History

When Shimon Peres Helped Jews Pray in Hebron

Until 1975, kiddush was banned and Jews had strict regulations on when and where they could pray.

18.10.18, 10:40
(PHOTO: A Jewish family holds a brit milah ceremony at the Cave of Machpela in 2018.)
 
Today over 700,000 people visit the Tomb of Machpela every year. Weddings, brit milah ceremonies and regular daily Jewish services are the norm in the Jewish side of the Cave of Patriarchs complex in Hebron. But it wasn't always so, even after the dramatic victory of the Six Day War in 1967 when Israel regained access to the Judea region where Hebron is located.
 
In 1975, Defense Minister Shimon Peres issued the order to create a permanent space for Jewish prayer at the Cave of the Forefathers and Mothers. Since June 1967, Jewish worshipers had been allowed only three specified periods each day. Fridays were reserved for exclusive Muslim access.
 
Shimon Peres went on to earn a Nobel Prize for Peace and authored the book The New Middle East in which he laid out a plan where Arabs and Jews would one day come together in economic prosperity.
 
A New York Times article with the dateline August 15, 1975 from "Hebron, Israeli — Occupied Jordan," discusses the issue. It is noteworthy that this took place before the Two State Solution called for an independent Palestinian State and when it was Jordan who was then demanding Israeli relinquish terrority to them. 
 
After describing angry Arabs throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers, the article explains the protest was "a result of a Cabinet ruling—proposed by Defense Minister Shimon Peres, who is responsible for the occupied territories—that granted easier access to Jews... Last week Mr. Peres yielded to long-standing entreaties by Jews who founded a town, Kirbrat Arba, near here in 1967, to open two sections of the sanctuary for Jewish prayer all day every day except Friday. Jewish prayer is limited to the two corners and is not permitted during Moslem rites."
 
"Under Jordanian rule, from 1948 until 1967, Jews were barred from Hebron. Until 1948, they had been allowed to mount seven steps up the outside stairway leading to the shrine for prayers, but never, until the six-day war, had a Jew been allowed to pray in the sanctuary," the article explains, describing the 700 years starting with the Mamelukes that banned non-Muslims from entering the Tomb of Machpela. 
 
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that "the large 'Isaac and Rebecca' hall will now be reserved for Moslem prayers throughout the day, and the smaller 'Abraham and Sarah' and 'Jacob and Leah' halls will serve for Jewish prayers. Tourists and visitors will be allowed into all three halls (regardless of their creed)–but not during prayer times. Previously the day had been divided up, with some hours reserved for Moslem prayer, during which time Jewish worshipers and visitors were not admitted to the site. The new arrangement was formulated by Defense Minister Shimon Peres after a visit to the site last week."
 
The changes came after Jewish worshipers protested that they were being discriminated against. In one case, a Jewish worshiper was even arrested for entering the Cave of the Patriarchs during a time not reserved for Jewish prayers. 

Sarah Nachshon, an early pioneer in the nascent Jewish community of Hebron was the first people to arrange a brit milah in the Cave of Machpela in modern times. Previous attempts were prevented. In 1975 she and a group of her fellow Hebron Jews secretly arranged to hold the circumcision ceremony at the holy site. What today is a normal celebration posted on Facebook was grounds for arrest, lest it inflame the sensitivities of the Arab population. In an interview Mrs. Nachshon relates how her husband Baruch was detained by the Israeli police for suspicion of holding the brit milah in an unauthorized location. 
 
 
Shimon Peres is also credited with issuing permits to rebuild other vandalized historic sites in Hebron such as the Avraham Avinu Synagogue.
 
Today in the Machpela complex, visitors and worshipers cannot wander in and out of the designated Muslim and Jewish areas as each section separated by walls. As described above, the Hall of Isaac, the largest in the complex, is reserved as a Muslim space. 
 
For the past 25 years the Israeli government and the Islamic Waqf have an arrangement in which ten days a year are reserved for Jewish services and ten days for exclusive Muslim services. These days correspond to Jewish and Muslim holidays respectively. During Muslim holidays such as every Friday of Ramadan, Jewish books and Hebrew signs are removed and locked up. During Jewish holidays, the carpets in the Hall of Isaac and Rebecca are rolled up and stored away with Arabic signs being temporarily replaced by Jewish ones. Although not without incidents, there is coexistence, such as during Ramadan when the Islamic Red Crescent and Israeli Magen David Adom medical services work together to facilitate the large crowds. 
 
The Tomb of Machpela is the burial site of the Jewish Matriarchs and Patriarchs. The massive walls built above the underground caverns were erected by King Herod the Great during the Second Temple Era.
 
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Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in Hebron. Credit: Yaakov Saar, Government Press Office 1976 | 10 Images