Kindergarten children celebrated the coming holiday of Shavuot which starts Saturday night. The holiday stresses the ancient commandment of bringing agricultural gifts to the holy Temple, along with commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Posts Tagged ‘ancient’
Inspectors of the Israel Antiquities Authority recently seized two covers of Egyptian sarcophagi that contained ancient mummies in the past. The covers were confiscated by inspectors of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery while checking shops in the market place of the Old City in Jerusalem. The ancient covers, which are made of wood and coated with a layer of plaster, are adorned with breathtaking decorations and paintings of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The coffins were taken for examination on the suspicion they might be stolen property.
After undergoing examination by experts, which included among other things a Carbon 14 analysis for the purpose of dating the wood, it was unequivocally determined that these items are authentic and thousands of years old: one of the covers is dated to the period between the 10th and 8th centuries BCE (Iron Age) and the other to between the 16th and 14th centuries BCE (Late Bronze Age). Because these are rare artifacts made of organic material, they are being held for the time being in custody, under climate-control conditions, in the laboratories of the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem. Wooden sarcophagi of this kind have only been found in Egypt so far, and were preserved thanks to the dry desert climate that prevails there.
It is suspected that Egyptian antiquities robbers plundered ancient tombs in the region of the Western Desert in Egypt, and afterwards unknown persons smuggled the wooden covers from Egypt to Dubai, and from there they found their way to Israel by way of a third country in Europe. Evidence of their having been smuggled is indicated by the sawing of the covers into two parts, which caused irreparable damage to the ancient items. This was presumably done to reduce their dimensions and facilitate concealing and transporting them in a standard size suitcase. Covers of this kind usually enclosed a sarcophagus made of palm wood c. 2 meters long, which contained the embalmed remains of a person. It is unclear what happened to the mummy and the sarcophagus.
The Israel Antiquities Authority reports that until recently antiquities dealers and other entities have exploited loopholes in the law whereby they brought antiquities into the country for the purpose of “laundering” them. These antiquities, which are alleged to have been plundered in Middle Eastern countries and illegally exported from them, were imported to Israel by local antiquities dealers. In Israel the stolen ancient artifacts were provided documentation that allowed them to be exported and sold abroad to the highest bidder. During the marketing and sales process the dealers would report these antiquities as artifacts that were ostensibly of Israeli provenance.
Regulations regarding the importation of antiquities into Israel were recently amended. The new regulations, which will take effect toward the end of April 2012, require a customs declaration for the importation of antiquities and a preliminary inspection of the items by the Israel Antiquities Authority for the issuance of an import license.
The Israel Antiquities Authority, in cooperation with the Customs and Tax Authority, will prevent the importation of antiquities into the country without proper documentation that indicates they were legally exported from the country of origin, and thereby significantly reduce the process of “antiquities laundering” and the trade in stolen antiquities in the Middle East.
According to Shai Bar-Tura, inspector in charge of overseeing the antiquities trade on behalf of the IAA Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery, “Beginning April 20 there will be a new reality in the antiquities trade in Israel. The new regulation will provide us with the tools in order to prevent the importation into the country of antiquities that were stolen or plundered in other countries, thus enabling us to thwart the international cycle of robbery and trade in stolen archaeological artifacts”.
The Israel Antiquities Authority is engaged in a continuing effort to preserve and protect the historical heritage values of the State of Israel, and to assist in the international struggle against the robbery of antiquities in the Middle East.
Recently Egyptian authorities submitted a request asking that the stolen sarcophagus covers be repatriated. The Egyptian request is being taken under advisement by the Israel Antiquities Authority, in cooperation with the Israel Police and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the legalities are currently being examined in order to return the objects to their country of origin.
On Tuesday, March 13, an archaeological site inspector in Hebron’s Old City discovered that the archaeological site there had been severely damaged – the diggings in progress were ruined and covered up.
