Women's struggle for Beit Hadassah celebrates 40 years

A group of young women demanded the right to live in the historic Jewish property of Hebron. Today, they celebrate the success of their struggle.

11.6.19, 21:52
(PHOTO: Miriam Levinger and Deputy Defense Minister Tzipi Hotovely at the 40th anniversary of Beit Hadassah.)
It was 40 years ago this month that a group of women and children entered the vacant Beit Hadassah building beginning the re-population of the ancient Jewish community of Hebron. Led by Miriam Levinger, the group was defiant in reopening the historic structure that once housed a Jewish-run hospital in Hebron that served people of all faiths in the city. 

The event was attended by Mrs. Levinger and other veteran pioneers of Beit Hadassah who lived in the building without electricity or running water. The event also commemorated Mrs. Levinger's husband, the late Rabbi Moshe Levinger who led the movement to repatriate the Jewish community of Hebron. 

Also in attendance were Hebron settler pioneers Rabbi Dov Lior, Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely, heads of local community council, and the children and grandchildren who make up the new generation of the renewed Hebron and Kiryat Arba communities. 

The event was held at Beit HaShalom, a residential structure near the Cave of Machpela that, like Beit Hadassah, faced a successful but difficult legal battle over ownership. 
Beit Hadassah originally was a medical clinic run by the Hadassah women's organization. The building dates back to 1893 and was formerly called the Chesed L'Avraham clinic, built with funds donated by Jewish communities from North Africa.
It was the site of bloody rioting in the 1929 massacre, where pharmacist Ben Zion Gershon and others were murdered.

After the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan took over the Judea region, the building became an Arab school called Al-Dabboia. It sat empty after the 1967 Six Day War when Israel regained access the areas that became known as the West Bank.

In 1979, Miriam Levinger led a group of women and children to occupy the empty building. Although legal documents from the Ottoman era attested to Jewish ownership, the Israeli government was reluctant to rock the boat and allow any deviation from the status quo. 

Ten women and about 40 children camped out in the building for approximately one year. Israel Defense Forces were stationed at the entrance to barring anyone who left from re-entering. Guests were banned and husbands and supporters brought food and other supplies to the gate.

During this time, the government debated incidents such as a pregnant woman, Shoshana Porath, who refused to leave for treatment unless she was guaranteed the right to return to Beit Hadassah. Another Cabinet debate revolved around allowing a teacher to access the building to hold classes. 

"[Menachem] Begin and a majority of the Cabinet agreed to Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon’s request that two young children be allowed to join their mothers and 40 other children who have been in the building for a week," the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on May 8, 1979. "But the Cabinet rejected another proposal by Sharon that a teacher be sent to the building to conduct classes."

An article from July of the same year reported, "the women lay claim to the premises because they belonged to a Jewish institution 50 years ago... who demand the right to live in Hebron and to repossess buildings said to have been owned by Jews who were killed or fled during the Arab uprising in 1929... family reunion was the latest concession although journalists and other civilians are still banned from the building."

It took a deadly terrorist attack outside the building in 1980 to finally force the government to issue the zoning permits to make their residency permanent. Six people were killed in a surprise attack in May of 1980 on Friday evening while supporters recited Shabbat prayers in front of the building.
One of the terrorists, Tayseer Abu Sneineh, was arrested and convicted but later released in a prisoner exchange deal. He was elected mayor of the Palestinian Authority controlled side of Hebron in 2017.

The renovated Beit Hadassah was inaugurated in 1986 and an adjacent residential structure was completed in 1999, called Beit HaShisha, in memory of the six people killed in the ambush. 

Today, while there is still conflict and controversy in the City of the Patriarchs, it is a far cry from years ago. Official government representatives attended the Beit Hadassah anniversary ceremony and every year, IDF officers partake in official ceremonies in Hebron. It is quite a change from the days when the Knesset debated whether or not to forcibly evict the Hebron Jews as illegal squatters. 
Others in attendance at the evening event included Daniella Weiss, former mayor of Kedumim, former mayor of Kiryat Arba, Malachi Levinger and current mayor Eliyahu Liebman, who was one of the children who camped out with his mother in Beit Hadassah.
Among the speakers was Shlomo Levinger, one of Miriam and Moshe's children, who read from a letter written to his father from S. Y. Agnon, Israel's first Nobel Prize laureate. He quoted, "future generations will write in books that you returned the sons to their fathers' city, expanded the borders of Israel, and opened an entryway for those who will come after you."
Minister Hotovely praised the women including Levinger, Sarah Nachshon, and the other in attendance for setting an example for the younger generation of women.

The struggle for Beit Hadassah paved the way for more property confiscated during the Jordanian era to be returned to Jewish ownership. The building today boasts residential housing, a synagogue, museum and visitor's center.
It also helped prompt construction of housing units in other vacant areas of Judea and Samaria. Today, the Hebron Jewish community has about 1,000 residents. About 7,500 live in the suburb of Kiryat Arba. Another 7,000 Israelis live in the dozen communities that dot the Hebron Hills Regional Council.

As of 2019, almost 500,000 Israelis live in settlements and cities over the Green Line, the border that once divided Israel from Jordan. Combined with Golan Heights and the eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem, there is a total of 800,000 Jewish Israelis in the post-1967 areas, about 13% of the population.

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40th anniversary of Beit Hadassah | 15 Images
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