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November 22, 2014 / 29 Heshvan, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Kiryat Arba’

A free people in our land – Hebron

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Can we be a free people in our land without the first Jewish city in Israel?

Several years ago, on the anniversary of the liberation of Hebron in 1967, I was interviewed by a journalist who queried me about various problems facing Hebron’s Jewish community. His concluding question/statement was, “Well, I guess you’re not celebrating today?”

“Why not?” I replied.

“Well, you have all these problems and issues, how can you celebrate?”

“You just don’t understand,” I answered. “Look at where were we 70 years ago, or 60 years ago. Were we in Hebron? Today I’m here, in the first Jewish city in Israel. I live here, I work here, I’m bringing up my children here. This is my home. True, we have problems. There are ups and downs. Issues must be dealt with. And they will be overcome. But I’m here. And as long as I’m here, I have what to celebrate, and that’s exactly what I’m doing today!”

One of our most special celebrations will occur this weekend. The Torah portion of Hayei Sarah, otherwise known as “Shabbat Hebron,” is an extraordinary event. It is not an ordinary shabbat (which in Hebron is also unique). Rather, it is an event.

Over the past decade, some 20,000 people have capitalized on this special Sabbath to crowd into Hebron and nearby Kiryat Arba to rejoice. Starting on Friday morning, Israelis young and old will begin flocking to the city. Jews from the United States and other countries fly to Israel to be in Hebron for this exceptional occasion.

Well over six months prior to this Sabbath we begin receiving phone calls and emails requesting places to sleep and eat on this auspicious day. Dozens of tents are pitched outside Me’arat Hamachpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Matriarchs. Public buildings are transformed into dormitories, with separate facilities for men and women. It’s the only time of the year when my living room is wall-to-wall people sleeping on the floor.

One year, on Saturday night, a young woman walked into our kitchen to thank my wife. She asked what for. The woman said she had slept in one of our rooms. We had no idea she was there, or where she slept, because the room was already packed.

A huge tent is constructed outside the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, providing meals thousands of guests. Literally every nook and cranny in Hebron is utilized, with people sleeping and eating wherever they can find a few free meters.

All hours of the day and night the streets are full of people walking to and from the various neighborhoods in Hebron. Saturday afternoon, multitudes tour the city, visiting the Hebron Heritage Museum at Beit Hadassah, the tomb of Jesse and Ruth in Tel Rumeida, and the Avraham Avinu synagogue in the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. Special Casba tours are also included in the day’s agenda.

The heart of the day’s events takes place at Me’arat Hamachpela. On Friday night, literally thousands of people gather at this holy site, inside and out, to offer joyous Sabbath prayers. Singing and dancing during a huge “Carlebach minyan,” conducted in the Machpela courtyard, is unbelievably uplifting.

But the pinnacle and actual raison d’être for the ingathering begins early Saturday morning.

By 5:15 a.m., thousands make their way to early morning prayers at the Machpela. The entire building is open to Jewish worshipers, including “Ohel Yitzhak,” the Isaac Hall, available to Jews only ten days during the year. The first vatikin service, with the sunrise, is a spiritually inspirational way to start the day.

However, the peak takes place about an hour into the service. A Torah scroll is removed from the Holy Ark and opened. The first person, usually a cohen, or priest, is called up to the Torah. Following recitation of a blessing, the reader begins:

Rabbi Lior And The ‘Rule Of Law’

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

Approximately a year ago, Rabbi Dov Lior, venerated chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba, gave his approbation on a book about the Jewish laws of war, The King’s Torah, written by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira. Among other issues, the book deals with the legal ramifications of the Israeli army taking action to kill terrorists even when enemy civilians may also be killed in the process. Rabbi Shapira cites numerous Jewish law sources to prove that this is permissible. The Left immediately accused Rabbi Shapira and the rabbis who gave their approbation on his book of incitement to murder. Recently, Rabbi Lior was questioned and arrested. Heated demonstrations by the rabbi’s students ensued.

For my part, I support everyone who protested against Rabbi Lior’s arrest. An evil cabal has taken control of some key positions in the Ministry of Justice and has transformed its public service positions into a tool of destruction. It makes no difference if the reason for their hostility is ideological, or an almost religious hunger for “enlightened” approval – or a combination of both. We must put an end to this despicable behavior.