A group of Arab workers, apparently contracted by the Palestinian Authority, breached an ancient terrace bordering the antique path that connects Avraham’s Well and the tombs of Ruth and Yishai. They further removed a fence near an IDF outpost. Next, they brought trash and dumped it in the archaeological diggings, which contain findings from the Canaanite period. They then set fire to the trash.
This destructive process was stopped only after the inspector called the police, the army, and the Civil Administration. Surprisingly, the vandals were not arrested and were allowed to continue with their work, receiving only a warning about further damage to the archaeological artifacts around them.
It is significant to note that this is not the first time Arabs have been engaged in the destruction of archaeological artifacts in Hebron. They have previously perpetrated similar acts of vandalism, but have recently begun to work in an organized fashion, leading to suspicions that the acts are purposeful and orchestrated by an entity bent on the erasure of archaeological artifacts that testify to the ancient Jewish roots in Hebron.
Chaim Bleicher, a resident of Hebron, told Tazpit that they have been doing their best to combat these trends. The army and Civil Administration have made no real attempts to halt these actions, and it has been reported that the army even intends to close off part of the archeological site to eliminate friction, working only to maintain the peace, even if it means the irreplaceable loss of archaeological artifacts and the cover up of Hebron’s Jewish identity.
Theses incidents in Hebron are not unique to the area. Similar incidents have been recorded throughout Israel, especially in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount. The Arabs are aware that the archaeological findings point to an ancient and prolonged Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, and therefore do all they can to destroy these artifacts, doing their best to cover up the simple fact that the Jews have deep roots in the Land of Israel.
Salam Fayyad recently provided an example of what I refer to as the Principle of ‘Palestinianism Inventivity’, a theme I touched on previously on my blog. The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister was quoted as saying that ‘Christmas was an opportunity to “celebrate the Palestinian identity of Jesus Christ,” as EoZ blogged.
That Jesus was a “Palestinian” was something Hanan Ashrawi infamously declared at the Madrid Conference two decades ago which, being there, I heard her with my own ears.
Even a non-expert on Christianity knows more than what Fayyad would have Christians and others not believe, which is that the country in which Jesus was born and grew up in was not referred to as “Palestine” in a geopolitical sense until 100 years or so after the Jewish nationalist revolt against Rome. And then, it was Palaestina Prima, Secunda and Tertia with capitals in Caesarea, Beth Shean and Petra, respectively. A claimed earlier mention of “Palestine” in 450 BCE or thereabouts by Herodotus simply confirms that then it was but a “district of Syria”. Jesus was no “Palestinian” but a Jew. He was born, lived and died a Jew. His preaching was interpreted by his Roman executioners as part of the political rhetoric of Jewish nationalism seeking the upheaval of Roman occupation.
The term “Palestine” was established…in an attempt to erase “Judaea” from human memory. According to Prof. Bernard Lewis, the icon of Mid-East historians (International History Review, January, 1980), “In the early medieval Arabic usage, Filastin [Palestine] and Urdunn [Jordan] were sub-districts forming part of the greater geographical entity known as Syria…. Under Roman, Byzantine and Islamic rule, Palestine was politically submerged. It reappeared only under the Crusaders…. the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem…Under the successors of Saladin, and still more under the Mameluks, the country was redistributed in new territorial units … with its capital in Damascus…. After the Ottoman conquest in 1516-17, the country was divided into Ottoman administrative districts… subject to the authority of the Governor-General of Damascus…”[The term Palestine] was no longer used by Muslims, for whom it had never meant more than an administrative sub-district and it had been forgotten even in that limited sense….
The real crime is not that the “Palestinians” have invented themselves, but that they engage in an exercise of inventivity whereby I mean they also seek to demote and nullify Jewish history. One of the first to practice this perversity was Phillip Hitti who, back in 1944, and earlier, not only declared before the US Congress that “there is no such thing as ‘Palestine’ in history, absolutely not”, thus proving the “invented people” claim, but then, in a debate with Albert Einstein asserted, absurdly, that Zionism is an “artificially stimulated movement” whereas Arabs are descended from the Canaanites. He has been followed by Nur Masalha who promotes a laughable “Through Canaanite Eyes” paradigm of pseudo-scholarship (which I have dealt with here and also here. And see this, too).
