UNESCO and the Jewish Legacy in Hebron

Palestinian historical revisionism and attempts to negate Judaism’s legacy in its homeland have been increasingly used as a political tactic by the Palestinian leadership and its Muslim allies. (See “The Battle Over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount”) What began as the absurd denial of Judaism’s historical and religious ties to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount by Palestinian and Muslim leaders soon advanced to the enlistment of international bodies to pass resolutions eradicating the Jewish people’s connections to their holy sites and repudiating Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Buoyed by their successes at UNESCO, which passed several resolutions condemning Jewish visits to and policing of the Temple Mount while referring to Judaism’s holiest site solely in Arabic terms, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is used the same tactic to get the UN body to invalidate the Jewish legacy in Hebron, Judaism’s second holiest site after the Temple Mount. Turning to UNESCO’s World Heritage Center to declare the Old City of Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs a “Palestinian World Heritage Site” that is endangered by Israel, the PA sent a letter to the World Heritage Center Director Mechtild Rossler, alleging a long list of supposed Israeli violations, including the placement of security barriers near the Cave, and other Israeli security measures, as well as the purchase of property by Jewish residents of the city.

And once again, they were successful, as the UNESCO committee on July 7, 2017, voted 12-3 to reward the Palestinians by declaring the Old City of Hebron and Cave of the Patriarchs a Palestinian world heritage site endangered by Israel.

It is noteworthy that while Hebron was in Muslim hands, Jews were often barred from their holy site and subject to pogroms by their Arab neighbors. But after coming under Israeli control in 1967, both Jews and Muslims share access to the shrine.

Those who seek to eradicate Jewish claims to their holiest sites bank on the credulity of those unfamiliar with Hebron’s long history who willingly accept Palestinian and Muslim historical revisionism and fabrications.

Below is a CAMERA backgrounder on Hebron’s Jewish legacy.

Jewish History of Hebron

Hebron (Al Khalil, in Arabic) is the second holiest of Judaism’s four holy cities (Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias) and the site of the world’s oldest Jewish community. Jews have  prayed in Hebron since biblical times, and with a few interruptions have lived there continuously.

Biblical References

Hebron is referred to dozens of times in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). The Book of Genesis recounts how the patriarch Abraham (Abram) pitched his tents, and “dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron” where “he built an altar to the Lord.” (Genesis 13:18)

After his wife Sarah’s death in Hebron – which, the Bible states many times, is another name for Kiryat Arba – Abraham insisted on paying a large sum (400 silver shekels) for the Machpelah (double) Cave and its surrounding field as a burial spot, despite an offer from the previous owner, Ephron the Hittite, to gift it to Abraham (Genesis 23).

The Machpelah Cave became the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, where Sarah, and later Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah were buried, making it the second holiest site in Judaism.

The Book of Joshua describes how the city was part of the inheritance of the children of Judah (Joshua 15:54), and went to Caleb the son of Yephuneh (Joshua 14:13-14 and 15:13). Caleb, a representative of the tribe of Judah, was one of twelve spies sent out by Moses to scout the land of Canaan, promised to the Israelites by God. Caleb – along with Joshua and unlike the other 10 spies – had only encouraging things to say about the Promised Land (Numbers 13). The conquest of Hebron by the tribe of Judah and Caleb is mentioned in the Book of Judges (Judges 1:10 and 1:20).

The Judean city of Hebron became one of the Kingdom of Israel’s Cities of Refuge for asylum seekers (Joshua 20) and one of the cities set aside for the descendents of Aaron, priests from the tribe of Levi (Joshua 21:11).

Centuries later, David moved to Hebron (II Samuel 2) and was annointed King of Israel there (II Samuel 5:3). For the first seven and a half years of David’s 40-year reign, he ruled from Hebron (II Samuel 5:5), before establishing the seat of his kingdom in Jerusalem.