Deputy State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and his accomplices implement their evil actions within parameters determined by ideology and violence. Law enforcement is totally irrelevant to their actions. Just a few weeks ago, extreme leftist Uri Avnery publicly called for the killing of settlers. He was not called in for any type of questioning. Why not? Avnery and other “lovers of Israel” are on the correct side of the political divide. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef will not be questioned for remarks that would have brought Nitzan’s legions to the doorstep of any religious Zionist rabbi because Nitzan and his accomplices are a gang of weaklings who attack only those weaker than them. They would never dare enforce the law against those who know how to exact a price in the public domain.

When these are the rules of the so-called enlightened game, the public that sees Rabbi Lior as its spiritual leader has no choice but to participate in street protests. These protesters are not just protecting Rabbi Lior. They are also defending the State of Israel’s liberty from a hostile and destructive takeover by an aggressive gang that crushes our society, makes large swaths of our population miserable and endangers many lives. The youth protesting in the streets may not know this, but they are the true defenders of Israeli democracy in the face of a wanton takeover by a tiny and belligerent minority.

The forces of enlightened idol worship, under the guise of legality, have made it impossible for Israel to take such measures as making the prison conditions of terrorists less comfortable in order to free Gilad Shalit. It is impossible to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and authorize massive construction of new homes for young couples. It is impossible for a Jew to pray on the Temple Mount, for the police must protect the rights of the violent Arabs instead of those of the Jews. It is impossible to fight our enemies without an attorney for each soldier. The Israeli “justice” system does not include itself in Israeli life, but instead sees itself as an external factor – not just elevated above the nation, but actually disconnected from it.

If we want to return the justice system to the nation, we must return the nation to its own justice system. At this point, we still do not have a relevant Jewish legal codex for our modern reality, but we certainly have an excellent foundation. As soon as we seriously take Jewish law out of its exile and apply it to all facets of our current existence, it will become the most pertinent justice system for Israel. It will follow the Hebrew language’s rebirth from exile to its current status as the natural language for Israel, and the Jewish nation’s emergence from 2,000 years of exile to its return to its land.

An Unforgivable Sacrilege

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Several days ago, Hebron’s police chief showed up at the home of Rabbi Dov Lior, chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba. The officer informed Rabbi Lior that an arrest warrant had been issued. Should the rabbi agree to be interrogated, the warrant would be cancelled. On the spot Rabbi Lior responded, telling him that such questioning represented a “disgrace to the honor of the Torah” and that he would not cooperate with such humiliation.

Why are the police and prosecutor’s office chasing this 77-year-old righteous man? Born in Poland, Rabbi Lior arrived in Israel in 1948, shortly before the creation of the state of Israel. He studied under Rabbi Abraham Kook’s student Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neria at Kfar HaRoe and later at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem under Rabbi Kook’s son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. He was considered one of the yeshiva’s most important students. During festive dancing on the Simchat Torah holiday, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda changed the words of a popular song; instead of “tov li, tov li, Toratecha” (Your Torah is good for me), he recited “Dov li, Dov li Toratecha,” paying his young student a great compliment.

In 1976 Rabbi Lior moved to the newly founded community of Kiryat Arba, where he was appointed rosh hayeshiva of the Kiryat Arba-Nir Yeshiva, working side by side with Rabbi Eliezer Waldman. Over the years the rabbi became known as a prominent Torah scholar. However, his teaching involved more than dry rabbinic rulings. He became an active leader in the movement to repopulate Judea, Samaria and Gaza. He spent many summer vacations in Gush Katif. With the rise of the left and the advent of Oslo and the Hebron Accords, he became an outspoken leader, blasting attempts to delegitimize the Israeli right.

He worked tirelessly against the Gush Katif expulsion, making frequent trips to that beleaguered area, giving hope and strength to the local population. He participated in prayer rallies and protests while providing Torah support via various rabbinic rulings needed during those struggles.

Some 25 years ago he was elected chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba. Later, he formed the Rabbinic Council for Judea and Samaria and was appointed its leader. He is widely considered be the preeminent rabbinical figure of the Nationalist-Zionist movement and one of the most significant scholarly rabbinical figures in Israel.

Frequently rabbis are requested to write a hascama, an approbation of a Torah book by a younger rabbi. Rabbi Lior, himself the author of thousands of Torah responsa as well as his own books dealing with Torah law, is also approached to write short introductions to Torah books.