This inventivity is moving into its next phase, thanks to UNESCO accepting these history make-believers as members of that institution. Bethlehem’s Rachel’s Tomb is a mosque. So is Joseph’s Tomb in Shchem. The Jewish Temple in Jerusalem is denied. Gone is the Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs. The PA’s Hamdan Taha is clear about his purpose. He even relates to my home in Shiloh, seeking to convince the international community that the Jewish Shiloh never existed:
“In Shiloh the settlers pretended to have found the tabernacles,” he proclaimed. “They can find the chicken bone my grandfather ate 50 years ago and say it was a young calf for ancient sacrifice.”
Not only is this a despicable deprecation but it is a very unprofessional opinion for the Palestinian Authority minister who deals with antiquities and culture, a person that the “founder” of modern “Palestinian archaeology”, Albert Glock,had “held the severe and unyielding view that Taha’s work was below the standard he wanted for the select group of Palestinian archaeologists” and may have been connected to Glock’s murder.
It has been said, and attributed to Plato, that necessity is the mother of invention. I might add that inventivity is the necessary foundation of Palestinianism. For without inventivity, there is nothing.
Siona Benjamin’s exhibition “Finding Home: The Art of Siona Benjamin” is simply beautiful. Set in the spacious lobby gallery of the JCC Manhattan, it allows for a peaceful (when the kids, nannies and crowds subside) contemplation of this complex artist’s meditations on biblical women, war, exoticism and contemporary society. The painted walls range from soft ochre to a pale turquoise, setting off Benjamin’s palette to maximum effect, each work sensuously vibrating with the atmosphere of Benjamin’s native Mumbai, India. As has been explored in previous reviews of her work (September 23, 2008, March 25, 2011) these Persian/Indian/Mughal influences are meant to express exile and foreignness. Her work is an autobiographical narrative as much as a worldview paradoxically meant to bring us all together.
The sensitive curator at the JCC, Megan Whitman, has chosen a wide range of Benjamin’s work including works including the exploration of the diverse narratives of Tziporah, Miriam, Ruth, Chava, Sarah, Esther and Sarah/Hagar. Intriguingly almost all of her works are subtitled Fereshteh, meaning angels in Urdu, her native Indian language. For Benjamin these biblical characters are angels, i.e. messengers between the divine and the mundane, between the ancient Torah and our contemporary concerns. And while she claims that “Finding Home” is no longer a central artistic concern for her, it is clear that Benjamin continues to search for a meaning to be extracted out of her own personal exile and the larger exile of her fellow Jews. These paintings are deeply concerned with searching, challenging and yearning for some kind of salvation.
At the risk of slighting much significant artwork in this exhibition, Benjamin’s seven works on the subject of Lilith (Leelat) demand special attention. Representing fully one-third of these exhibited works, no other subject is as extensively developed. And no other subject is as infused with troubling ancient and contemporary meaning.
Lilith represents an ancient male fear of the feminine. She is the terrifying other, the disruptive feminine force that is violent, rebellious and assertive. But, perhaps more significantly, she represents the all-too-real perils of female creativity. Bringing life into this world is an inherently risky proposition, and Lilith’s demonic reign reflects the terrible reality of infant mortality seldom acknowledged.
Lilith is fleetingly mentioned in Isaiah 34:14, is described in the Gemara at least four times, and her demonic activity is fully explored in the Midrash and in the Zohar. It is there that she, like all demons, becomes a scourge to man and woman alike. Her fury at men takes the form of illicit nocturnal relations that result in demonic offspring that fill the world with chaos and evil. Nonetheless it is her hatred of vulnerable women in childbirth, postpartum and their newborn children, that is especially feared. From antiquity amulets and kimiyahs (angel texts) were routinely placed around those thought to be vulnerable to Lilith’s murderous attacks.
