What Does Hevron Mean to Us?

This week we read not only of Sarah’s death but of her burial.  Avraham purchases a burial place from Ephron ben Tzohar in a place called Kiryat Arba, the “city of four.”  This city is also referred to as Hevron, and the burial place is called Maarat HaMachpelah, the “double cave.”  The fact that Avraham purchased the cave is significant, as Jews often use it to demonstrate that the land belongs to us.  Many Jews see going to the cave as following in the footsteps of Avraham, walking on the very land on which he walked.

Hevron has always been a central city for Jews.  It has had a consistent Jewish presence since biblical times.  In addition to being the burial site of our ancestors, it served as the Israelite capital for seven years under King David.  Hevron became a major economic center during the First and Second Temple periods and was a military stronghold during those periods.  There was a Jewish presence in Hevron from the 12th-15th centuries, as evidenced by reports from Benjamin of Tudela, and Rabbenu Meshullam.  In the 1820s, Chabad set up a community in Hevron and by the 1830s, there were 240 Jews in Hevron.

The Jews in Hevron have experienced two major attacks by Arabs.   The first was in 1834 by Ibrihim Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt.  Ibrahim was trying to crush a revolt by the Arabs in Palestine over being conscripted in the Egyptian Army, and in the process he attacked the Jews as well.

The second attack by Arabs was the Hevron Massacre of 1929, known by is Hebrew year תרבט (Tarbat), where 67 were killed and over 100 were wounded.  This attack began after Arabs heard rumors that Jews were seizing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  In the attack, the Arabs destroyed the Jewish Quarter of Hevron, and many synagogues and holy sites were ransacked.  Over 400 Jews survived solely because they were hid by their Arab neighbors.  Two years later Jews began to move back to Hevron, but they were evacuated by the British in 1936, and Hevron became exclusively Arab for 31 years.

After the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six Day War, Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of followers rented rooms in the main hotel of Hevron and refused to leave.  They were granted permission to build a town at an abandoned military post, which they named Kiryat Arba.  Today 7,200 Jews live in Kiryat Arba.

In 1979, Moshe’s wife Miriam led a group of 40 Jews to take over the Hadassah Hospital in downtown Hevron.  This group also reestablished the Avraham Avinu synagogue and purchased homes in other Hevron neighborhoods.  Tension mounted between the Arabs and Jews, and there were a number of shootings.  In 1997, a Hevron Agreement was signed by Bibi Netanyahu which divided Hevron into 2 sections: H1 and H2.  H1 is the Arab section, and it is controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  It has over 120,000 Palestinian residents and includes 80% of the total land of Hevron.  H2 is the Jewish section, controlled by the Israeli Army.  It has over 700 Jews and 30,000 Palestinians and is 20% of the land.  H2 includes the Cave of Machpelah and all other holy sites. Israeli police may not enter H1 without Palestinian escorts and Palestinians cannot approach H2 without permits from the IDF.

The Hevron Agreement also put Hevron under military law.  According to military law, there are separate Jewish and Arab streets, and neither is allowed to travel on the other’s streets.  The Arab market and central street have been closed, as they are in Jewish territory.  If an Arab lives or has a store on a Jewish street, he/she has to enter through the back.  If he/she brings groceries home or merchandise in, it also has to enter through the back.  As one can imagine, this makes everyday living extremely difficult, and has led to most of the Arab families in H2 leaving their homes and abandoning their shops.

When I was studying during my year in Israel (2008-09), I visited Hevron twice.  My first trip was with a religious group going to see the grave sites of our biblical ancestors and great rabbis.  Our first site was the Cave of Machpelah, and my first image was of a Braslaver Hasid with a big Israeli flag blasting Carlebach music outside of the cave.  The cave was lavish, a two story building with lots of space between each grave.  Each cave had a special curtain (like the one covering our ark) and had prayer books beside it.  It was holy for me to walk on the ground on which Avraham and Sarah walked so many years ago, as well as to be able to pray at their graves.

My second trip to the cave was with an organization called Shovrei Shtikah, Breaking the Silence, where Israeli soldiers who have served in Hevron recount their military experiences.[1]  One story I heard during this visit stood out to me.  Omar, an Arab resident of Hevron, told my group about when his wife’s water broke, and they called an ambulance to take her to the hospital.  To get to Omar’s house in Hevron, the ambulance had to cross five check points.  An hour went by, and the ambulance driver called and said he made it through the first check point.  Another hour went by, and the driver called again saying that he made it through the second check point.  By this point Omar’s wife had strong labor pains, so he finally carried her to a relative’s car and took her to the hospital.  She made it just in time to give birth, and Omar had a sigh of relief when he returned home from the hospital.  Then he got a call from the ambulance, which he had forgotten to cancel, stating that it had made it through the fourth checkpoint and was almost there.

Imagine what it would be like if it took hours for an ambulance to arrive to your house?   How about having to travel through a checkpoint to get to work or to a hospital?   What if you had to always enter your home through your back door?   These are daily realties for Arabs who live in H2, the area of Hevron controlled by Israel.  When I think about situations like Omar’s I am torn.  On one hand, I believe that checkpoints are necessary to protect Israelis from terrorists and from radical Muslims who want to destroy Israel.  I think about incidents like the murder of Shalhevet Pas in 2001, a Jewish baby who was shot by a Palestinian sniper.  I could not imagine what it would be like to lose a newborn child, and I realize the importance of security to prevent incidents such as this.  On the other hand, I am saddened when I hear stories like Omar’s about the difficulties that checkpoints have caused.

Where does this leave us?  As we read this week’s Torah portion, I hope we examine our relationship both with Israel and with Hevron.  There are thousands of Israelis who are in Hevron for this Shabbat, celebrating the fact that we have Hevron and the Cave of Machpelah.  There is definitely much to celebrate, especially that we have a land of our own and control of places like Hevron that have been part of Jewish history for thousands of years.  At the same time, I read about much injustice that goes on in Hevron in terms of how Palestinian Arabs are treated, and this greatly disturbs me.  I believe we need to examine how we can improve our relationships with the other, in this case with the Palestinian Arab community.  Not seeing eye to eye with Arabs is nothing new: after all, Isaac and Ishmael went their separate ways.  However, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, they came together to bury their father, Avraham.  Whatever differences they had between them were able to be put aside to create a sacred moment.  May we strive to do the same: to create meaningful relationships with Arabs and work to create peace between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael.

[1] Since my trip in 2008, Breaking the Silence has come under condemnation by Bibi Netanyahu as well as others in the Israeli government.

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