So it was that a couple of years ago he agreed to write an approbation for a book titled Torat HaMelech. This scholarly work, written by two young rabbis, deals with relationships between Jews and non-Jews, particularly during situations dealing with life and death during war and other conflicts. Specifically, it details rulings by many Torah giants, from the Talmud down to the present.

Rabbi Lior was not the only Torah scholar asked to write an approbation for this book. Others include Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, also considered an authentic Torah giant; one of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s sons, Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef, a leading Sephardic Torah expert; and the well-known Rabbi Yitzchak Ginzburg.

Among other comments, Rabbi Lior praises the authors for writing such a comprehensive book and including the opinions of so many Torah commentators. He clarifies the significance of understanding Jewish law to its fullest, even when dealing with sensitive topics such as life and death.

As a result of his approbation, Rabbi Lior was accused of incitement and ordered to appear for police interrogation. In a filmed presentation to yeshiva students, Rabbi Lior explained that a rabbi must be able to freely express da’at Torah – that is, the Torah ruling on any given subject – even if that expression is not popular with others. He stressed that a rabbi must never fear to express Truth as it appears in the Torah, even if such a ruling could cause him damage:

“Limiting what a rabbi may say is comparable to Bolshevik regimes of Soviet Russia which would decide what people could think and what they could say . There are certain elements in society who lately want to oppress rabbis, ordering investigations and interrogations, in order to silence them from expressing Torah opinion and this directly contradicts what is known as democracy and freedom of expression. If there is freedom of expression, it must be for everyone. We haven’t heard of those preaching from mosques, inciting against the state of Israel, being arrested and interrogated “

Martyrs and Memory

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

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.

* * * * *


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.”

* * * * *


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.

* * * * *


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.

‘To Secular Israelis, Hebron Jews Are A Pain’: An Interview With Professor Jerold Auerbach

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Some people hate them, others love them. Perhaps no other group of Israelis engenders as much debate as the residents of Hebron. There, among 150,000 hostile Arabs, live 700 Jews determined to dwell in the city where the biblical Abraham purchased a burial plot for his wife Sarah.

Close to 40 years ago, Jerold Auerbach, a professor of American and Jewish history at Wellesley College, visited Hebron as part of a group of Jewish academics. The group met with the city’s mayor, Muhammad Ali al-Ja’bari, and so ignorant was Auerbach of Hebron’s history that he acceded to his tour guide’s request and asked al-Ja’bari what his family did in 1929. Al-Ja’bari, not wishing to discuss the vicious massacre that left 67 Jews dead, mumbled an inaudible reply.

Today Auerbach is considerably more educated on the history of Hebron, and has recently completed his eighth book, Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel. The Jewish Press recently spoke with him.

The Jewish Press: What’s your background?

Prof. Auerbach: I grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, as the only child of assimilated parents. I had a bar mitzvah, which was understood to be the exit from Judaism. I didn’t have to do anything after that.

It wasn’t until my first trip to Israel in 1972 that I began to wonder [about my Jewish identity]. I went back two years later on sabbatical, living in Jerusalem, and that began to reorient my life. It cemented an attachment to Israel that simply hadn’t existed before, and it also brought me into Jewish religious life here in the United States.

Although so many people detest Hebron’s Jews – respected Israeli professor Zeev Sternhell once called Jewish Hebron “a national disgrace, a genuine sin and crime” – it is clear from your book that you admire them. Why?

Those who live there combine religion and nationalism – Judaism and Zionism – and that has come to make great sense to me as a synthesis over the years. Those who hate Hebron’s Jews don’t want religion to be part of their self-identity as Israelis.

Why the intense hatred, though?

To secular Israelis who very much want to be part of the Western world and liked and appreciated for their many talents, Hebron Jews are a pain, a source of external criticism. They draw attention in ways that secular Israelis and Jews don’t want. They exhibit a kind of passion for settling the land of Israel, and although this is what Zionism was always about, it’s not so much what Zionism is about in the 21st century.

Today Zionism is guided by high tech. This seems to be the new capstone of Zionist achievement. There are whole books written now about Israelis as the high-tech innovators in the world, several of which point out that the high-tech folks in Israel have second homes in the Silicon Valley, which is their source of inspiration.

In the book, you quote historian Anita Shapira who argues that the conquest of the biblical West Bank in 1967 “destroyed the romance of the Bible” for many Israelis. What does that mean?

