Denial Runs Deep in Hebron

One of the most troubling aspects of Palestinian discourse is the refusal to acknowledge the Jewish historical presence in Biblical Israel. In an article recently published in Middle East Quarterly, Alexander Joffe reminds readers how Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat once “famously told then-U.S. president Bill Clinton that there was no Jewish temple in Jerusalem, causing the usually unflappable Clinton to nearly explode.” Joffe continues, “Denials regarding the Jewish historical connection to the Land of Israel generally and categorical denials that Jews constitute a nation are all frequently heard from Palestinian leaders, intellectuals, and others.”

The tendency to deny Jewish history is also evident in Old Hebron: The Charm of a Historical City and Architecture. This book, published by a Palestinian group, The Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC), in 2009 fails to accurately describe the Jewish presence in Hebron, which dates back thousands of years. One way the book does acknowledge the Jewish presence in Hebron is through repeated references to the terrible massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in 1994 that resulted in the deaths of 29 Palestinians in the Ibrahim Mosque.

By way of comparison, the book, which is nearly 200 pages in length, makes no reference to the Arab-perpetrated massacre of 62 Jews in Hebron that took place in 1929. By repeatedly mentioning the 1994 massacre of Palestinians and omitting any reference to the 1929 massacre of Jews (which helped end centuries of Jewish presence in the city), the text obscures the truth and demonizes Israel.

If the book did acknowledge the 1929 massacre, it would provide an implicit acknowledgment that Jews were present in the city before their return after the Six Day War in 1967 and embarked on what Emad Hamdan and Yousef al-Tarturi, author of chapter on Hebron’s economic and political situation term a strategy of “Judaization.”

Hebron, where according to Genesis, Abraham and Sarah were buried, is one of the most important cities in Jewish history and, does not need to be “Judaized.” Writing in the September/October 2005 issue of Biblical Archeological Review, archeologist Jeffrey R. Chadwick reports, “Biblically speaking, before Jerusalem, there was Hebron. And except for Jerusalem, no other ancient city is more important in Biblical tradition than Hebron.”

Jews Erased from Hebron

Acknowledging the historical presence of Jews in Hebron is clearly something the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee did not want to do. This organization is not just about renovating the city of Hebron – with funds provided by Western donors – but about using an opportunity to memorialize its work as a chance to erase Jews from the Biblical city of Hebron, also funded by Western donors.

The production of this book was subsidized by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development, which funded the production of the Arabic and Spanish versions of the text. (The agency’s logo is printed on the cover). The British government paid for its translation into English. In the English version of the text, the HRC expressed its gratitude “to the British Representative Office in the OPTs [“Occupied Territories”] who funded the English version of the book.”

Distorted History

The manner in which the book downplays Hebron’s Jewish history becomes apparent in a discussion of the city’s name that appears in the introduction written by Nazmi al-Jubeh. Al-Jubeh reports that the city was named after the Prophet Abraham “who settled in the city and influenced its development, to the extent that the city was named after him at the beginning of Islamic rule.” Of course, Abraham lived thousands of years before the advent of Islam.

He also reports that “different times in history, Hebron was called Kiryat Arba’ or the village of the four, possibly referring to a federation of four tribes or four hills; then it was called ‘Habra’ and ‘Habron’, which is probably derived from the verb “Habar”, meaning “to be joined, coupled, befriended”, in reference to Abraham the friend.” It continues:

The name continued to be used until the dawn of Islam, and was mentioned in a letter sent by Prophet Mohammed to Tamim al-Dari and his tribe. It was however progressively replaced by “Khalil al-Rahman”. Hebron was chosen by Prophet Abraham as a place of burial for his wife Sarah, and later on for himself and his children Isaac and Jacob their wives. At the end of the first century B.C. their tombs were surrounded by a great towering wall which has resisted the effects of time, war and destruction and has been standing tall until this very day. (Page 15)

Here, Al-Jubeh summarizes Hebron’s pre-Islamic history without acknowledging by name the Jews who had lived in the city for thousands of years prior to its conquest by Muslims in the 7th Century. Any reasonable introduction to the city of Hebron would state in one way or another “Jews lived here.” Many of the central events of Jewish history are centered in Hebron. References to Hebron abound in the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Harper’s Bible Dictionary edited by Madeline S. and J. Lane Miller (1973) reports the following:

