Honestly, it would be hard to choose the one area that could win the title “the most dramatic site” in Eretz Yisrael. However, one strong candidate has to be Gush Etzion.
Between Jerusalem and Chevron in the middle of Judea, is a hilly area crisscrossed by colorful fertile valleys and gorges – the heart of the Holy Land.
Today the greater Gush Etzion area is home to about 60,000 and growing. This area has not seen this number of its sons and daughters since our expulsion during the rebellion against Rome. But we are back and making up for lost time!
David HaMelech, and before him Benyamin, son of Rachel were born there. Yes, it has been a Jewish neighborhood for some time.
After Ezra and Nehemiah led Klal Yisrael back from Bavel 2,400 years ago, they rebuilt their homes in the heartland.
It was here that the great showdown with the Greek Empire occurred. The rulers of ancient Greece declared that it was going to be their way or no way. They would not tolerate anti-social, dangerous ideas like the belief in just one God, a day of rest – even for slaves and cattle! Not putting old parents out to die…Judaism was dangerous!. It must end in favor of modernity. Loyal Jews felt otherwise.
And so the family of the Maccabim raised the banner of revolt.
“Those who are for God come to me,” and an irregular band of farmers and patriots set off to defeat Greece. They did. That is the story of Chanukah.
During one of the more crucial battles in the heart of what is today Gush Etzion, Elazar the Maccabee noted that the lead enemy elephant was carrying the general. Breaking ranks, he rushed the elephant and speared him in his soft under belly. The general was killed along with our hero – but the Greek attack was blunted and Jerusalem saved.
Yes, it was all about Jerusalem. Gush Etzion lies on the “Road of the Patriarchs” between Jerusalem and Chevron. Jerusalem cannot be taken from the south as long as Gush Etzion holds.
Which brings us to the modern era.
As the exiled began to trickle in from the four corners of the world, the ancient, craggy soil began to respond to the love and care of her long lost sons and daughters. The land blossomed once again.
In 1922, the village of Migdal Eder was established by Yemenite Jews who made the three-month journey home by foot from the end of the southern Arabian Peninsula. The holy soil responded – but the Arabs were not happy about the return of the rightful heirs and forced them out during the bloody 1929 riots.
The Jews were not discouraged. They returned in 1935. A Mr. Holtzman bought land in the area and rebuilt. In Yiddish Holtz means wood, which is eitz in Hebrew. Thus the word Etzion (wood) for the modern settlements
Things were great, until the next wave of Arab pogroms and the Jews were forced out – again.
They did not despair.
In 1942 as their Jewish brothers in Europe were being butchered, other young Jews were preparing for a Jewish future in the Jewish home land. Kibbutz Kfar Etzion was established by a group of youth on land purchased by the Jewish National Fund. Then in 1945, Mauot Yitzchok was established. In 1946, Ein Tzurim and in 1947 young Zionist socialist pioneers joined their religious brothers and sisters in near by Kibbutz Ravadim. The hills were alive again. Nothing could stop these young starry-eyed idealists now. They were building a country for Holocaust survivors and for the returning exiles the world over.
1947. The British had just called it quits. They could not quell the revolt of the Irgun and Lechi waging war against them. They announced the end of their occupation of Palestine.
On November 29, 1947 the UN voted to partition western Eretz Yisrael into two states – one Jewish, one Arab. The Jews accepted. The Arabs were not interested in borders. There could not be a Jewish state.
And so the four fledgling Gush Etzion settlements were cut off and threatened by both the local Arab mobs and the British-led Jordanian army.
They took a vote. It was decided that despite the slim chances of survival they would stay and fight. The children and mothers were evacuated and they dug in.
It was about Jerusalem.
The Arabs cut off all the roads. Convoys were attacked and casualties mounted.
In one famous battle, a convoy of 51 vehicles made it to the Gush with supplies but were delayed leaving due to a stubborn prize breeding bull who would not get onto the truck.
The Arabs were waiting on the road just outside Bethlehem. The lead truck was stopped by a roadblock and the men and women took refuge in a small stone building off the road. For 30 hours the Arabs kept up their attack. The “neutral” British would not intervene as the number of Jewish dead and wounded mounted. Finally, the Jews had to agree to hand over all their vehicles and weapons to the Arabs in return for a British safe escort.
(For years I have traveled that road and stopped to explain to visitors about the famous stone house with the memorial plaque outside. That was before the Oslo accords, before this area was given to our “peace partners.” After that I noticed that the sign was gone. Then the building was gone. What battle? What history? Were the Jews ever there at all? )
In a desperate attempt to supply the beleaguered, valiant villages, thirty-five students volunteered to carry supplies through the Judean hills. Towards morning, within site of Gush Etzion, they spotted an Arab shepherd but took no action against him.
A fatal mistake.
He alerted the villages in the area and hundreds of shrieking armed Arabs descended on the tiny band. When it was over the Jewish bodies were beyond recognition.
Out of ammunition and short on supplies, the Arabs swarmed the settlements. The British-led Jordanian army joined the attack, assuring an Arab victory.
Five hundred and thirty five men and women held off a very well armed force ten times their size. 157 were killed. 128 of them massacred after surrender.
Gush Etzion fell for the third time.
Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister said, “If there is a Jewish Jerusalem today we owe it to the defenders of Gush Etzion.” They bought the valuable time needed.
In the ensuing years the orphans and survivors would look longingly at the lone oak tree seen from far. A symbol of what was. Who dreamed that it could be again?
In 1967, the Arabs launched attacks on Israel and after the miraculous Six Day War her sons returned to Gush Etzion – for a fourth time.
Today the “Gush” has expanded twenty times and from four tiny settlement hugging the land for dear life, there are fifteen towns and villages, 60,000 strong and growing.
Today there is tons to do and see there – from history and archeology, to wine tasting, nature hikes and fruit picking. And, of course, don’t miss the dramatic audiovisual presentation of the 1947–48 events.
Will these “West Bank settlements” withstand the multiple onslaughts of Arab terrorists and Israeli “land for peace” fanatics? The prophets promised that we would return for good. And that is as good as it gets.