Twenty years after the birth of the state, most Israelis had really [gotten used to Israel's 1948] borders and had relinquished the biblical homeland. All of a sudden, in 1967, they confronted this new reality that it was all ours, and they didn’t know what to do with it. Very few people did.

Many were happy to visit. There were floods – tens of thousands – of visitors to Hebron that first year after the war, but they were tourists in a foreign place. Once they crossed it off their list, they went back to Tel Aviv and resumed their normal lives.

Shortly after the Six-Day War, General Moshe Dayan ordered that the Israeli flag be removed from Me’arat Hamachpelah and forbade Jews from holding weddings there. Why?

He remained hopeful that there would be peaceful relations established between Israel and the Arab countries. Jews didn’t have to live in Hebron; he was perfectly happy to have them living up the hill in what became Kiryat Arba. He didn’t want them in the city because he anticipated, rightly, that they were going to be a problem for fundamentalist Muslims who lived there and considered Hebron theirs.

But the settlers took that choice away from him. The women of Kiryat Arba, led by Miriam Levinger and Sarah Nachshon, with their children in tow moved into [the empty] Beit Hadassah building in Hebron in the middle of the night in 1979 and [refused to leave until the government permitted Jewish settlement of Hebron].

In the book I tell the story of one of the women, who was pregnant and wanted to go to the hospital to have her baby. She was told by the government that if she left she wouldn’t return. The community protested and finally Prime Minister Begin caved in and said she could leave, have her baby in Hadassah hospital and return to Beit Hadassah – which she did, with her new baby named Hadassah.

In the book, you also relate the story of Avraham Yedidia Nachshon, the first boy to have his bris in Me’arat Hamachpelah after the Six-Day War – despite Israeli orders against bringing wine into the area.

That boy died of crib death six months later. His mother, Sarah Nachshon, was determined to bury him in the old Jewish cemetery in Hebron where the victims of the massacre of 1929 were buried. But the army stopped the funeral procession and said you can’t go any further. [The cemetery was off-limits to Jews at the time.]

Sarah Nachshon spoke with the soldiers and they started telephoning up the line to their superiors. This went on for close to an hour and finally she decided she had had enough. She went back into the car, took the corpse of her baby, and started walking through the military blockade to the cemetery. The soldiers were sufficiently stunned to let her go, and some even accompanied her.

While the Israeli government adopted a conciliatory stance toward the Arabs in Hebron in 1967, in Jerusalem it razed an entire Arab village adjacent to the Western Wall to make room for what is today the Western Wall Plaza. Why the difference?

I think the joy of returning to Jerusalem in 1967 was simply overwhelming and irresistible, even to secular Zionists. A momentary unity swept over the country, instantly, for Jerusalem. But the sober second thought about Hebron was that this is a Muslim city deep in the heart of Judea, and therefore we’re not going to respond the same way.

When Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Arabs one Friday morning in February 1994, some people hailed him as a hero who gave the Arabs their just desserts while others, like Prime Minister Rabin, called him a “villainous Jew.” How do you view Goldstein?

When I started writing the Baruch Goldstein chapter, I really had no idea how it was going to end. I had met people who loved Baruch Goldstein for all the medical care he gave to members of the community, including Arabs, and I met people who loathed Goldstein – not only of course for the massacre but because he was a devoted student of Rabbi Meir Kahane and served on the local Kiryat Arba council under the Kach label.

I wanted to try as best as I could to track his journey and his decision to do what he did. The end of the story for me was that he did a horrible thing. But the reason he did it was because of the fear in the community that another pogrom was imminent, based on very clear warnings from the Israeli military authorities in Hebron and local Arabs.

What does the future hold in store for Hebron Jewry?

Insofar as we know, Hebron has not been included in the settlement clusters that apparently are under agreement to remain part of Israel [in a future Israel-Arab peace deal]. So the question for me is, will the government of Israel try to evacuate and expel the Jews who live in Hebron and Kiryat Arba, the way it did in Gaza, or will it simply turn its back on them and say, “You want to stay where you are? You defend yourselves.”

If the government abandons them, would they stay?

I think most would.

And if the government tries to force them out?

I think most of them would not go willingly. It’s not going to be a peaceful surrender. But I hope it doesn’t come to that.