The spies [Joshua sent into the Promised Land] found the giant Anakim among Hebron’s inhabitants (Num. 13:22). Hoham, King of Hebron, was part of the Amorite confederacy defeated by Joshua (Josh. 10:3m 23, 36, 39, 11:29). Caleb took it as part of his inheritance (Josh. 14:13-15, 15:13f.; Jud. 1:20). It became one of the six cities of refuge (Josh. 20:7, 21:11; I Chron. 6:55, 57). David was anointed king in Hebron (II Sam. 2:11); and there six of his seven sons were born (II Sam. 3:2-5). Absalom raised his standard of rebellion against his father in his birthplace (II Sam. 15:10). Hebron was fortified by Rehoboam (II Chron. 11:5, 10). (Page 252)

Most, but not all Jews were removed from Hebron during the Babylonian Exile when the city fell into the hands of the Edomites, but according to Nehemiah 11:25 some remained in the city at the time of the construction of the wall around Jerusalem. The importance of Hebron in the Bible helps explain why Judah Maccabee successfully led his fellow Jews in the struggle to take possession of the city from the Edomites in the Second Century BCE.

The Rebellion that Dare Not Speak Its Name

Al-Jubeh’s first reference to the Jews in Hebron prior to its Muslim conquest in the early Seventh Century CE occurs when he describes the destruction the city endured under Roman Rule in the Second Century CE. He writes:

The most important and massive destructions, with the greatest impact on the city’s evolution, were those which took place between 132 and 135 AD, [sic] whereas the city took part in the rebellion against the Romans and the r emaining rebels took refuge in its fortifications. Hence, large Roman legions encircled the city and systematically pounded its walls and forts and set fire to its houses. This attack transformed it from a booming fortified city into ruins. Jews, a large number of whom had taken part in the rebellion, were barred from living in the city, and a certain number of them were sold as slaves.

Here al-Jubeh does two things. First he refers a Jewish defeat in Hebron at the hands of the Romans without explaining how the Jews came into possession of the city in the first place. Secondly, he downplays the fact that the rebellion, which took place “between 132 and 135 AD” was the Bar Kochba Rebellion, a Jewish uprising against Rome. Why omit even the name of the rebellion in question?

No Prayer at Tomb Until Islam Arrived

Al-Jubeh’s treatment of the history of the Ibrahimi Mosque, built atop the Tomb of the Patriarchs, is also distorted by his efforts to emphasize the sanctity of the site upon which the mosque while denying the presence of other, older and pre-existing faiths that were present at the Tomb of the Patriarchs prior to the arrival of Islam in the 7th Century CE. These faiths are, of course, Judaism and Christianity, both of which pre-date Islam.

On page 53, al-Jubeh writes, “one can see that the sacred nature of this site is very old indeed but its transformation into a prayer site only occurred under Islam.” The notion that the Tomb of the Patriarchs was a sacred place, but not a place of prayer until it came under Muslim rule does not make sense.

Exactly how does a place become sanctified or made “sacred” without prayer? And if the Tomb of the Patriarchs was not a place of prayer prior to the arrival of Islam, then how does al-Jubeh explain the existence of the Herodian-style enclosure surrounding the cave – upon which the Ibrahimi Mosque was built?

On page 47, al-Jubeh reports that while most people believe the enclosure was built by King Herod, there is some uncertainty over who actually constructed it. A number of scholars, al-Jubeh reports assert it was built “a long time before Herod’s reign.” While this may be an attempt on al-Jubeh’s part to divorce the site from its Jewish history (Herod was a Jew), the main issue is the existence of the enclosure itself and the motives behind its construction.

The enclosure was built in a manner very similar to the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Writing in the May/June 1985 issue of Biblical Archeological Review Nancy Miller reports that “An English scholar who visited Machpelah in the late 19th Century wrote that “The Hebron Haram appears to have been a miniature copy of the Temple Haram at Jerusalem.” She continues:

He was right. Both are rectangular structures built of thick walls enclosing a platform. In addition, the measurements of both seem to be based on the standard Palestinian foot of the Greco-Roman period.
Perhaps even more striking, the Machpelah enclosure and the Temple Mount enclosure are built with exactly the same proportions. … If we examine the length-to-width ratios of these two structures, we discover that they are practically identical. The length-to-width ratio of the Machpela enclosure is 1.77:1; that of the Temple Mount enclosure is 1.73:1.