Significantly, Benjamin does not address the Lilith that terrified Jewish women for centuries. Rather she utilizes the ancient character of rebellion to fashion a uniquely contemporary Lilith. It should be noted that Benjamin gives all these paintings the same name: Finding Home (Fereshteh), distinguishing them only by different numbers.
A web of demonic forces traps the emergent Lilith in Finding Home #88. She is bound at the waist as she reaches up to a host of heavenly angels and to a blindfolded messenger bearing a basket of divine powers. Below a swarm of blue demons radiates in free fall from the newly created Lilith. This female being is constricted by all manners of strings, demonic, heavenly and those pinned outside the image itself; Lilith here is compromised and trapped, not yet liberated from her creators.
Finding Home #80 continues narrative of the genesis of the contemporary Lilith. The text explains to us “THEN TO THE AMAZEMENT OF ALL, THERE AROSE FROM THE FIRE A BLUE MAIDEN, WAFTING THE FRAGRANCE OF LOTUSES IN BLOOM.” Here Lilith wishes to simultaneously be Jewish, an archetypical blue goddess and a wounded avenging angel. She wears a diminutive hamsa necklace and a tallis even as she totes a six-shooter and ammunition belt. Her eyes are closed in a kind of blissful agony from the arrow that has pierced her side in reference to the Roman Catholic martyr St. Sebastian, much beloved of medieval and Renaissance artists. In this deeply complex and conflicted image one red bird flies off the right side of the canvas as a single ray of hope. An ornate classic gold enclosure reinforces the iconic nature of this image, a startling birth of the anti-Venus housed in a frame more suitable to an Italian Madonna and Child.
Finally at the end of the exhibition is what is arguably Benjamin’s masterpiece, Finding Home #74. Grand in size (75″ X 58″) and in scale this painting is also surrounded by an ornate frame teeming with hundreds of toy combat figures only visible upon close inspection. They set the militant tone that the image proclaims; “A THOUSAND OF YEARS HAVE I WAITED KEEPING THE EMBERS OF REVENGE GLOWING IN MY HEART!” She is also a wounded victim; a bullet is just visible inside her ribcage next to the still bleeding gash. She utters her angry cry with tears flowing down her cheeks, again in Pop Art mock drama, just as a ball of flame erupts behind her.
This painting is a tour de force because it brings to a head all of the questions and issues this contemporary Lilith poses for us. Is Lilith a Jewish women’s liberator as Benjamin’s text balloons would suggest? And yet so much mitigates against that very modern Jewish feminist ideology. Her constant depiction as a victim – injured, pierced and bleeding – does not conjure a forceful heroine. Additionally the emphasis on war and violence, either aimed at Lilith or as swirling around her, seems to compromise the character. Most pointedly Benjamin’s use of Pop Art irony, a kind of tongue-in-cheek seriousness, begins to question the all too fashionable use of this ancient Jewish female figure.
This selection of Benjamin’s Lilith paintings, representing about three-quarters she has done with this character, throws the female demon into complex relief. She is adrift in a dangerous world, yearning to be a powerful actress in solving our problems and yet not able. She casts a suspicious glance at her modern fame, doubting that she or any Jewish woman (or man) can be effective at the salvation the world seems to need so badly. Siona Benjamin has created a Lilith very wisely modern, not yet ready to change the course of history by mere force of will but still unwilling to accept the world in its unredeemed state.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Title: Not Just Another Scenario 2
Author: Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Yocheved Golani is the author of E-book “It’s MY Crisis! And I’ll Cry If I Need To: EMPOWER Yourself to Cope with a Medical Challenge” (www.booklocker.com/books/4244.html).
