science very problematic. Instead, he was sent to work in a far away Siberian military factory. His miraculous escape from there happened only due to the exceptional originality of his thinking. 
Ben Zion wrote a letter to a famous Soviet writer, Ilya Ehrenburg, who in spite of being Jewish, was known to be favored by Stalin and was a member of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Ehrenburg answered the letter of this unknown young talented Jewish scientist, and with his help, Ben Zion Tavger began teaching in the Kaliningrad Pedagogical Institute. 
In 1954 Ben Zion discovered the Magnetic Symmetry phenomenon. This research was the basis of his Doctorate dissertation (Ph.D.) which he defended in 1959 in the Moscow Pedagogical Institute.
In 1960 Tavger began to teach in the Gorky University. One of his students there, Prof. Igal Galili, head of the Science Teaching Department in the Hebrew University, related the following:
“In Gorky, Ben Zion immediately became the leading scientist and teacher, and an unquestioned authority in his department. His lectures in quantum physics were a real experience and quickly became a great attraction at the University. For many years after graduating, students would remember these lectures as fascinating and special. It was a great tribute to human intelligence and a rebellion against authoritarian approaches of all kinds. Tavger’s teaching, as if by magic, turned the most difficult problems related to the change in world conception -- the switch from classical to modern physics -- into natural, understandable and ‘friendly’. I’d like to elaborate on several prominent and important features that impressed me and others who met Ben Zion."
"He had a truly holistic personality. Physics, science, human rights, Jewish philosophy, the eternal problems of Jews – all these were inseparable in his personality. He could pass from one topic to another with ease and continuity. And to each, together with great enthusiasm, he applied his immense reasoning machinery, logic and style of thinking that drew no distinctions between the borders of different fields or levels of complexity. Each problem – no matter how difficult or unsolvable it looked to his partners in discussion – quickly became simple and solvable in an almost trivial way. People who studied or worked with Ben Zion had a feeling that difficult problems just didn’t exist. Be it in science, politics or personal relationships – everything was simple or at least understandable. It was no wonder that very quickly Ben Zion gathered around him a large group of scientists and friends, mainly Jews, who in a way viewed him as their scientific and spiritual leader.”

(Photo: Prof. Ben Zion Tavger)
In 1961 Ben Zion began his underground Zionist activities. He organized a student group whose members read and distributed books and articles written by the Zionist leader Zev Jabotinsky (1880 - 1940). They also arranged a Passover Seder, and taught Judaism and Jewish history. The majority of this group eventually made Aliyah to Israel. The KGB, the Soviet Union's secret service, exposed Prof. Tavger’s underground group, and pursued him and his students. This meant searches, investigations and arrests. Only Prof. Tavger’s unconventional behavior enabled him to outwit the omnipotent KGB, who were unsuccessful in their attempts to jail him. Ben Zion deceived them by pretending to be mentally ill and hiding in a mental hospital. From there he disappeared into the Volga Forests.
Although he had evaded the KGB, in 1968 Prof. Tavger was expelled from the Gorky University and was forbidden to teach throughout the entire region.
Ben Zion again successfully eluded the vigilance of the KGB in what could be considered almost like an undercover mission. He was installed as a senior researcher in a place thousands of miles to the east -- the Institute of Semiconductors of the Siberian branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences, in the “science town” near Novosibirsk. It happened just several days before KGB representatives visited the place, most likley with the intention of arresting him. It was there that Prof. Tavger published many of his scientific papers.
In 1969 Prof. Tavger completed the dissertation for his fourth degree – Doctor of Sciences, which was based on his second discovery – the theory of size-quantizing films – a research he had begun while in Gorky.
In Novosibirsk, Tavger was again surrounded by a group of young Zionists who struggled for the right to make Aliyah to Israel. Once more he confronted the KGB, but in an ironic twist, they became convinced that the best way to free themselves of Tavger was to let him leave the Soviet Union as quickly as possible. Thus Prof. Tavger was the first scientist from Novosibirsk (and the first of such a status) who succeeded in obtaining permission to leave the Soviet Union. Only afterwards would other scientists followed in his footsteps.
In May of 1972 Prof. Tavger made Aliyah to Israel, arriving at the absorption center in Upper Nazareth. When the president of the Tel-Aviv University, Prof. Yuval Neeman, heard of the arrival of an internationally famous scientist, he invited Prof. Tavger to work at the university. It is interesting to note that physicists in the Western world who knew of Prof. Tavger’s research were surprised to meet a young, agile man of 42 years. Twenty years after they had read his publications, they had to expect these to be the work of an old man, or even of one who was no longer alive.
Prof. Tavger worked in the Tel-Aviv University until 1974. Simultaneously, he worked unceasingly to establish a Science and Research Institute in Kiryat Arba, the newly established community next to Hebron. While in the Absorption Center, Prof. Tavger had heard of Kiryat Arba and had already decided that there was the best place for him to live. He believed it was very important to live in the vicinity of Hebron – the City of our Patriarchs – and to establish a Science Institute far from the noise of Tel-Aviv, in the quiet of the Judean Hills. He had a well-organized list of new immigrant scientists who were very eager work in such an institute. Prof. Tavger’s plan received wide support, but the authorities were reluctant to finance the project which was over the “Green Line”, meaning the newly liberated lands of Judea and Samaria. 
In 1974 Tavger left the Tel-Aviv University and came to live in Kiryat Arba. Very quickly he involved himself in the struggles of the Kiryat Arba residents. These include the wish of the residents to execute their right to return to Hebron proper. Holy sites such as the Tomb of Machpela and the Avraham Avinu synagogue had been inaccessible during the Jordanian occupation of 1948 - 1967 and previously during the riots of 1936 and the massacre of 1929.