Miller goes onto to report that “both enclosures are oriented to the points of the compass” with the walls of Temple Mount oriented to the north, south, east and west and with the walls surrounding the Machpelah, it is the corners that are oriented to the cardinal points of the compass. And Miller, who believes (like most scholars) that the enclosure was built by Herod), reports that “As on the Temple Mount, Herod created a flat surface inside the Machpelah enclosure. Then he paved the floor with huge paving stones said to be about three feet thick.”

Why would the builder (whoever he is) create in Hebron a miniature of the Second Temple in Jerusalem – which surely was a place of prayer – if the Machpelah was not? In short, al-Jubeh’s assertion that the Tomb of the Patriarchs was at the same time a sacred space (but not a place of prayer prior to Islam) is simply a round about way for al-Jubeh to say – despite all the evidence to the contrary – the Jews in Hebron (whose presence he barely acknowledges) lacked the religious imagination to pray at one of their holiest sites and that it wasn’t until Muslims arrived was the site given its proper due. This may be an expression of normative Islamic doctrine regarding the Jewish people and Judaism, but it is terrible history and has no place in a book that purports to offer a historical analysis of the city.

“No Church at All”

Al-Jubeh is not content with denying the Jewish historical presence in the city of Hebron. He also attempts to deny Christianity’s connection to the city by denying that contrary to numerous other sources, the Ibrahimi Mosque was built atop a Byzantine church constructed in the 6th Century CE. Al-Jubeh asserts that “there actually was no church at all” on the site. To buttress his case, al-Jubeh cites contradictory descriptions of the church offered by pilgrims who visited the city at different points over the course of nearly two centuries. One visitor who visited the city circa 400 CE wrote of a “roofless church” and another, who visited Hebron in 570 CE, al-Jubeh reports, wrote of “a basilica consisting of a wall with columns” that had wall going down the center aisle that allowed Jews to enter from side and Christians from another.

To undermine the credibility of this second report, al-Jubeh reports that there had been no Jews in Hebron between the failure of the unnamed Bar Kochba rebellion of 135 CE and the Islamic conquest in the 7th Century CE. Al-Jubeh writes “there had been no Jews in Hebron since 135 AD [sic], all the way up to the Islamic conquest, by order of the Emperor. It is not possible that they could have been allowed to congregate there, at a time of fierce Byzantine persecution, both official and popular.”

By order of the Emperor? Which Emperor is al-Jubeh talking about? Yes, Jews were banned from Jerusalem – but not Hebron – after the Bar Kochba rebellion. And yes, Jews were discriminated against and some instances persecuted throughout the Byzantine Empire, but Judaism remained a legal religion in the empire. There are Byzantine-era synagogues throughout the Middle East including Hebron. Clearly, this lends credence to the pilgrim’s report that Jews were present at the Tomb of the Patriarchs even under Byzantine rule, despite al-Jubeh’s assertion to the contrary.


The Hebron Rehabilitation Committee did not offer up an accurate history of the city, but instead offered a counterfactual narrative written in the service of Islamic theology, which asserts that Abraham himself was the founding adherent of Islam and not the first Jew. The HRC is also working to promote a Palestinian ideology that de nies the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, most notably the Temple Mount.

The publication of this text raises some difficult questions: Can Muslims accept historical facts that contradict their scripture? Can Palestinian leaders and intellectuals accept facts contrary to their ideological propaganda?

A version of this first question has bedeviled Christians as they have struggled with the challenges posited by the historical-critical method of Biblical interpretation, especially its application to the story of Christ’s Passion.

A version of this second question has bedeviled Western democracies that have had to come to terms with the tragic aspects of their own history that undermine their national myths.

There is another question that needs to be asked: Exactly what were the Spanish and British Governments thinking when they paid for the production and translation of this deceitful and anti-historical text?

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