Mark Podwal is a busy, busy man. He has spent the last 38 years making every conceivable kind of art: innumerable paintings, 28 illustrated books written by him and Elie Wiesel, Harold Bloom and Francine Prose, children’s books, haggadot, ceramics and graphic works. Dubbed the “Master of the True Line” by author Cynthia Ozick, his pro-Israel cartoons and drawings have been featured on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times since 1972. Lately his passion for the Jewish community in Prague has expressed itself in a book, Built by Angels: The Story of the Old-New Synagogue and a documentary film House of Life: The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague narrated by Claire Bloom. His art is found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, Fogg Art Museum and Library of Congress. The Forum Gallery in New York has represented him since 1977. He also happens to be a Board certified Dermatologist. What is easily most remarkable about this breathless list of accomplishments is that his artwork has consistently focused on Jewish legend, history and tradition.
In one of his earliest Jewish works, Podwal used the words of the Prophet Jeremiah to illustrate Lamentations (1974) in a series of searing images delineating the tragedies of Jewish history that the prophet foretells. Podwal’s signature style is already evident; a powerfully simple line combines with acidic social commentary to bring an ancient text into contemporary consciousness. The frontispiece is a line drawing that copies the well-known Baroque arch and framing columns of countless copies of the Talmud and sacred texts. On the pediment “Echah” is inscribed with “Kinot for Tisha b’Av” in Hebrew in the empty archway. A lone noose hangs above the inscription, wrenching us from ancient history to modern day persecutions.
So too the verse “The adversary has spread out his hand upon all her treasures. For she has seen that the heathen have entered into her sanctuary.” (1:10) Podwal keeps us in the present, depicting two Nazi storm troopers marching off with the Temple menorah found on the Roman Arch of Titus. Similar in sentiment, but somehow more vicious, is the illustration from chapter 5:1-2 where we see the Roman Capitoline Wolf (symbol of the founding of Rome) staring defiantly at us and ironically crowned with a 18th century Polish Torah crown, grasping an ornate menorah in its savage teeth. For Podwal Rome continues to oppress well after its own demise.
And then there was “Schmuel the Shoemaker.” In You Never Know: A Legend of the Lamed-vavniks (1998), written by Francine Prose. The notion of holiness hidden in our midst is lovingly explored in this Eastern European Jewish tale. Podwal’s illustrations are uncharacteristically restrained. The hero is seen most poignantly as a humble man hidden in the purple of shadows, contemplating what the needs of his little town are. Nonetheless, this simple pious Jew who simply wished to help his fellow man saved his entire town from disaster. We are urged by his illustrations to reflect upon the subtle notion of how simple kindness can engender great blessings.
The legend of the king of the demons, Ashmedai, dominates the last quarter of the book with some of Podwal’s best images propelling the story. The wicked Ashmedai is seen as a grumpy gremlin, adorned with enormous bat wings and little white horns. After he steals the king’s ring and therefore his power, we see him transformed as a look-alike King Shlomo and the real king reduced to wandering the world as an impoverished vagrant. Even though he finally regains his magic ring and his rightful throne, the king is chastened, filled with a new kind of wisdom.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at email@example.com
No Jews are as relentlessly reviled as the Jews of Hebron. Vilified as the pariahs of the Jewish people – “zealots,” “fanatics” and “fundamentalists” who illegally “occupy” someone else’s land – they are the militant Jewish settlers whom legions of critics in Israel, the United States and throughout the world love to hate. It is seldom noticed that their most serious transgression, settlement in the biblical Land of Israel, defines Zionism: the return of Jews to their historic homeland.
Living in the ancient biblical city south of Jerusalem, Hebron Jews are clustered near Me’arat HaMachpelah, the Cave of Machpelah, the oldest Jewish holy site in the world. There, according to Jewish tradition, Abraham purchased the first parcel of land owned by the Jewish people in their promised land to bury Sarah.
