History

Hebron: A Jewish Presence for 3,800 Years

The proud Jewish history of Hebron defied modern propaganda.

4.5.17, 14:15
(IMAGE: Hebron from Panorama of the Holy Land. Breslau, Schottlaender, ca. 1900. Credit: National Library of Israel / Wiki Commons.)
 
Eliaou Attlan has, along with his wife and their five children, lived in Kiryat Arba for over 25 years. Here, in the City of the Fathers, he works as a history teacher and tour guide.  Attlan is the author of a comprehensive book on Hebron’s history published in French entitled ‘Le livre de Hebron.’ The following essay is his from the book Hebron: Rebirth from Ruins edited by Dr. Michal Rachel Suissa.
 
 
Archaeology and the Book of Genesis both show that Hebron is an ancient city. It was here one man, Abraham, attempted to establish a moral foothold for mankind among the children of people who had turned away from mercy and tolerance. Abraham, the wanderer, laid the foundation for humanism’s history.
 
From him, a family grew into a tribe and then to a new people who wrote their founder’s message on their banner. In time, the Jews settled in Hebron, approximately 700 years before David chose the city as his capital. Such continuity is unique in history. Hebron can be proud of this, which is without parallel when it comes to the Jewish presence. When considering the question of what the Jews have to do with Hebron, the answer comes quickly: Here are the root, trunk and branches of the Tree of Israel! 
 
During the First Temple period, Hebron lay in the shadow of Jerusalem. But during the Shivat Zion period, following the Jews’ return from Babylon, many settled in Kiryat Arba – another name for Hebron. Here, around the tombs of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs, Israel began a new building of its national strength.
 
During the Hashmonayim period, around 150 B.C.E, the first building around the graves of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs was built. During Herod’s time, fabulous buildings were erected in Judea and Galilee; one is the wall around the graves – a building still standing today. This wall has become the symbol of the lifeforce of the Jewish people through the ages.
The wall has been a silent witness to many great conquerors: the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, Mamelukes, Ottomans and others. If the stones could speak, they would testify to how the conquerors disappeared, while the People of Israel outlived them all.
 
According to the collective Jewish memory, Hebron was the first Jewish property in the Land of Israel. It was here Abraham purchased the Machpela Cave as a burial site and thus planted his roots in the Land which was promised to his children.
 

The Bible gives a detailed account of this real estate purchase. The name of the seller, the price and the name of the buyer is given. It is not for nothing that the scholars of the Talmud have looked upon this transaction as a most important event. In a peaceful manner, Abraham bought this land and the seller received a very high price for it. "The actions of the Fathers are a guide for the children," they said, and this is how the children of Abraham went forth thousands of years later when they reestablished Jewish sovereignty over the Land.
 
Hebron became the symbol of the Jewish people’s connection to Eretz Ysrael. It may have been for this reason that Emperor Hadrian decided to build a slave market in Hebron, following Shimon Bar Kochba's failed uprising. This war, in 135 B.C.E., was a bitter war in which thousands of Roman soldiers lost their lives. When Hadrian eventually won, he decided to make Judea "Judenrein."
 
Hadrian committed three crimes against the Jewish people: 
 
* He renamed Israel "Palestine" after the Ægean “Philistines” who, by that time, had been extinct for around one thousand years.
* He tore down Jerusalem and built a heathen city on its ruins, Ælia Capitolina.
* It was from Kiryat Arba, Hebron, the place where G-d said to Abraham: "To you and your descendants have I given this land...," that he sold numerous Jews as slaves to all corners of the World.
 
During the Byzantine period, Hebron suffered, just as the rest of Israel, under the yoke of the latest occupiers. The Byzantine Empire became Christianized and turned against Judaism. In the fifth century, one of the Church fathers (Suzinius) wrote of a common summer festival for Jews, Christians and heathens. The description contains a lot of praise for the mutual respect the different religions had amongst themselves.
 
Around 600 C.E., camel caravans began penetrating Israel. They stole and plundered, while examining the possibilities for a possible conquest. City after city was occupied by Arabs who came out of their lands intent on occupying the entire World.
 
Following the occupation of Kiryat Arba, Islam as a religion was indifferent to this city. Descriptions of the occupation don’t mention Hebron with a single word. This is proof that Hebron was of no importance to the original Islam.
During this time, Islam was searching for its own identity and shifted between the various powerbases within itself. It is absolutely clear that this religion, despite being born in Hidgaz in the heart of the Arabian Desert, was based on elements of Judaism and Christianity. It is therefore natural that this new religion couldn’t remain indifferent to the Biblical landscape and the Biblical sites. Some of them are also mentioned in the Koran.
 
