The following article was published in the Jewish Press in March and it's written by my friend, Rachel Sommer.
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT HEBRON
By Rachel Sommer
Posted Mar 03 2010
Recently, I traveled to Israel with a group of college students. We were taken to visit the West Bank, including Hebron. While Jews make up only 20% of the population, (the other 80% are Muslims) we were reassured that Jews still manage to live full-fledged lives in Hebron.
When walking into Me'arat Hamachpela, I felt a chill run down my spine. This was where our forefathers are buried, where Judaism began! As we entered the cave we felt the holiness in the air, and praying there was a one in a million kind of feeling.
Hebron is the oldest Jewish city. It was here that a Jew first purchased real estate, when Avraham bought a piece of land to bury Sarah. Here was where our founders are buried; Avraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Adam and Eve as well. Hebron was King David's first capital city, until he moved to Jerusalem.
Hebron, located south of Jerusalem, has been the capital of the area since ancient times; there roads connect - east, west, north and south until Yemen. The name Hebron comes from the Hebrew word chibbur, meaning connection: the connection of the Jews to their ancient fathers and mothers.
By the Second Temple era, Hebron had been settled by Jews, and King Herod erected a huge building over the cave in a similar style to the Wailing Wall. The Machpela cave is the only public building in the world which has been active for 2,000 years! Over the years, one occupier followed another, and Jews suffered humiliation, pogroms, and explosions. The Romans sold tens of thousands Jews as slaves near Hebron. The Byzantines modified the cave and turned the left wing into a church; the Arabs imitated the Jews by transforming it to their holy place. The Mumlucks built towers on Mearat Hamachpela, turned it to a Muslim shrine, and prohibited Jews from coming closer than the seventh stair leading to the graves.
Jews have never stopped coming to Hebron whether as pilgrims or by coming to settle there - including famous Jews like the Rambam, Benjamin of Tudella, the Ramban, and the philanthropist Moshe Montefiore. To help the visitors there were those who carried the title "member of the patriarchs'graves" - their duty was to escort Jews who came to visit and pray at the cave.
When the Turkish Empire took over in 1517, many Jews were killed during pogroms while others were expelled. However, the Jewish community soon re-established itself and many Sephardic Jews arrived expanding the community. A large plot of land was purchased to establish the "Ghetto" and the Avraham Avinu Synagogue was erected. The first aliya of Chasidim to Hebron was in 1748. The Jewish population expanded slowly and in 1807 the community in Hebron purchased land in two locations; one is which is now called the market and the second called Tel Hebron. This purchase of land was signed and agreed to by the Waqf, the head of the Muslims. Most of Hebron's income in those days came via donations from abroad which were collected by shelichim (envoys).
In 1819, representatives of the Lubavticher community came to Hebron building the first Chabad community in Israel. In 1840, a second wave of Lubavitch Chasidim moved to Hebron, along with the famous Rabbi Slonim and his family. Thanks to his influence, an agreement of cooperation was signed between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities; they organized and maintained many public institutions. However, life was not easy, the Jewish community suffered from oppression and robbery from the neighboring Arab sheikhs, who blackmailed them and demanded money.
Slowly, Hebron began to develop. In 1907 a bank was opened in the city and wealthy Jews built new homes outside the "Ghetto" walls. Hadassah opened its first clinic in Hebron housed in the same building as the Lubavticher yeshiva Torat Emet - Chaim Israel Romano, a wealthy Turkish Jew, had purchased the building. The Jewish community grew to 1,500 (among 8,000 other residents).
World War I brought with it devastation. Many Jewish institutions were forced to shut down. It would be under the British Mandate that conditions would improve. As a matter of fact it was a day of celebration when the Kneset Yisrael relocated from Slobodka, Lithuania bringing 200 students and roshei yeshiva.
For generations, Hebron's Jewish population had good relations with their Arab neighbors, who benefited from the development of the city. All this was to change, however, when the British appointed Amin al-Husayni, a nationalist Palestinian Arab, as grand Mufti of Jerusalem in 1921.
Mohammad Amin al-Husayni was born into a wealthy Jew-hating family. Frustrated when his program to establish an Arab state that would include Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel failed, he concentrated on leading a violent campaign against the Jews and Zionism.
His appointment as Grand Mufti of Jerusalem put him in charge of all the Waqkf's funds, and he regarded himself as the guardian of all Muslim holy places in the Holy Land.
He called for a jihad against the Jews and all of his speeches were filled with violence and rhetoric. In August 1929, the Arabs publicly announced that they were preparing to slaughter all the Jews, and were waiting to get the order from the Grand Mufti.