Hebron continued to be an integral part of the united Kingdom of Israel and subsequently the Kingdom of Judah, which was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Babylonian exile lasted some 50 years until Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their Promised Land and rebuild their Temple. The process took place over the next two decades. The Book of Nehemiah records “some of the children of Judah” living in Kiryat Arba, i.e. Hebron (Nehemiah 11:25).

From Biblical Times Through the Middle Ages

Jews continued to pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and inhabit Hebron, which was part of Judea, under different regimes – Persian, then Hellenist, before the Maccabean revolt brought Jewish independence to the region under the Hasmonean dynasty (~140-37 BCE). Corruption and civil strife within the Hasmonean family and Roman aspirations to expand its empire ultimately brought about the end of that Jewish kingdom.

The Romans appointed Herod, a descendent of Idumeans who had converted to Judaism, as the “King of the Jews,” replacing Hasmonean rule and making Judea a state of the Roman empire. Although Herod was known for his paranoia-fueled brutality that resulted in the murders of his wife, children, and the Jewish elders of the Sanhedrin, he was also known for his grand construction projects, including the expansion and renovation of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and the construction of a mausoleum that still stands today over the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Jews continued to live and pray in Hebron after Herod’s death and through the Great Uprising against the Romans that resulted in the defeat and the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE). Many of the battles in the subsequent Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 CE) were fought in and around Hebron, also suggesting that Jews were still in the area. After the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt, the Romans lay waste to the city and many Jews were sold as slaves in the Terebinth market near Hebron. According to archeological studies in the area, it seems unlikely that Jews lived there for awhile after the revolt. Habitation of the area dwindled and became more rural.

Archeological finds of ancient synagogues and ritual baths in the hills south of Hebron indicate that by the 4th century, many Jewish communities were again thriving in the area.

Jews continued to worship at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, sharing the site with Christians, as recounted by the anonymous Christian Pilgrim of Piacenza, known as “Antoninus” who recorded his travels in the Holy Land during the Byzantine era (in ~570 CE). He describes Jews and Christians entering from opposite sides of a screen which separated the two groups of worshippers.

After the Arab conquest in 638 CE, a Muslim mosque was constructed in place of the Byzantine church at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, but Jews continued to worship there and live nearby.

When the Christian Crusaders conquered the area in 1099 CE, Jews were again expelled from Hebron. But by the mid-12th century, they were making pilgrimages to their holy site in Hebron. The famous Jewish sage Maimonides described a visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs ~ 1165 CE:

On the ninth of the month I left Jerusalem and went to Hebron to kiss the graves of my Forefathers in the Cave (Tomb of the Patriarch), and I prayed and gave praise to God for everything. And I vowed that these two days, the 6th and the 9th of Marcheshvan, will be a holiday and a day of prayer, and joy in G-d, with food and drink….and even as I merited to pray in the ruins, so may I merit to see the consolation, may it be speedily, Amen” (Igrot HaRambam, Shilat Edition, page 225).

The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela recorded his visit to Hebron a few years later and described how the custodian of the holy site would allow Jews who slipped him a “special reward” to descend directly to the cave where the patriarchs were buried. Another Jewish traveller, Rabbi Petachia of Regensburg, described a similar experience visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs (Travels of Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon, page 63) toward the end of the 12th century.

In the mid 13thcentury, Muslims again occupied the country and once more turned the Tomb of the Patriarchs into a mosque, barring Jews (and Christians) from entering it, and restricting them to the fifth step – later the seventh step– toward the entrance to the shrine. The restriction on Jewish entrance to the holy site lasted some 700 years until Hebron came under Israel’s control in the 1967 war.

At the same time, accounts by various travelers suggest that a Jewish community was living in Hebron by the mid-13th century. Prominent Jewish sages, like Nachmanides, expressed their desire to be buried near the patriarchs or live nearby. There is an account from the Jewish scholar and commentator on the Mishna, Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, of his move to the Jewish community in Hebron. Even while restrictions on Jewish access to the holy site were enforced and Jews were subject to maltreatment by their neighbors and occupying powers, Jews never gave up their aspirations of living in or visiting their holy city.