There, too, the patriarchs and matriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah – were entombed. Jews have lived and prayed in Hebron and made pilgrimages to the Machpelah shrine ever since biblical antiquity. Conquered, massacred, expelled and exiled over the centuries, they have always remembered Hebron and they have always returned.
Hebron Jews are a unique community of Jewish memory. Their insistence on living in their ancient city expresses the fierce determination to return to the geographical and spiritual source of Jewish history in the Land of Israel. Ever since Abraham’s purchase Hebron has been deeply embedded in Jewish history and myth.
Centuries before Jerusalem became King David’s city, home to the sacred Temples on Mount Zion and then an enduring symbol of the unquenchable yearning of Jews to return to their ancient homeland, Hebron already was a source of Jewish memory and a locus of Jewish piety. And ever since Joseph and his brothers brought the body of their father Jacob from Egypt for burial in the Cave of Machpelah, Jews have always returned to Hebron.
One of the four ancient holy cities (along with Jerusalem, Safed and Tiberias), Hebron was honored in antiquity with designation as a city of refuge and a priestly city. It became King David’s first capital, an important administrative center for King Hezekiah in his eighth-century war against the Assyrians, and a crucial battleground during the Maccabean and Bar Kochba uprisings. There, at the beginning of the Common Era, King Herod built the massive stone enclosure around the burial tombs that remains the oldest intact structure in the entire Land of Israel.
* * * * *
But Jews were not alone in finding sacred meaning and inspiration in Hebron. Over the centuries, Christians and Muslims attempted to make Hebron exclusively theirs, expelling and excluding Jews to nullify challenges to their own claims of patrimony.
Beginning in the mid-thirteenth century, Muslim rulers prohibited Jews (and other “infidels”) from entering Machpelah to pray at the tombs, permitting them to ascend no higher than the seventh step outside the enclosure. But itinerant Jewish travelers persisted in making pilgrimages to the ancient burial site and some elderly Jews moved to Hebron to be buried near their biblical ancestors.
Following the expulsions from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century, a small group of pious Jews built a community of study and prayer in Hebron on land purchased for them by a wealthy benefactor. Sephardic Jews trickled in from villages and cities in the Middle East, subsequently joined by Hasidim from Eastern Europe. They comprised a community whose foundations rested on the bedrock of the biblical narrative. Gathered around the Avraham Avinu (“Our Father Abraham”) synagogue, in a dark and cramped quarter adjacent to the market in the center of town, they clung tenaciously to their precarious foothold, dependent for economic survival largely on emissaries dispatched to benefactors scattered throughout the Jewish world.
During much of the nineteenth century, a time of impressive community expansion, Hebron Jews maintained relatively harmonious, if largely subservient, relations with their Muslim neighbors. Hebron became widely known for its scholarship and learning; aspiring young scholars came to study with venerated rabbis. By mid-century, pioneering archaeologists testified to its antiquity while talented artists such as David Roberts and William H. Bartlett depicted its sacred allure, placing Hebron on the expanding map of Holy Land tourism. Yeshivas sprouted, a medical clinic opened, and the first paved road from Jerusalem linked Hebron to other Jewish communities in Ottoman Palestine.
But in 1929, after nearly a decade of British rule following World War I, Hebron experienced another of the horrific pogroms that had long punctuated Jewish history, from Granada (1066) to Kishinev (1903). As Arab rioting swept through Palestine, the 400-year-old Hebron Jewish community was suddenly attacked and brutally decimated. Sixty-seven Jews were murdered; scores were assaulted, severely wounded, even mutilated.
After British soldiers removed traumatized survivors from their homes and evacuated them to Jerusalem, Hebron – foreshadowing so many other communities in the years to come – became Judenrein. Two years later an attempt to rebuild failed. During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Hebron was conquered and absorbed by the Kingdom of Jordan. In the old Jewish Quarter any remnants of its Jewish past – synagogues, yeshivas, even the ancient cemetery – were virtually obliterated.