It All Started In Hebron

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

The great historical process of the Jewish people all started in Hebron, where Abraham made the first Jewish land purchase in Eretz Yisrael. In Hebron, he buried Sarah – establishing facts on the ground.


            Hebron is a place of connections. It connects heaven and earth. It connects the supreme ideal, the command to inherit the land – and its mundane fulfillment. Those who attach themselves to Hebron draw strength from it, as was the case with Calev ben Yefune and Yehoshua bin Nun when they, at Moshe’s behest, spied out the Land.


            The 12 spies arrived in Eretz Yisrael and found a difficult reality. Calev and Yehoshua went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and their perspective was different. What they saw was that “the Land is very, very good” (Bamidbar 14:7).


            Didn’t Calev and Yehoshua see the reality, like the rest of the spies? Certainly they did. Yet they understood that to understand reality, you’ve got to introduce other data. God promised this land to the Jewish people. Calev and Yehoshua understood that theirs was a unique mission, involving precisely this land. Eretz Yisrael has unique virtues. It responds only to its children, and produces fruit only for them (as per historical proof). This is the land set apart for us, for us to fulfill our mission to the world and to invest the most profound, moral meaning in the entire universe.


            Those were the thoughts that preoccupied us 30 years ago, in late spring 1979, when – as a group of 13 women and 45 children – we prepared to secretly move into the Beit Hadassah complex in Hebron. Our purpose was to restore Jewish life to the city. At the time, Jews – eight years after Kiryat Arba’s founding, and 11 years after Rav Moshe Levinger’s settlement attempt in Hebron – were still forbidden to live permanently in Hebron. Our entry into that edifice, a military operation in every sense of the word, was intended to change that.


            Beit Hadassah had served as a medical clinic for Jews and Arabs. It was established by the American Hadassah Women’s organization in 1893, 36 years before the 1929 Hebron massacre. In that massacre 67 Jews were murdered, dozens wounded, and all of Hebron’s Jews were exiled from the city. Further, their property was looted by the Arabs. Thus, it had been 70 years since Jews had last lived in the Beit Hadassah compound. In fact the only Jewish business allowed in Hebron during the 1970s was “The Settlers’ Restaurant,” next to Ma’arat HaMachpela. It was run only during the day – by my husband, Zvi.


We reasoned the following: It cannot be that the Arabs could commit a terrible pogrom against the Jews and that the Jews should be forbidden to return to the homes where they were murdered – and which they were forced to leave.


In Kiryat Arba we climbed onto a truck in the middle of the night, with children and equipment, and went down to Hebron. We climbed into the Beit Hadassah edifice by way of a ladder that was set up inside the truck. We climbed up quietly so that the soldiers, on guard in front of the building at night to keep Jews from entering, wouldn’t notice. Amazingly (and even miraculously), none of the children cried or made noise. After getting in without the soldiers noticing, we felt that God was helping us. We knew we were doing the right thing.


            While life in Beit Hadassah was physically difficult, our spirits were joyous.


            There were people who told us worriedly, “How can you endanger your children? There’s a danger of malaria. There’s no running water, no electricity, no restrooms, no showers, no possibility of leaving or coming back.”


            There was an immense feeling of mission, an enormous sense of exaltation. We knew that if we take the correct steps, we would exalt the government, its ministers and the entire nation.


            Thank God, the act by these women renewed Jewish life in the City of the Patriarchs. For almost an entire year, we remained inside the edifice without ever leaving. At the end of that year, following the murder of six worshippers, we received permission to stay in Beit Hadassah. This constituted the first renewal of Jewish settlement in the ancient city of Hebron.


            From Beit Hadassah we continued on, redeeming the Avraham Avinu Synagogue and building the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. Next came Tel Romeida and other new neighborhoods in Kiryat Arba. Today, thank God, the City of the Patriarchs is full of life from Tel Romeida to Ramat Mamre.


            The women’s act in Beit Hadassah set an example for other groups of women who likewise understood that only if they rose and initiated acts of settlement would they succeed in redeeming the Land, thus preventing the Arabs from taking control. That’s how it was, for example, in the summer of 1995, when a group of 10 women from Efrat and Gush Etzion, headed by Nadia Matar, settled on Dagan – a hill belonging to the town of Efrat but in danger, due to the Oslo II accords, of being handed over to the PLO. The women stopped their normal lives and went to live on the exposed hill.


