Thirty years ago – Friday evening, May 2, 1980 – in Hebron. Inside Me’arat HaMachpelah, the massive 2,000-year-old Herodian edifice above the tombs of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people, the Shabbat service had just concluded.
Several dozen Jews, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, walked to nearby Beit Hadassah, the former medical clinic in Hebron. It had been abandoned after the murderous Arab riots in 1929 that claimed 67 Jewish lives. For nearly a year several dozen women and children had made Beit Hadassah their home. The first Jews to return to live in Hebron in fifty years, they were the only Jews permitted by the government of Israel to live in the city.
On the way to Beit Hadassah the worshippers sang a verse from Jeremiah: v’shavu banim l’gvulam (“Your children shall return to their borders”). Among them were Zvi Glatt, a recent American immigrant; yeshiva students Gershon Klein, Yaakov Zimmerman, Shmuel Mermelstein and Hanan Krautheimer, who had chanted the Song of Songs during the service; and Eli Ha’zeev, winner of a Silver Star for bravery in Vietnam who came to Israel during the Yom Kippur War and converted to Judaism.
Once inside Beit Hadassah, they would make Kiddush before heading up the hill to Kiryat Arba, where a small Jewish community had been established nearly a decade earlier.
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National exultation after the swift and stunning military victory in the Six-Day War had propelled Jews to return to their ancient holy cities and sites. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan proclaimed: “We have returned to all that is holy in our land…. We have returned to the cradle of our people, to the inheritance of the Patriarchs…. We will not be parted from the holy places.” Denied access to Hebron by the Kingdom of Jordan ever since 1948, Israelis came to visit by the thousands and tens of thousands in June 1967.
Secular Israelis rejected the “vehement nationalistic messianism” and religious fervor that erupted after the astonishing military victory. Archeologist Yigael Yadin, ridiculing Jews who returned to Machpelah to pray, denounced the embrace of religious relics as “idolatrous.” Young writer Amos Oz confessed: “I don’t have any feeling that Hebron’s part of my homeland.” He preferred Holon, where he had first fallen in love.
The government immediately decided to reconstruct and repopulate the Old City of Jerusalem, even demolishing an Arab neighborhood adjacent to the Western Wall. When it came to Hebron, however, it equivocated.
To be sure, Hebron, where Abraham had purchased the first landholding of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, evoked deep historical memories. King David had reigned there before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. But in 1967 little but ruins remained of the old Jewish Quarter. Even the ancient cemetery had been desecrated. The government resisted the return of Jews to live in Hebron, which had become an Arab city.
For a handful of Jews, however, Hebron – as Tel Aviv lawyer Elyakim Haetzni expressed it – was “part of our genetic code.” Rabbi Levinger and Rabbi Hanan Porat, graduates of the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem, met with Haetzni to plan the rebuilding of a Jewish community in Hebron. Rabbi Levinger, accompanied by an elderly survivor of the 1929 massacre, visited the city to determine whether Jewish property there was available for rental or purchase. In the Jewish cemetery, he experienced “an awakening of tempestuous spirits” and “an internal turmoil that left me restless for days and weeks.” Rabbi Levinger decided to return to Hebron and restore the Jewish community there. His wife Miriam told him: “The government won’t send you there. Go settle, and things will work out.”
Shortly before Passover 1968, Rabbi Levinger negotiated a rental agreement for the holiday week with the Arab owner of the Park Hotel in Hebron. The owner, believing Rabbi Levinger represented a group of Swiss tourists, assured him that his group could stay longer if they wished. Rabbi Levinger left a large deposit for “an unlimited amount of people for an unspecified period of time.” The government learned of the agreement but did nothing. General Uzi Narkiss told Rabbi Levinger: “What do you want? To settle in Hebron? I don’t care. I know nothing. Rent a hotel, put up tents.”
Between sixty and eighty Israelis arrived in Hebron to celebrate Passover and restore a Jewish presence in the city. The Levingers, clearly intending to stay, brought their four children, a refrigerator and a washing machine.
Rabbi Chaim Druckman, another graduate of the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, led the Seder. Miriam Levinger sensed a “historical breakthrough, and we all felt deeply moved and excited.” Elyakim Haetzni, joined at the Seder by his wife, mother and children, realized, “I am at home in the bosom of Abraham.” The next morning the celebrants, singing and dancing through the streets of Hebron, carried Torah scrolls to Me’arat haMachpelah.