This was a very interesting transitional period. After attaining many victories on the battlefield, the Arabs realized that they would have to administer enormous areas containing many different peoples.
 
With this in mind, they became adept at showing tolerance and wisdom: They made use of the peoples’ administrative knowledge, including the Jews.
 
In the beginning, the Jews viewed the Arabs as liberators, almost as a sign of the Geula (Redemption, arrival of the Messiah), which the Jews had awaited from generation to generation. From the Jews, the Arabs learned to treat holy sites with respect. For 500 years, both Jews and Muslims came to the tomb and arranged various welcoming celebrations for adherents of other religions who visited.
 
This idyll ceased when the Mamelukes came to power, around 1250 C.E.
 
The Mamelukes brought a new dimension to Islam, a fundamentalist and extremist dimension that was based on the hatred of all non-Muslims. Baberas, Sultan of the Mamelukes, forbade Jews and Christians to enter the Machpela Cave. The closest the Jews were allowed to come to it was the seventh step of the building, no further.
 
One could have hoped that this change within Islam wouldn’t achieve such a grasp on the religion after 500 years of relatively high tolerance. Unfortunately, it went the wrong way and the prohibition took on a religious shape. It is due to this that the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were denied access to their forefathers’ grave for around 700 years. 
 
It is interesting and worth mentioning that Muslim scholars claimed that only Mohammed’s grave was holy, and was therefore the only grave a Muslim could pray at. This is why, to start, it was forbidden to build mosques over gravesites. Up until the 19th century, there were Muslim scholars who were strongly opposed to turning the Machpela Cave into a Muslim prayer site.
 
Muslims probably saw the Jews praying at the tomb and eventually did the same. However, it is important to remember that, today, Hebron is the fourth holiest city for Muslims, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
 
The Muslim attitude to the holy sites of other religions can be seen as a process in three stages:
 
* Indifference to non-Muslim holy sites.
* Coexistence with other religions.
* Takeover through deportation of other religions from their holy sites, which are then used only by Muslims.
 
We see the same phenomenon at the Jewish Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It is only in the last few years that this site has been transformed into an area containing many mosques. At times, though, these serious actions take on a humorous twist.
 
One example is a tourist brochure which the PA (Palestinian Authority) has made. In it, it says that Herod built the Ibrahim mosque in Hebron in 100 B.C.E.. Yes, you read correctly. Herod built mosques 700 years before Islam arose!
 
We are witnesses to a ridiculous, historical revision, but at the same time, a dangerous revision, because its aim is the eradication of the Jewish past.
 
In 1517 C.E., the Ottoman Empire brought an end to Mameluke control. This was the beginning of the longest occupation of Israel. During the first years, the Turks distinguished themselves by bringing order and safety to the region.
 
The Jewish community made use of the opportunity to start a new period where important rabbis greatly contributed to the evolution of Kabbalah. The Jews who had been deported from Spain came to Hebron and purchased a farm to renew the Jewish Quarter.
 
Rabbi Malchiel Ashkenazi founded a congregation around the Abraham Avinu (Our Father Abraham) synagogue. The Jews of Hebron sent their best rabbis to congregations in the Diaspora to teach the Torah of Israel. These messengers awoke messianic expectations amongst the Diaspora Jews, such as the false prophet Sabbatai Zevi. In this way, Hebron held a leading position in the belief in the Geula.[4]
 
It is important to understand that for many Jews, who for generations had lived without a sovereign state of their own, Jewish belonging became only a conceptual belonging. But the messengers from Hebron reminded the Jews that they are all one people with the same father and a country waiting for them. They reminded each other that the day would come when their prayers would be answered and they would again return to their Land. Modern Zionism is not always aware of just how much these messengers have contributed to preserving the Jewish national identity down through the generations. Messengers from Hebron reached remote Jewish congregations, also in the U.S. where Rabbi Haim Zvi Sneersohn was received by President Ulysses S. Grant as a representative for the Jews in Hebron.
 
The break-up of the Ottoman Empire was followed by nationalistic phenomena in the Middle East. Both Jews and Arabs established active, nationalistic movements. The Arabs saw Zionism as their archenemy.
 
There were two Jewish groups in Hebron. The majority belonged to the established community (Hayeshuv Hayashan) which was primarily concerned with prayer, studying Judaism and waiting for the Messiah. The new community (Hayeshuv Hahadash) had a clear goal of building a new society in Israel, based on Jewish work and Hebrew as the day-to-day language. 
 