During the Ottoman Occupation (1517-1918)

The size of Hebron’s Jewish community fluctuated, but remained steadfast through the vicissitudes of four centuries of Ottoman occupation.

In the mid-1500’s, Jewish exiles from Spain moved to Hebron, followed by Kabbalists, philosophers, and authors who joined the existing community. The holy city of Hebron became a rabbinic center of scholarship . Despite intermittent pogroms, libels, depredations, or heavy taxation on Hebron’s Jews during this time, they managed to purchase plots of land in Hebron, expanded the Jewish cemetery, built synagogues, a yeshiva, homes, a guest house and a clinic.

British Mandate and 1929 Massacre

After suffering during the First World War under Turkey’s wartime administration, the Jewish community in Hebron began to recover under the British Mandate that succeeded the Ottoman occupation in 1922. In 1929, however, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, began a virulent propaganda campaign calling for jihad against the Jews. Arab mobs in Hebron turned on their Jewish neighbors, in a brutal massacre that spelled the end of the longtime Jewish community there.

According to Dutch-Canadian journalist Pierre Van Passen who was in Palestine at the time, fabricated pictures of Muslim holy sites in ruins were handed out to Hebron Arabs as they were leaving their mosques on Friday, August 23, 1929. The captions on the pictures claimed that the Dome of the Rock was bombed by the Zionists. That evening, armed Arabs broke into the Yeshiva (Talmudic academy) and murdered the lone student they found. The following day, an enraged Arab mob wielding knives, axes, and iron bars destroyed the Yeshiva and slaughtered the rest of the students there. A delegation of Jewish residents on their way to the police station was lynched by an Arab mob. The mob then proceeded to massacre Hebron’s Jews — both Sephardi and Ashkenazi — who had lived peacefully with their Arab neighbors for years. With only one British officer supervising, the Arab police made no attempt to prevent the massacre.

The head of Hebron’s Ashkenazi community, Rabbi Ya’akov Slonim, had been on good terms with his Arab colleagues and offered his home as a refuge to Hebron’s Jews, believing that they would be spared. But the mob broke in and killed the Rabbi, members of his family and all those assembled there. Van Passen gave the following account, revealing an attempted cover-up by British officials:

What occurred in the upper chambers of Slonim’s house could be seen when we found the twelve-foot-high ceiling splashed with blood. The rooms looked like a slaughterhouse. When I visited the place in the company of Captain Marek Schwartz, a former Austrian artillery officer, Mr. Abraham Goldberg of New York, and Mr. Ernst Davies, correspondent of the old Berliner Tageblatt, the blood stood in a huge pool on the slightly sagging stone floor of the house. Clocks, crockery, tables and windows had been smashed to smithereens. Of the unlooted articles, not a single item had been left intact except a large black-and-white photograph of Dr. Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism. Around the picture’s frame the murderers had draped the blood-drenched underwear of a woman.

We stood silently contemplating the scene of slaughter when the door was flung open by a British solder with fixed bayonet. In strolled Mr. Keith-Roach, governor of the Jaffa district, followed by a colonel of the Green Howards battalion of the King’s African Rifles. They took a hasty glance around that awful room, and Mr. Roach remarked to his companion, “Shall we have lunch now or drive to Jerusalem first?”

In Jerusalem the Government published a refutation of the rumors that the dead Jews of Hebron had been tortured before they had their throats slit. This made me rush back to that city accompanied by two medical men, Dr. Dantziger and Dr. Ticho. I intended to gather up the severed sexual organs and the cut-off women’s breasts we had seen lying scattered over the floor and in the beds. But when we
came to Hebron a telephone call from Jerusalem had ordered our access barred to the Slonim house. [Van Passen, Pierre, Days of Our Years, Hillman-Curl, Inc., New York 1939]

In total, sixty-seven Jews were killed and 60 were wounded. The Jewish community in Hebron was destroyed.

In 1931, the community attempted to rebuild, but during the Arab riots of 1936, the British authorities evacuated Hebron’s Jewish residents and did not allow them to return to their homes.

