I long felt guilty about how much time had elapsed since I last visited Chevron.
One reason for this lapse on my part is that it’s not advisable today to just pick up your car keys, put “Chevron” or “Hebron” in Waze, and go on your way. The recommended manner of travel is in a protected vehicle, so I was determined last week to take an official bus tour of Chevron.
It is both disconcerting and reassuring to sit in a bulletproof bus. The double glass, which is impossible to really clean, doesn’t lend itself to photography, so I thought I’d relax on the journey. But it’s not easy when you constantly pass notices warning you not to stray off the road, as those areas are now under the security of the Palestinian Police and it’s forbidden for Israelis to enter – doing so puts their lives at risk.
We were guided by Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum, an ex-New Yorker and a resident of the Jewish Quarter in Chevron for more than 20 years. He pointed out that the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Chevron has always been volatile. In 1929 local Arabs massacred 67 Jews one Shabbos, which resulted in the remaining Jews being evacuated – i.e. expelled – by the British, who held the Mandate in Eretz Yisrael.
From then until 1967 Jews were not allowed in Chevron. The morning after Israel regained access to Har HaBayit and the Kotel, Rav Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi of the IDF, set off, unarmed, with his driver to Chevron. He assumed he would arrive in the midst of a battle to regain access to Ma’arat HaMachpelah, the Cave the Patriarchs. But what he met was a town full of white flags.
The people of Chevron presumably feared retaliation for 1929 and simply surrendered to him without a shot being fired. Rav Goren was the first Jew in 700 years to enter the site where our patriarchs and matriarchs are buried. For the previous 700 years Jews had only been allowed up to the seventh step on the southern end of the building. The Israeli army arrived some hours later.
Between 1929 and 1967 the Arabs tried to expunge all evidence of a Jewish presence. They had taken over the Cave of the Patriarchs and turned it into a mosque. They had razed the Jewish Quarter and destroyed the Jewish cemetery. The beautiful 16th century Avraham Avinu shul had been used as a garbage dump and animal pen.
Beit Hadassah was established at the end of the 19th century as a medical clinic for Jews and Arabs, but after the Jews were expelled in 1929 it was abandoned.
Walking into Beit Hadassah today, it’s hard to imagine the turmoil and troubles it has undergone. In 1979 – twelve years after Chevron was returned to Jewish sovereignty and with little having been done to establish a Jewish presence there – ten women and forty children took the initiative and secretly made their way into the building. They remained there under dangerous and harshly primitive physical conditions.
Today it has been attractively renovated, and apart from housing several families it’s home to the Hebron Heritage Museum. Another recent addition is the multi-sensory production “To Touch Eternity,” which takes one on a fast-paced journey through time showing the connection between Chevron today and our forefathers.
We stopped at Tel Rumeida and heard how in 1984, succumbing to public demand and with only a window of 24 hours of governmental permission, seven caravans were hastily put down to establish a Jewish presence. Families lived for many years in those rickety prefab boxes. Only in 2003, after the murder of Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan by Arab terrorists, did the government concede that the flimsy caravans provided no protection and permission was given to build real housing for the families.
We then walked over to the Jewish cemetery. Seeing it so clean and obviously well-tended, it was difficult to imagine how it must have looked in 1967 after the Arabs had defiled and ploughed up the original area, destroying all the tombstones as well as the remains beneath them.
Today there are mass graves with individual headstones for the victims of the 1929 massacre; a grave for the Torah scrolls that were set ablaze by rioters on Erev Yom Kippur 1976 in the Cave of the Patriarchs; and a Kabbalists’ section with gravestones rebuilt like the originals for many famous Sephardic rabbis including the authors of “Reishis Chochma,” “Melechet Shlomo,” and “Sde Chemed.”
As we walked through the Jewish Quarter toward the Avraham Avinu shul, we could hear Jewish children in their kindergartens singing and playing. The ruins of this illustrious shul, which was the center of Jewish life in Chevron for a thousand years, were uncovered beneath the filth and desecration. The shul was rebuilt and restored to its central position in the Jewish Quarter in 1981.
It was a relief to see that Ma’arat HaMachpelah had not changed on the outside since I’d last been there – but the southern stairway had been destroyed, including that demeaning seventh step where Jews pouring out their hearts in prayer had been forced to remain for so many years.
Happy as I was to be back at last, we were only allowed access to the tombstones of Avraham and Sarah and Yaakov and Leah. The tombstones of Yitzchak and Rivkah are located in the 80 percent of the Cave where only Muslims are permitted. Jews are given access to their tombstones only a few days a year.
One of those days is this coming Shabbat – Shabbat Chayei Sarah, aka Shabbat Chevron, when thousands of Jews will converge there to celebrate our return to Ir Ha’Avot, the town of our forefathers, and to Ma’arat HaMachpelah, which, as we read in Parshat Chayei Sarah, Avraham bought and paid for in full.