By Miki Ehrlich | 11/03/2010
King David was enthroned in Hebron, but a few years later, he conquered Jerusalem and crowned it as his capital, and it became the heart of the Jewish people for generations. Since then, Hebron has achieved a special status in the hearts of Jews, as the site where the Patriarchs are buried,. Over the past thousand years, and particularly after the Crusader period – with the exception of brief reprieves – the local Jews were gripped by an impressive tenacity. The small community vied for its existence against hostile – or, if they were lucky, apathetic – authorities, struggled against neighbors who sought its demise, and suffered economic conditions that were sometimes deplorable. The Jewish community in Hebron was small, but the status of the Cave of the Patriarchs in the minds of pilgrims was second in importance only to Jerusalem.
The Moslem story of Hebron diverges less from the Jewish story than might be expected. According to an ancient tradition, the prophet Mohammad himself placed it in the hands of Tamim a-Dari, the ancient patriarch of the famous a-Tamimi clan. For reasons that will not be enumerated here, the city of Hebron did not receive the attention that it perhaps should have, and it became a negligible provincial town at the margins of Eretz Israel, which itself was a marginal area in the Ottoman Empire. Neglect – or even aggression – on the part of the authorities, and the difficult economic conditions, have contributed to the development of a conservative-extremist Moslem community in the city, which views itself as the appointed protector of the holy sites.
The British occupation brought about an extreme change. The British occupied Hebron and Eretz Israel during a time when the Moslem world was Sturm und Drang. The fall of the Ottoman Empire, the "sick man of the Bosphorus," as it was then called, at the end of WWI, brought about a severe crisis. For the first time since the days of Abu Bakr, who rose to power with the death of the prophet Mohammed, there was no Caliph in the Moslem world. The Moslem state shattered into shards that began suddenly speaking of independence, self-definition, identity, and related topics. These issues were not easy for many conservative elements in the Moslem world to digest. Most famous among them were the "Moslem Brotherhood," whose founder published his teachings more or less around the time of the Hebron massacre in 1929. I clearly do not intend to claim a direct link between the two events; all that I wish is to point out the very charged atmosphere prevalent in the Moslem world at the end of the First World War. Given this state of affairs, regarding which the British government was unaware or indifferent, it was clear that violence would erupt. The small Jewish community, which had lived in Hebron for generations, and was not particularly Zionist, was the perfect victim.
A renewal of the clash between Jews and Moslems was delayed until after the Six Day War. Reinstitution of the Jewish community there was viewed as the rectification of an historical wrong, and no Israeli government was capable of opposing it. And yet, it is worthwhile to note the identity of the new population. The Jewish community in Hebron was not revived by those forced to leave in 1929, or their descendents. These were absorbed, each and every one of them, into other places, and went on their way. The longstanding Hebron community ceased to exist. To the best of my knowledge, the only institution that today still carries the name of the Hebron community that was destroyed in 1929 is the ultra-Orthodox "Hebron Yeshiva" in Jerusalem. Even if there were representatives of the historical community among the group that revived the Jewish community in the city, they were not the outstanding among them.
In any case, the fate of Hebron was not like the fate of Gush Etzion, Beit-Ha-Arava, and other places that fell in 1948. These communities were established by various branches of the Zionist movement, while Hebron was an integral part of the "Old Yishuv." Therefore, almost naturally, it was not the Zionist establishment that initiated the renewal of the Jewish community in the city; it was a private initiative. Moreover, the religious aspect of the group was very prominent. It was headed by a rabbi, a very logical phenomenon for a community most of whose members were religious. And yet, the practical participation of the rabbis in the community, as well as the very essence of urban settlement, were phenomena that until 1967 were almost non-existent in the settlement activities of the Zionist enterprise.
The relationship between the Jewish community and the Moslem community in the city since the beginning of the 1970s has taken many downturns, some of them very precipitous.
Initially, the residents of Hebron were grateful that the Jews did not take revenge against them for the 1929 massacre. Over the years, they have since developed the view that the Jewish revenge is much sophisticated: rather than killing them all at once, as their ancestors did to the Jews, they are killing them slowly and torturously.
On the surface, during the 1970s the relations between the two communities were reasonable. The Jews lived in Kiryat Arba and the Arabs in Hebron. Although there was no abundance of love and friendship, there was at least a semblance of coexistence. At the beginning of the 1980s the murders began, first of the Jews, and later of the Arabs. In response, the Jews began settling in the former Jewish Quarter of Hebron. The daily presence of Jews in the heart of Hebron, and the intensifying violence, further drove the wedge between the communities. The Jewish community that took up residence in Hebron is much less heterogeneous than that of Kiryat Arba. It is a community that lives a very strict religious life. Although it includes individuals who are not fastidious in upholding the commandments, these are few. In this respect, they are highly suitable to their neighbors. Hebron was the most religious city in the Judea and Samaria area. It has always been home to Moslems who were scrupulous in their observance of religion. In Hebron, the largest of the West Bank cities, there is no movie theater – nor was there ever. The types of entertainment acceptable in places such as Ramallah, still considered a Christian city although it has not been for many years, would never occur to the residents of Hebron – at least, not in their city. The following anecdote attempts to illustrate the character of Hebron. One of the Peace Now demonstrations held there took place on a summer Saturday in the mid-1980s. The heavy heat of the day prompted some of the female demonstrators to arrive in shorts and tank tops. One of the Arabs turned to his Jewish neighbors and asked if they were trying to expel him from his house by inciting prostitutes against him. Clearly, the demonstrators, who had come to express their identification with the Arabs of Hebron, acted out of a lack of awareness and had no intention of offending them. As for the Arabs of Hebron and its Jews, each side is well familiar with the other's sensitive points, and therefore their mutual offensives are difficult and painful.
