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.
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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.
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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.
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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.