The Arabs didn’t attack the Hebron Jews when the pogroms started in 1920–21. Good relations between the religious leaders of these two groups.
 
The third wave of pogroms was led by Haj-Amin Al-Husseini. His Jew-hatred made him blind and he believed every Jew should be murdered. This is why the pogrom in 1929 was the most murderous of them all. The Jewish congregation in Hebron was dealt a severe blow, and at least 67 Jews [both of the established community and the new community] were butchered amid indescribable torture. Women were raped in front of their families and corpses were violated. 
 
This happened in the 20th century, under the British Mandate administration. The rest of the congregation was spared, not by the British, but by few Arabs who bravely placed themselves between the killers and the Jews.
 
An attempt to bring the murderers to justice failed, because the British weren’t interested in having the extent of the pogrom exposed. Not only did the Hebron Jews not receive any significant reparation or compensation for the killings and plundering they’d endured, but the British also decided to forcibly move the Jewish community to Jerusalem on the grounds that the British could no longer guarantee their safety in Hebron.
 
It was then the Arabs understood that violence pays. It should also be mentioned that the British tried to cleanse the town of Safed of Jews following a similar pogrom there, but the community refused to move since it would reward the Arab terror. Today it is a matter of course for all of Israel’s citizens that Safed is an inseparable part of Israel, but not everyone in Israel is aware of the fact that the Jews also have the right to Hebron.
 
The U.N.’s partition plan didn’t take into consideration the historical roots of the Jews, so the holy city of the Jews, Hebron, was placed outside of Israel’s borders in 1948. During 1947–1967, the Jordanians continued the destruction that started with the 1929 pogrom. Jewish property was transferred to Arab hands, synagogues and community houses were either torn down or turned into public toilets. The cemetery was destroyed and large portions of it turned into farmland.
 
The IDF’s surprising victory in the 1967 war got many Jews thinking. The return to the “water wells” and the Temple Mount were the strongest aspects of this. It was in the meeting with precisely Hebron, the City of the Fathers, that the desire to initiate a grand settlement movement in Judea and Samaria was awoken in the hearts of idealistic youth. The return to Hebron was the first major push to re-establish lost communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
 
Even though Israel won the war, this didn’t lead to Israel’s leaders sharing the same view. The political establishment quickly adopted the empty phrase: “Land for Peace”, even though the majority in Israel saw this as a golden opportunity to again populate Judea, Samaria and Gaza and thereby contribute to fulfilling the Biblical verse: “And the sons shall return to their borders.”
 
Hebron was the first rebuilt Jewish neighborhood. It all started with a small group of families around Rabbi Moshe Levinger who renewed the Jewish congregation in Hebron. Following a bitter struggle, Israel’s government decided to rebuild Kiryat Arba in 1969. The community has never received any type of aid from the government, but was the result of grassroots pressure. One example is Moshe Dayan, Defense Minister at the time, who refused to allow Jews to pray at the Machpela Tomb. It is thanks to the Jews of Hebron, who insisted on equal rights for both Jews and non-Jews, that, today, prayer is allowed at this holy place.
 
Hebron and Kiryat Arba have experienced innumerable terrorist attacks and disasters. Most of the cases where the government has granted building permits, have come in the wake of serious episodes were Jewish blood has been shed. Like what happened in the neighborhood of Beit Hadassah. Only after six Jews were murdered there in 1980, did Prime Minister Menachem Begin allow the Jews to return. Kiryat Arba, the Jewish neighborhood in Hebron, quickly became the symbol for the populating of YESHA (Judea, Samaria and Gaza) with Jews. Kiryat Arba is the mother of settlements. From here, small groups of people have gone forth to establish new settlements.
 
Soon we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the rejuvenated Jewish community in Kiryat Arba – Hebron. This is, according to Jewish tradition, the age of maturity. Let us hope that everyone will realize that Hebron has been, and will forever be, a Jewish city that, under Jewish sovereignty, always will be open to all religions that wish to fulfill our father Abraham’s message of peace.
 
Plan your visit to Hebron today:
 
United States contact info:

http://www.hebronfund.com/
1760 Ocean Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11230
718-677-6886
info@hebronfund.org

Israeli contact info:
http://en.hebron.org.il/
02-996-5333
office@hebron.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/hebronofficial
 
RECOMMENED ARTICLES:
 
Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini, the Sde Hemed, Torah Legend from Hebron
The Rabbi from Hebron and the President of Yale
Rabbi Abraham Azulai and The Sultan's Sword