Mutual Desecration of the Sacred
Jews and Moslems share a number of holy sites in Hebron, foremost among them the Cave of the Patriarchs. Both sides look on with a broken heart at the other side's use of the site, and mutually define it as a grave desecration of the sacred. This is also the reason that the most difficult confrontations in Hebron were, and apparently will continue to be surrounding the Cave of the Patriarchs. For generations, a death sentence hovered over the head of any non-Moslem who dared to enter the cave beyond the seventh external step. The Jews took consolation in an aperture in the compound wall, across from the step, through which one can see – so they believed – the cave itself, and in so doing to connect with the patriarchs. At the end of the Six Day War the prohibition was annulled. Unlike the compound of the Temple Mount, where there is a similar Moslem prohibition but there the Rabbinate prohibited Jews from entering for reasons pertaining to the laws of purity, in Hebron they did allow entrance. A situation thus arose whereby the governments of Israel were unable to prevent Jews from entering the cave, and were forced to devise various arrangements that satisfied no one.
The massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs may be viewed in this light. It can be assumed that Goldstein planned to deal as painful a blow to the Moslems as he could. Had he been foreign to Hebron, it is likely that he would have proceeded differently. However, as a local resident familiar with the opposing side's frame-of-mind, he reached the clear conclusion that the rules of the Cave of the Patriarchs are unlike that of any other mosque in Hebron or any where else. The solutions devised by the commission of inquiry establish following his act, and implemented in the field, do not reach the root of the matter and it is doubtful as to whether they reflect the original intentions of their authors. They decided upon a series of activities intended to minimize the chance that another Jew or Moslem the likes of Goldstein could commit a similar act in the future. Such solutions were fine at the time, but as time passes, the sides are becoming aware of their weaknesses and breaches. Ultimately, someone will find a way to carry out a similar act and the responsibility, as is the way of Israeli government, will be cast onto some miserable sergeant who, luck would have it, had been commander of that shift.
We are close to the moment when it will be necessary to adopt different measures, which deviate from the limited method of "visitation arrangements." To this end, we must recognize the fact that the Cave of the Patriarchs is not a site holy to the government of Israel or the Palestinian Authority; it is sacred and dear to the Jews, the Moslems, and to a certain extent, also to Christians. It is also not the property of the residents of Hebron, Jews and Arabs alike. The Cave of the Patriarchs is dear and important to millions who have never set foot in Hebron, and it is doubtful that they ever will. Therefore, a great challenge looms ahead of the government of Israel, as sovereign of the territory, to attempt to break through the entanglement to a solution that will enable members of the various religions to pray there under agreement. One can assume that the residents themselves will not provide such a solution. As residents of a marginal city, they can mainly create problems. It is highly doubtful if they can contribute to the solution. In all likelihood, many of them view the distancing of the members of the opposing community as the only way out. If the Israeli government forfeits the existence of the Jewish community of Hebron or Jewish access to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the micro problem of Hebron will be solved, but it is difficult to gauge the results of the uproar that such an activity will arouse among a broad population. Therefore, new, untried paths must be forged in the attempt to solve this difficult issue. Beyond the hostility, the problem of Hebron is mainly a religious problem and in Hebron, as stated, religion has always been more important than nationalism. The Jewish nationalist movement was not the dominant force there before 1929, and I believe that also today, the reason for the many confrontations between the Jewish residents and the various state representatives is that settling Hebron is viewed as a religious value, more important than the obligation to obey state orders. These same issues apply to the Moslem community. Hebron is not a center of Palestinian nationalism, but a religious center. Therefore, religious channels must be consulted in order to devise a solution. It will not be easy, and it will not happen immediately, but as a first stage, key religious authorities must be summoned to proffer their opinion on a possible framework for a solution. The very occasion of such a gathering is itself likely to contribute to the calm.
Hebron is probably the most difficult problem of all the issues pertaining to Judea and Samaria that the next government of Israel will have to contend with. A lack of imagination and a desire to gain momentary glory are a recipe for non-amelioration of the situation, or so it appears. However, I believe that the religions can contribute not only to fanning the flames of conflict, but also to cooling them down. This is a channel that should be explored, and Hebron, due to its special characteristics, is an ideal and suitable test case.
Dr. Michael Ehrlich teaches in the Department of Land of Israel Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is a former Chairman of Amnesty International's Israel section