After Jordan occupied Hebron in 1948, Jews were barred from living there and from praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs. Hebron remained Judenrein for over 30 years. It was only in 1968, after Hebron came under Israel’s control, that Jews re-established a Jewish community in the area.

Jewish Liberation and Resettlement of Hebron

When Israel gained control of Hebron in 1967, IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, became the first Jew to enter the Cave of the Patriarchs in 700 years. From this point on, Jews, Muslims and Christians  shared access and prayer at the shrine.

In April 1968, the eve of Passover, Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of his followers checked into the Park Hotel in Hebron in an attempt to re-establish the Jewish community there. They were opposed by both the local Arabs and the Israeli military. The settlers persisted and were eventually moved to Israeli military headquarters overlooking Hebron. In 1970, the government agreed to establish the adjacent town of Kiryat Arba, and the first housing units were erected in 1972. In 1979, settlers established the Committee of the Jewish Community of Hebron and moved into the former Jewish areas of Beit Hadassah and the Avraham Avinu synagogue.

Israeli settlers, soldiers and visitors who came to the Cave of the Patriarchs were frequently subject to Arab violence. In 1976, Arabs destroyed the synagogue at the Cave of the Patriarchs and burned Torah scrolls. In May 1980, six Yeshiva students were killed and 20 wounded by Palestinian terrorists as they returned from prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and in 1983, another yeshiva student was gunned down in the center of Hebron. Each murder and act of violence prompted the settlers to expand their presence in Hebron. By 1984, the Hebron Jewish community consisted of several enclaves.

More Violence in Hebron

Hebron was the scene of even more violence during the first intifada and after the Oslo Agreements. Jewish settlers were the victims of murder, stabbings, firebombings and shootings by neighboring Palestinians. In 1994, a Jewish resident of nearby Kiryat Arba shot dead 29 Muslim worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs and wounded 150 more, before being beaten to death. In response to these murders, a Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) was established, and the Tomb of the Patriarchs was divided between Muslims and Jews with separate entrances and security barriers between each prayer site.

Hebron Agreement (1997) and Second Intifada

In January 1997, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ceded control of more than 80% of Hebron to the Palestinians under the leadership of PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat. Hebron was divided into two sectors: area H-1, which comprised over 80% of the city and is controlled by the Palestinian Authority; and area H-2, where Israeli Jews live under Israel civil and security control. Palestinians too live in area H-2 (just under 20% of the city), giving them access to both sectors of Hebron, whereas Israeli Jews are confined to area H-2.

Despite the agreements and the presence of the TIPH (whose mandate was renewed as part of the Hebron agreement), violence against Jews in Hebron continued after 1997 and throughout the Second Intifada. Among the dozens of Israelis murdered in the area during this period were Shalhevet Pas, an infant targeted in the crosshairs of a Palestinian sniper, and twelve security personnel—including civilian guards, border policemen and soldiers—who were ambushed and killed as they accompanied worshippers returning from prayers at the Cave of the Patriarch.

In 2002, two TIPH members were shot and killed just outside Hebron by Palestinian gunmen. And in 2006, TIPH temporarily withdrew from Hebron after its headquarters were attacked and destroyed by Muslims angered about cartoons of Mohammed published in a Danish magazine.

Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs Today

Since 1997, Jews are confined to the small H-2 segment of Hebron under Israeli civil and security control.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is currently divided between Muslims and Jews with separate entrances and prayer sites for each. The Muslim prayer site, under control of the Muslim Waqf, includes the cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebecca and the only known entrance to the actual cave. On 10 days during the year, Muslims take over the entire site and on 10 days, Jews take over the entire site.

But  sharing of a site and city that is holy to both Jews and Muslims is apparently not sufficient for the Palestinian Authority. Its actions speak to its goal of making the area exclusively Palestinian and erasing the Jewish legacy.  Unfortunately, international bodies such as UNESCO aid and abet these goals, demonstrating that their own commitment to truth is trumped by their desire to strip Jews of their legacy.

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