* * * * *
When the Israel Defense Forces swept into biblical Judea and Samaria near the end of the Six-Day War in June 1967, Hebron – along with Jerusalem – was restored to Jewish control after 2,000 years. For the first time since 1267, Jews could pray inside the Machpelah enclosure, at the tombs of their ancestors.
The following spring, a group of predominantly religious Zionists, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, came to Hebron to celebrate Passover, reclaim their biblical patrimony and rebuild the destroyed community of 1929. They formed the ideological vanguard of the Jewish settlement movement that has since embedded 300,000 Israelis in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), earning worldwide enmity for their presence on land inhabited by 1.5 million Palestinian Arabs.
Hebron Jews embrace a synthesis of religion and nationalism that is anathema to most modern Jews, whether or not they live in Israel. Their religious nationalism infuriates secular Israelis, whose Zionist identity was forged in rebellion against the religion of Diaspora Jews. It antagonizes Diaspora Jews, whose religion must remain separate from nationality to demonstrate loyalty to the nation whose citizenship they hold. With their impassioned blend of Zionist nationalism and religious Judaism blamed for undermining Israeli democracy and jeopardizing Middle Eastern peace efforts, Hebron Jews may be the only Jews in the world whose critics can viciously malign them without incurring the taint of anti-Semitism.
The history of the Jewish community of Hebron is deeply rooted in the biblical narrative. In Genesis, the book of Torah that spans the epoch from divine creation to the death of Joseph in Egypt, Hebron commands conspicuous attention. In meticulous detail, Genesis 23:1-20 recounts Sarah’s death “in Kiryat Arba – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan,” and Abraham’s acquisition of a burial place there. It might plausibly be concluded that Jewish history, as we now know it, began in Hebron.
In many passages sprinkled throughout the text, the Hebrew Bible enjoins memory. Its frequently reiterated and braided commands – “zachor” (remember), and “lo tishkach” (do not forget) – assured Jewish survival through centuries, indeed millennia, of dispersion. Jewish history and memory are inextricably entwined, and no community of Jews is more tenaciously committed to the preservation of historical memory than the Jews of Hebron. But their determination to remember, in the very place where Jewish memory may be said to have originated, places them at the epicenter of a polarizing conflict within contemporary Israel – as acrimonious as the struggle between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs – over the identity and boundaries of the Jewish state.
Hebron Jews are widely condemned by legions of critics for misguided political and religious fanaticism that could propel Israel into a disastrous holy war with Arabs, or a wrenching civil war between Jews. Yet they remain fiercely determined to remember what most Jews have long since forgotten.
In June 1967, when Israel looked into the abyss of annihilation and won a miraculous victory in six days, Jews regained possession of their holy places in Jerusalem and Hebron. Before long, Jews returned to Hebron, not only in celebration and prayer but also to rebuild the destroyed community. “With the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other,” wrote Israeli journalist Amos Elon disapprovingly, Hebron settlers had the temerity to insist that “deeds contracted in the late Bronze Age are the legal and moral basis for present claims” – as though biblical roots in the Land of Israel were not the deepest source of Zionism itself.
Here was a new and passionate cohort of Zionists, settling the Land of Israel precisely as their Zionist forbears had done – only to be reviled for their Zionist apostasy.
* * * * *
The story of Hebron Jews since the Six-Day War is nothing less than the history of Zionism writ small: the astonishing return of a people to its ancient homeland. They are Zionists whose nationalism rests explicitly on the divine promise of the land of Israel to the Jewish people. As religious nationalists, they have restored an ancient Jewish synthesis that was stifled during the long centuries of exile and all but eradicated by Jewish modernity. Responding to the central impulse in Jewish and Zionist history, they returned “home” to the biblical Land of Israel, and to the first landholding of the Jewish people there – only to be scathingly vilified ever since.