At first, Prof. Tavger used conventional methods of opposition. He wrote letters of protest, invited and received Members of Knesset, and attended meetings. He publicized letters from former residents of Kiev who had a similar struggle regarding the memory of the Babi Yar martyrs of the Holocaust. But none of these activities bore fruit.
It was the tragic crib death of a baby that prompted the re-opening of the cemetery. The son of Hebron pioneers Baruch and Sarah Nachshon died suddenly, and his mother insisted that he be buried in the now abandoned ancient Jewish cemetery, against the wishes of the authorities. After the funeral, the community stationed guards to safeguard the cemetery from vandalism. When this post was offered to the unemployed professor, Tavger gladly accepted it. Like his predecessors, he assumed that this would be an easy job that would enable him to study Torah in peace, and even to deal with problems in Theoretical Physics while standing guard. But the scene of the desecrated graves changed his mind. He began the busy task of cleaning up the cemetery, discovering broken pieces of tombstones belonging to the graves of the 1929 massacre victims. He initiated the reconstruction the tombstone of Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas (1518–1592), the renowned author of the Kabbalistic work “Reishit Chochma” or "The Beginning of Wisdom". He helped uncover the grave of Menucha Rochel Slonim, granddaughter of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe and matriarch of the Jewish community in the late 1800s. Today hundreds visit her tombstone on the anniversary of her passing, thanks to the excavation work of Prof. Tavger and his volunteers.

(Photo: Hundreds visit the refurbished grave of Menucha Rochel Slonim every year.)
At the same time Prof. Tavger engaged in the struggle for the Tomb of Machpela and began the excavation of the Avraham Avinu synagogue. But the Israeli authorities, not wanting to "rock the boat" didn't approve. Fearing Arab-Jewish tension, they took a pragmatic approach and issued several "Movement Restriction Orders" against him. He was arrested numerous times and brought to trial.
The climax of these cases was a trial that lasted twenty-one months in Beer-Sheba district court. The verdict was a complete exoneration for Tavger and his partner Eliezer Breuer. Rather then condemning them for meddling, the judgment praised their dedication in reviving a historical landmark.
Prof. Tavger published more than forty-five scientific papers, mostly in the field of Solid State Physics. His last research (which he was unable to complete) was published after his death, in June 1986, in one of the world’s most prestigious science journal, Physics Letters.
Regarding that research, the celebrated Israeli theoretical physicist Prof. Yuval Neeman wrote, “It was very exciting to read a clear, scientific message, innovative and illuminating, as if Ben Zion Tavger is still with us, active and profound. The article is important and can lead to the discovery of interesting and useful experimentation. There is no doubt that if these experiments will demonstrated the Spontaneous Conductivity effect this will be a revelation on the level of the discovery of transistors or lasers” (Aug. 17, 1988).
From 1975 until his very last day, Prof. Tavger taught at the Jerusalem College of Technology, where he set up his laboratory. 
Ben Zion loved the Land of Israel and traveled its length and breadth by foot. He contributed greatly to the Aliyah movement, gave lectures, led tours in Hebron, and personally supported new immigrants. He was a devoted husband and father who family still lives in the Kiryat Arba / Hebron area. He was never sick, and had no need of doctors until cancer overcame him at the end of his life. Ben Zion Tavger died on July 22, 1983, the day after his 53rd birthday, when his youngest son was just thirteen months old.
The area beside the Avraham Avinu synagogue is named in his memory as is the street leading to the synagogue. A memorial plaque on the entrance to the rebuilt Avraham Avinu synagogue commemorates his work. Today, the synagogue is used daily for morning, afternoon and evening services, and during Shabbat and holidays, as it was when it was first built by the refugees of the Spanish Inquisition back in 1540. The fact that this former landmark was in ruins and is now being actively used, is perhaps the greatest tribute of all.
To obtain a copy of My Hebron by Prof. Ben Zion Tavger email myhebron@gmail.com.
To visit the Avraham Avinu Synagogue and other historic landmarks in Hebron contact:

United States contact info:

1760 Ocean Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11230

In Israel contact the offices of the Jewish Community of Hebron at:
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/hebronofficial
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