While researching Hebron massacre I came across Hebron: Rebirth from Ruins, 80 years after the 1929 massacre, Hebron Lives! by Dr. Michal Rachel Suissa. The following descriptions are based on the book:
On Friday August 23, 1929, a yeshiva student was stabbed to death on the streets of Jerusalem. The same day a group of Arabs coming out from prayers at their Mosque marched in the streets of Hebron, shouting "Itbach al yahud!" (slaughter the Jews) and "Allahu akbar" (G-d is great). Throughout the day false rumors were spread that in Jerusalem, the Jews had killed thousands of Muslims, encouraging local Arabs to take revenge. The rabbi of Hebron went to the local commissioner, Abed Allah Kardus, to discuss the situation; the commissioner assured the rabbi that the Jews were secure.
Thousands of Muslims joined the mob in Hebron saying the order came from a-Husayni to kill the Jews. The mob broke into the Slobodka Yeshiva, and found only one student there, Shmuel Rosenholtz. They stabbed and stoned him; his blood spilled over the pages of his Gemarah. The British Commander, Major Raymond Cafferata, yelled at the frightened Jews who came to the station asking for protection; he ordered them to lock themselves up in their houses.
The next day, Sabbath morning, a huge mob of Arabs gathered on the streets, carrying with them knives, hatches and pitchforks. They broke into one house after another, raped girls along with mothers and grandmothers, torturing to death whomever they found. Men were castrated, women's breasts were cut off, eyes were gouged out, and guts were torn out of bellies. Many of the Arabs were the victims' neighbors and friends. The massacre took several hours.
Some heroic Arabs however put their lives in jeopardy by hiding Jews in their basements, thereby saving their lives. However, several Arab policemen participated in the massacre as the British watched. After the massacre the police gathered the wounded in the police station, leaving them without medical care. Two Jewish doctors did all they could to help, but combined there were 63 dead and 80 Torah scrolls burned.
Jerusalem's British governor did all he could to cover up the massacre - he even prohibited the Jewish newspapers from reporting on it. However, HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, the chief rabbi, sent telegrams all over the world with the details.
As the British media began putting on pressure for investigation, the High British Commissioner, John Chancellor made a statement saying that those who were responsible for the massacre would be severely punished. He appointed a medical committee which exhumed 30 bodies and examined them. Their conclusion was that there was no evidence of torture, even though there were limbs severed and faces destroyed.
The British Colonial Office accepted testimony from Arabs and the British Police Chief, Cafferata, along with the Governor Abdalla Kardush, but refused to allow any Jews to attend. The leaders of the mob were put on trial, but most did not get any punishment.
In 1931, a group of families was able to return to Hebron. They worked hard to reestablish their community without any financial support. However, 1936 saw more Arab riots and the British forcefully drove the Jews out of the city. The Arabs looted and took over all Jewish properties.
The Jordanian army occupied the West Bank in 1948, and worked hard to root out all evidence of Jewish life. The Avraham Avinu synagogue was turned into a pen for sheep; a market replaced the Jewish quarter. The Jewish cemetery was destroyed as well. Beit Haddasah became an Arab school. For decades, Hebron, like the Western Wall and the Tomb of Rachel, was a place that Jews could only yearn for and dream about.
During the 1967 war Israel won an extraordinary victory. The old city of Jerusalem was freed, as well as the West Bank, including Hebron. When the Israeli forces arrived in the city the Arab residents surrendered, without a single shot being fired. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi of the IDF, hoisted an Israeli flag on top of the Mearat Hamachpela. The next day when Ben-Gurion visited the cave, he announced, "Hebron is Jerusalem's sister" and urged Jews to return and build Hebron.
In 1968, Rabbi Moshe Levinger and Rabbi Eliezer Waldman led a group of Jews to settle in Hebron. Although times were hard, the settlers felt they were fulfilling a dream that had existed for generations. Slowly, the Jewish community grew and in 1969 the Israeli government decided to establish a Jewish town close to Mearat Hamachpela, named Kiryat Arba. The plan was to build a Jewish city, and the surrounding hills were reserved for that purpose. But soon the Arabs covered the hills with illegal construction to block the development of the city. However, by 2008, Hebron's Jewish population was over 7,000, and it had become an active regional center.
In 1997, under pressure from President Clinton, Prime Minister Netanyahu handed over 85% of Hebron to the Palestinians. The Jewish residents have become easy targets for Arab snipers who live on hills surrounding them. The Jews have limitations on where they can build, while the Arabs embark on a massive wave of constructions. In addition, Israeli left wing organizations like Peace Now, very often join together with Arab activists to try to obliterate the Jewish community.
With all that, the Hebron community is a reflection of the Zionist activity and achievement. It is an ancient community that has been driven out more than once, and always returned. Hebron is the root by which the Jewish nation stands.