Far outside the secular Zionist consensus that molds mainstream Israeli culture and identity, the Hebron Jewish community nonetheless exemplifies the theme of exile and return that has framed Jewish memory at least since the Babylonian conquest in 586 B.C.E., if not since the biblical Exodus from Egypt.
Hebron is now home to 700 Jewish inhabitants and 200 yeshiva students, residing in a partitioned city inhabited by 160,000 Palestinian Arabs. Living where few Jews can even imagine visiting, they pay a high price in physical danger, material privation and government hostility for the opportunity to rebuild their community on the foundations of biblical memories, ancient Israelite glory, and modern Jewish tragedy. They see themselves as guardians of the deed of title that secured not only a burial place for their biblical ancestors but also a perpetual landholding for the Jewish people. Replacing the destroyed community of 1929, they assert their claim as the rightful heirs of their martyred predecessors.
Hebron Jews are distinctive for their passionate determination to remember the past – by choosing to live where its ancient unfolding in the Land of Israel began. “The ability to recall and identify with our past,” historian David Lowenthal has written, “gives existence meaning, purpose and value.” Responding to those who criticize reverence for the past, he wisely observes: “Intense devotion to the pursuit of the past is not so grievous an affliction as to lack feeling for the past altogether.”
If the Hebrew Bible is the ultimate mandate for Zionism, as David Ben-Gurion affirmed to puzzled British royal commissioners some seventy years ago, then Zion surely includes Hebron (as he assertively claimed after the Six-Day war). If Jews relinquish their right to live in Hebron they undermine their claim to live anywhere in their biblical homeland. If a history of defeats, expulsions, exiles – and surrenders – are determinative, then Jews become trespassers in their own homeland, and the Zionist claim to the right of return evaporates.
Ever since the destruction of the Temple, Jews have been taught that sinat chinam – groundless hatred – is the most invidious menace to Jewish survival. Jews who find the synthesis of Zionism and Judaism so threatening that only the eradication of a Jewish presence from Hebron can ease their discomfort are secular zealots chasing the siren song of assimilation. To abandon the Jews of Hebron is to relinquish the claims of memory that bind Jews to each other, to their ancient homeland, and to their shared past and future.
Jewish prayer resonates with pleas from the prophet Jeremiah for return “within our borders.” Immediately preceding the affirmation of the Shema, a Jew recites: “Bring us in peacefulness from the four corners of the earth and lead us with upright pride to our land.” The Musaf prayer implores: “bring us up in gladness to our land and plant us within our boundaries.” These ancient religious pleas, as it happens, also define the essence of Zionism. For the Jews of Hebron, Judaism and Zionism are inseparable.
Where Jews now live, the world expects a Palestinian state to arise. Abandonment of the ancient homeland will be the price that secular Zionists will gladly pay to finally squelch the challenge of religious Zionism. With the implementation of “land for peace,” tens of thousands of religious Zionists would be torn from their homes, and Israel would relinquish its millennia-old claim to the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. The sacrifice of Judea and Samaria and the accompanying abandonment of Me’arat HaMachpelah in Hebron would fulfill the secular Zionist dream of Israeli normalization.
Unencumbered by ancient holy sites, Israel could finally become “a nation like other nations,” and the legitimacy of secular Zionism as the true faith would be forever secured. Whether Zionism retains any connection to the hallowed ancient sources and sites of Jewish history may yet turn on the fate of the tiny Jewish community in Hebron.
Confronting the constant threat of Palestinian terrorism, lacerated by Israeli cultural and intellectual elites, and stifled by their own government, Hebron Jews are likely to remain under siege, the pariahs of the Jewish people. But for these tenacious Jews, the past has never been “a foreign country.”
In Hebron, a community of Jewish memory unlike any other, the past will always be home.
Jerold S. Auerbach is a professor of history at Wellesley College. This essay was excerpted from his book “Hebron Jews: Memory and the Conflict in the Land of Israel” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). He is currently writing a book about the Altalena.