Hundreds of Jews from the area and from Israel at large joined the struggle over Dagan. They lived there under harsh summer conditions – in tents, without water and electricity. But with strong faith in the justice of their path, they believed that only by such means would they save the hill and that only by such means would they arouse the public to the need to preserve every place in Eretz Yisrael.


            Two weeks later, the settlers were forcibly evacuated. This did not deter them, and they came back again and again. Today, thank God, Dagan is populated with dozens of young couples and a yeshiva with dozens of students. And at present, the residents of Efrat and Gush Etzion, together with the action committees of the Judea Region and the Women in Green, are continuing the struggle to settle the hill of Eitam.


            The same spirit of Beit Hadassah and Givat Dagan guides us to continue settling and expanding throughout the land. With that same spirit, we are acting at Shdema.


            Shdema consists of an army base that was abandoned for political reasons. The Arabs and international organizations want to take control of this piece of land. Shdema is a five-minute drive from Jerusalem on the new Eastern Gush Etzion road. We are working to keep Shdema in our hands, with the purpose of saving the lands of Eretz Yisrael. Additionally we are working to maintain settlement contiguity between Gush Etzion and Jerusalem, and to ensure security on the Gush Etzion-Jerusalem road.


            Each week we go to Shdema. We hold Torah talks and lectures. On holidays we hold large events with hundreds of people, with the support of Women in Green and the Gush Etzion Regional Council.


At first, we weren’t allowed to go up there. The army was in shock that we would even consider going back to a place that, to their way of thinking, was already abandoned and gone. Only thanks to weekly persistence and determination did we accustom everyone to the fact of our going there. The army understands that it is dealing with a serious group of adults that is unwilling to concede. Our present duty is to increase our presence at the site.


            We, members of the Committee for Shdema, plan to establish at the site a spiritual-cultural center. It is there that we will disseminate the special worth of Eretz Yisrael, study Bible and history, learn to work the soil, learn self-defense, and delve deeply into present-day questions about our Jewish identity. These measures are the essence of our survival – and our task at the present time.


            Our roots are in Hebron. From there we draw our spirit, our strength, our determination. We learned there that it is possible and necessary to change the national-political agenda through the stubborn, determined action of individuals who must do the work, who must rise and take the initiative. It is very important to keep up the spirit of the struggle. Among the Jewish people, there were always groups that led the national spirit forward with pride. Every struggle must be backed up with good public relations and political action, and with maintaining a presence at the site in question.


            We hope, God willing, that just as we succeeded in Beit Hadassah in Hebron, in Dagan in Efrat, and in other places, so it will be at Shdema. The Jewish people possess the fortitude to succeed and change direction, all in the name of settling Eretz Yisrael.


            The struggle at Shdema requires many participants. Toward that end, we plan to make a public relations trip to the U.S. from March 12-19. Women in Green Chairwoman Nadia Matar will join me (of Kiryat Arba-Hebron) in making the case for the Committee for Shdema.


We know that Jewish Press readers are with us in our determined struggle. Your hearts beat with the history of the Jewish people. With God’s help, we will succeed.

The House That Morris Built

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

            By  A professor from Bar Ilan University, an expert on ancient affairs, investigated the value of silver of thousands of years ago. He concluded that the price of 400 silver shekels that our Patriarch Abraham paid for Ma’arat HaMachpela, the caves where the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried is worth, in today’s value, some $750,000. That’s just a little less than what Morris Abraham and his father Mickey paid for Beit HaShalom in Hebron.

            Beit HaShalom, (the “Peace house” in English) is a huge, 40,000 square foot structure, just above the main road leading from Hebron to Kiryat Arba. When it became known that the Arab owner of the building, some five years ago, was putting it up for sale, and the Abraham family heard about it, it was a done deal.

            Well, not quite. It took a few years to actually complete the transaction. Jews purchasing property from Arabs in Hebron is not an everyday occurrence, and is not easily accomplished. It is a task that requires, among other things, a tremendous amount of money, fine attorneys, much time, nerves of platinum, and most of all, a huge quantity of Divine assistance.

            Thank G-d, it all came together, and about 20 months ago, having received a green light from the lawyers, residents from Hebron’s Jewish community moved in.

            It wasn’t easy. From literally the moment we moved in, there was someone trying to have us removed. Some claimed that we “stole the building” from the Arab owner. Others said, “We don’t care if they bought it legally. Jews shouldn’t be in Hebron, period. Throw them out!”

