Many Jewish and Christian tourists to Israel skip Hebron, declaring it too dangerous, and indeed four Israelis, including a pregnant woman, were killed there just a few weeks ago with another two shot last week. But terrorists dare not determine whether my children and I make pilgrimages to Judaism’s holiest sites; besides, terrorists incidents have declined dramatically and the city, comparatively speaking, is safe.
The first thing you discover about the residents of Hebron, whom the world derisively describes as settlers – as if Jews living in their own ancient capital are newcomers – is their warmth, friendliness, and hospitality. I arrived with twenty guests and our host, a wise and dedicated communal activist named Yigal, prepared a feast fit for a king. We ate in his sukkah surrounded by a tranquility and quiet that I, in my busy life, rarely experience. The night air was cool and enervating.
All around us children were playing, utterly carefree, on pristine playgrounds. So many Jews in Hebron have been killed in terror attacks over the years. Yet the residents in general, and the children in particular, live unafraid. They are also liberated from hatred. When their friends die they mourn them, bury them, commemorate them, and get on with their lives.
For nearly a thousand years, the Islamic rulers of the Holy Land forbade Jews from entering the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, allowing them to climb only seven steps into the tomb but beating them mercilessly if they rose any higher. When Israel liberated it in 1967, Jewish pilgrims came to Hebron swearing never again to be separated from their origin. Even amid the worst terror attacks, property values in Hebron and Kiryat Arba never decline. There are no fluctuations in the commitment to pray by the graves of those who gave the world monotheism.
Yet these residents have been demonized by the entire world. They face daily character assassination in the media by those who would decry their simple desire to walk in the footsteps of Abraham. World leaders regularly engage in extreme defamation of families whose only wish it is to raise their children in the Judean hills of King David. President Obama rises at the United Nations and calls for a further moratorium on building in the settlements, as if it’s a crime for peaceful people to have children and add rooms to warm and hospitable homes that welcome innumerable guests.
Worse, my Israeli friends in Tel Aviv tell me they hate the “settlers” because their children are forced to “defend a bunch of fanatics who live surrounded by 100,000 Arabs.”
I quickly remind them that, first, the residents of Hebron themselves serve in elite combat units of the Israeli military; second, if a nation can’t hold fast to the tomb of its ancestors (and remember that the tomb in its present form was constructed by King Herod 2,000 years ago from the very same stone as the Kotel) then it scarcely deserves to call itself a people; third, I know many Jews, particularly in Britain, who wonder why they should have to defend and raise money for the six million Jews who have “settled” in Israel proper, surrounded as they are by half a billion Arabs; and, finally, if we give up Hebron, as we discovered with Gush Katif and Sderot, we bring hostile forces to bear directly on Jerusalem.
It is not the deeply spiritual residents of Hebron who threaten peace but the death-groupies of Hizbullah and Hamas, who seek to make all Israel Judenrein.
Just a few yards from the spot where Shalhevet Pass, a ten-month-old Israeli infant, was shot and killed by a Palestinian sniper while sitting in her stroller in March, 2001, I danced with my children to celebrate the festival of Sukkot.
The streets of Hebron were alive with joyous residents dancing to the music of a mystical band whose flowing locks and mesmerizing music set my soul alight. I was electrified to be dancing in a city that in 1929 saw the massacre of 67 Jews and the destruction of nearly all synagogues and Jewish buildings.
We American Jews live with so many infantile worries, like our fear of not being able to keep up with the Joneses or suffering a decline in our standard of living during this recession. But dancing in Hebron I felt liberated, free of fear, and deeply grateful to the residents who live without material extravagance and who taught me that even in a place of stress and danger one can find inner tranquility and peace.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the bestselling author of 23 books (his latest is “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life”) and founder of This World: The Values Network.