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Jewish Heritage Under Siege

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Purim zaniness came early to Israel this year. Speaking at a conference in Herzliya at the beginning of February, Prime Minister Netanyahu called for the rehabilitation of Jewish heritage sites in the Land of Israel.

“A people must know its past,” he declared, “in order to ensure its future.” For the Jewish people, this knowledge begins “in the Book of Books – in the Bible.” Therefore the government was launching a “Heritage Plan” to restore more than one hundred historical, religious and cultural sites scattered throughout the country.

There was only one problem with the prime minister’s plan – actually, two. Omitted from his list of historical and religious sites worthy of preservation were Me’arat HaMachpelah, the Herodian enclosure in Hebron above the burial caves of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people; and Rachel’s Tomb, the iconic matriarchal burial site at the edge of Bethlehem.

These were no small omissions; they are the most ancient recorded holy sites of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. For more than two millennia Jews (when permitted by their conquerors) have made pilgrimages there for inspiration, solace, and prayer.

Abraham’s purchase of a burial place for Sarah is precisely recounted in Genesis 23. Determined to assure legal title to the land in perpetuity, Abraham insisted upon paying Ephron’s full asking price of four hundred silver shekels. There, in “the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre – now Hebron – in the Land of Canaan,” Sarah and Abraham, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah would be buried. The biblical account of the Machpelah episode is a vital legitimation story, recounting the first land purchase for the Jewish people in their promised land.

According to Genesis 35, the matriarch Rachel died in childbirth and was buried “on the road to Efrata – now Bethlehem.” Over her grave Jacob set a matzeva (marker), which long ago was enclosed beneath the familiar domed roof that has inspired Jewish folk art ever since. Jewish women still flock to Kever Rachel to find solace by communing with”Rachel Imenu.”

The omission of these two venerable shrines from Netanyahu’s original Heritage list predictably infuriated Shas party leaders and religious Zionists. Me’arat HaMachpelah – like Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem (Genesis 33:19), and Aravna’s threshing floor in Jerusalem, bought by David for an alter to God (2 Samuel 18-25) – was purchased for a price explicitly stipulated in Torah. Therefore, according to rabbinic commentary, Machpelah was “one of three places about which the nations of the world cannot taunt Israel, saying these are stolen lands.”

Rachel’s Tomb reminds us that the Hebrew word kever, meaning both “grave” and “womb,” links past and present. The past, writes Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat (located between Rachel’s Tomb and Hebron) is “mother to the future.”

Even secular Israelis may remember that not long before his incapacitating stroke in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a Haaretz journalist: “If we were a normal nation, when a visitor arrived here we would take him not to Yad Vashem but rather to Hebron. We’d take him to where our roots are . No other people has anything like it.”

Prompted by public outrage over his omission, it did not take long before Netanyahu expanded his list of Heritage sites by two.

That became the predictable spark for Muslim fury and violence. Palestinian leaders seized the opportunity to castigate Israel for its domination and repression before an appreciative Western audience. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas warned of a “holy war” over Rachel’s Tomb, which was suddenly transformed by Muslims into the thousand-year-old Bilal ibn Ribah “mosque.” (The first Muslim references to a mosque at the site appeared in 1966.)

The Heritage project, declared Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza, “aims to erase our identity, alter our Islamic monuments and steal our history.” His minister of religious affairs called for violence to “protect our Islamic holy places from the risk of Judaization.”

Quickly swallowing the Palestinian bait, State Department spokesman Mark Toner indicated that the Obama administration viewed Netanyahu’s inclusion of the Jewish holy sites in the Heritage list as provocative and unhelpful.

In fact, it is Muslims who continue to plunder Jewish history and seize Jewish holy sites for their own political and religious purposes. The Cave of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, like Kever Rachel, was a Jewish prayer site long before Islam existed. During seven hundred years under Muslim rule, between 1267-1967, Jews (and other “infidels”) were prohibited from entering the Machpelah shrine to pray at the graves of their biblical ancestors. They could ascend no higher than the seventh step outside the wall of the Herodian structure. There they were forced to prostrate themselves, “stretching their necks like burrowed fox in order to try to press their lips against their ancestor’s tomb” according to one witness, while Arab children gathered to mock them.

About the Author: Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy,” to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.

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