Their presence in Hebron and evident determination to remain caught the government by surprise. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was ambivalent. Foreign Minister Abba Eban was opposed. But Labor Minister Yigal Allon came to visit the Park Hotel and agreed to have weapons sent from nearby Gush Etzion “just in case, God forbid, there should be fighting.”
Menachem Begin, leader of the opposition Herut Party, praised the new settlers. From his desert home in Sde Boker, David Ben-Gurion offered support: “We will make a great and awful mistake if we fail to settle Hebron, neighbor and predecessor of Jerusalem.”
After nearly six weeks, a ministerial committee authorized Dayan to relocate the Park Hotel group to Israeli military headquarters overlooking the city. Permission was granted to establish a yeshiva there. Rabbi Levinger donated his library. His brother loaned a four hundred year-old Torah scroll that had been sewn inside oilskin and immersed in the Rhine River for the duration of World War II to save it from the Nazis. Another Torah, rescued from Hebron in 1929, symbolized continuity between the destroyed and returning communities.
In the spring of 1969, two apartment blocs were built inside the military compound to house a dozen families. The community pressed the government for a more permanent site. Ministers considered the possibility of an “urban suburb,” on a hilltop overlooking the city.
Early in 1970, Deputy Prime Minister Allon announced plans to build “upper Hebron,” to be called Kiryat Arba (the name of biblical Hebron). “Like emigrants and settlers at the turn of the century, … and kibbutz farmers,” Rabbi Levinger proclaimed, “we, too, are pioneers.”
The isolated hilltop settlement of Kiryat Arba grew slowly as a satellite of Hebron. After five years, the diverse population of 1,500 settlers included religious Zionists, secular Jews, American olim, and new immigrants from North Africa, the Soviet Union and Ethiopia.
Access to Machpelah remained a constant problem, with local Muslims fiercely resisting any change in the status quo under which, for 700 years, Jews and other “infidels” had been excluded. Kiryat Arba residents pressed for prayer time and the inclusion of traditional life-cycle religious ceremonies that were normally held in a synagogue: bris, bar mitzvah, marriage.
When a boy was born to Sarah and Baruch Nachshon in Kiryat Arba, they secretly held his bris in Machpelah. Six months later, Avraham Yedidia Nachshon suddenly suffered crib death. His parents decided to bury him in the old Jewish cemetery, where no Jew had been buried in nearly fifty years. Israeli government officials, unwilling to provoke Hebron’s Arabs, refused permission.
But Sarah insisted. On the day of the funeral, soldiers blocked the road to the cemetery. After more than an hour of waiting, she told them: “You have your orders. I have mine.” Cradling her son in her arms, she walked past the military blockade, with other mourners following behind. In the cemetery she said: “God gave us our son for one reason. He had a job to do in his short life – to open our ancient graveyard. This he has accomplished and God has taken him back.”
The Nachshon baby was buried a few meters from the common grave of the massacre victims of 1929. After the funeral, his mother said: “If we open the Jewish cemetery, we open the gates to the city.”
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But the new Likud government of Menachem Begin resisted the return of Jews to Hebron. Exploratory discussions between Kiryat Arba residents and the Defense Ministry were unproductive. Then, in 1978, the government stunned settlers by signing the Camp David accords with Egypt, pledging “autonomy” for West Bank Palestinians. With prospects for expanded settlement slipping away, the community was galvanized.
The following year, fifty years after the massacre, Kiryat Arba residents decided to return to Hebron. Women and children, least likely to provoke a harsh response from the government or military, were chosen to be the vanguard.
One week after Passover, at 4 a.m., ten women led by Miriam Levinger and Sarah Nachshon, accompanied by thirty-five children, arrived by truck at the rear of Beit Hadassah, in the heart of the old Jewish casbah. Assisted by teenage boys from Kiryat Arba, they quietly climbed ladders, cut wires to the windows, and unloaded mattresses, cooking burners, gas canisters, water, a refrigerator, laundry lines and a chemical toilet.