            However, we had a lot going for us. First of all, the building was purchased legally. At one point the community released a film of the Arab counting the cash he received.  (When he later denied the sale during a police investigation, and the police showed him the video, he exclaimed, “I later cancelled the deal and gave them the money back!”)

            Hebron’s commanding IDF officer was ecstatic about the purchase, since the building is located at a very strategic position. It’s situated overlooking all of Kiryat Arba just across the road, and most of Hebron.  And an initial police investigation of the documents was positive. The documents were authentic.

            But facts don’t necessarily mean much in Israel. A court ruled that there was enough apparent evidence to prevent us from being evicted, but too many question marks to allow “life as usual.” So a status quo was ordered. We could stay, but without making any major changes in the building. This meant, for example, that windows could not be installed in the empty spaces in the walls. Nor could the building be hooked up to the Hebron electric grid.  So, as winter approached, the people inside were a little cold.

            A small generator was running, providing minimum electricity to power the heaters. But a building without windows in a snowstorm, is quite a bit to weather.  Big sheets of plastic in place of glass don’t really do the trick.

             Finally, in the midst of a snowstorm, and as a result of massive public pressure, cabinet ministers started pounding on Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s desk, demanding that the government allow windows to be installed immediately. The pressure worked, and finally windows were brought in. They refused to allow window shades or shutters; that was too much. But glass windows were okayed. 

            The left refused to give up, however, and they intensified efforts to have the Jewish residents expelled from the building. Police “suddenly decided” that many of the documents of sale were counterfeit, but refused to reveal which ones were “faked.” Finally the court forced them to allow the community an opportunity to defend itself and they had no choice but to divulge which papers were suspect. The community, via a former police officer, an expert on such affairs, was able to easily dispel the doubts as to the authenticity of the documents.

            At a recent Supreme Court hearing, the judges, (two of the most left-wing members of the court together with an Arab judge, hearing the case), accused the community of “taking the building by force” from its Arab owner. In response, the community gave the court new, startling evidence: an audio recording of the Arab owners saying, in plain language, that he sold the place and received full compensation for the building. He also declared that he had come under great pressure from Palestinian authority intelligence forces to “change his story.”

            Last week the Supreme Court announced its decision. They decided to ignore the facts in the case, not letting them get in the way of their own political biases. They announced that they would not get involved in the previous government decision to expel the building’s residents until the question of ownership was decided in a lower court. They gave the people living there 72 hours to leave of their own accord. If they did not voluntarily evict themselves, the government would then have legal permission to expel them.

            As of this writing, new families and many youth are moving into Beit HaShalom, in order to reinforce Jewish presence at that building, which clearly belongs to Hebron’s Jewish community. One family, Nahum and Revital Almagor and their 15-year-old daughter came from Brooklyn to participate in the struggle for the building.

            Last week, a retired judge, Uri Struzman, harshly criticized the Supreme Court ruling, calling it political and a sham. Another retired Supreme Court judge, Ya’akov Turkal, said that the Supreme Court decision did not demand that the families be removed from the building, rather that the government could remove them, if they so desired. In other words, the decision of expulsion is in the hands of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

            At the moment, the building’s many families: men, women and children, are willing to put up with a cold winter; (we expect that the cost to heat Beit HaShalom this winter to be over $150,000 – money which the community does not presently have); but they have no intentions of leaving their beloved home – Beit HaShalom – the building that Morris Abraham gave to the Jewish people of Hebron.

            A representative council of men and women from Hebron and Kiryat Arba, and other activists, has announced that the group will not initiate any violent acts against Israeli security forces, but should those forces attempt to expel them, there will be fierce resistance. However, the level of violence will be determined by the expulsion forces. MK Uri Ariel, speaking at an emergency community meeting last week, with over 1,000 people present, clearly stated that should those in the building be attacked and beaten, that they have a right to defend themselves.

            This past Shabbat close to 25,000 people visited Hebron, hearing the Torah tell how Avraham Avinu purchased the Caves of Machpela some 3,800 years ago. Many of those people also visited Beit HaShalom, showing their support and encouragement. How fitting that a family named Abraham should buy a building for almost the same price Avraham Avinu paid for Ma’arat HaMachpela, a piece of property just five minutes from the first Jewish-owned land in Eretz Israel. 

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/community//2008/11/26/

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