Safely inside the dilapidated building, the excited children began to sing v’shavu banim l’gvulam, God’s promise that the children of Israel would return to Zion. Hearing their enthusiastic voices, a puzzled Israeli soldier came down from his observation post on a nearby roof to investigate. When he asked how they had entered the building, a four-year-old girl instantly responded: “Jacob, our forefather, built us a ladder and we came in.”
Miriam Levinger announced: “Hebron will no longer be Judenrein.” At the end of their first Shabbat in Beit Hadassah, yeshiva students from Kiryat Arba came to dance and sing outside. She described that moment: “We felt as if the souls of the murdered of this place had come and gathered with us at the window … to rejoice with us at the sight of Jews dancing on Saturday evening in the streets of Hebron. I wanted to calm them and say to them, ‘You can rest, you have waited for many years, now we have returned. What was in the past in Hebron is what will happen in the future. Always.’ ”
An infuriated Prime Minister Begin labeled the women “invaders” who were “arrogant and neurotic.” He ordered soldiers and police to surround the building; nothing – not even food or water – could go in; no one who left would be permitted to return. Rabbi Levinger met with Begin, reminding him that even during the Yom Kippur War, when Israeli military forces had surrounded the Egyptian Third Army, beleaguered enemy soldiers received food, water, and medical supplies. Surely the women and children in Beit Hadassah deserved no less. Begin relented.
Sarah Nachshon long remembered the terrible living conditions, “without windows and doors – everything wrecked and destroyed – without running water … without electricity, without anything.” When the six-year-old Levinger boy developed highly contagious jaundice, Miriam alerted the other mothers but none left. A woman in late pregnancy refused to leave until her return was assured. It was, and she came back from the hospital with her infant daughter, named Hadassah.
With the women and children of Beit Hadassah resolute, the government finally agreed that every Friday evening, at the beginning of Shabbat, one husband could enter the building to recite Kiddush. Following a visit from then-Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, restrictions on arrivals and departures were lifted. It was the first step toward normalization of life in the beleaguered outpost.
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At the end of January 1980, nine months after the move into Beit Hadassah, Yehoshua Saloma, a Kiryat Arba yeshiva student, was murdered in the Hebron market. The next day, enraged Kiryat Arba residents seized five empty Jewish-owned buildings in Hebron, demanding the right to live there. Attacks on settlers and soldiers escalated but Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann, insisting on “restraint and forbearance,” warned the Knesset of the impact of retaliation on “world opinion.” By a narrow vote, the Cabinet authorized the establishment of a yeshiva in Hebron.
Local Arabs were furious. The mayor promised “force against force.” The Qadi insisted: “This land is Muslim…. We’ll fight until you, the Jews, are wiped out.” In a cave at the edge of the city, four Arabs – two from Hebron and two from Jordan – prepared their response. On May 2, before the beginning of Shabbat, they positioned themselves on the roof of a building overlooking Beit Hadassah and in an adjacent doorway, armed with assault rifles and hand grenades. As the Jews returning from Machpelah crossed the footbridge to Beit Hadassah, they were caught in a withering crossfire of bullets and explosions.
Eli Ha’Zeev was killed instantly, before he could reach for his gun. Miriam Levinger, trained as a nurse, rushed outside to treat the wounded, but nothing could be done to save Glatt, Klein, Zimmerman, Krauthammer, and Mermelstein. She would say, “Not only were their lives a continuation of the lives of the murdered community [of 1929], but also their deaths.”
But from those six deaths would come new Jewish life in Hebron. Twenty years later Beit HaShisha (“House of the Six”), with apartments for six families, was built adjacent to Beit Hadassah to commemorate the massacre victims. Now, after thirty years, may their memory be a blessing.
Now, too, when an American president adamantly insists that new Jewish “settlements” must not be built in Jerusalem, he needs a reminder that Jerusalem – and Hebron – are the ancient holy cities of the Jewish people.
By every plausible justification – divine promise, ancestral history, international agreement, modern settlement, and defensive war for survival – Jews have earned the right to live where their ancestors buried their revered patriarchs and matriarchs, built their sacred Temples, and exercised national sovereignty. That means Jerusalem – and Hebron.
Jerold S. Auerbach, author of “Hebron Jews” (Roman & Littlefield, 2009), is writing a history of the Altalena episode.