My husband’s late father was a yeshiva student in Hebron during the 1929 riots, miraculously surviving the carnage. He married late in life and was an old man to a young son when he died, leaving many questions unanswered.
I was embarrassed to admit that I barely knew anything about the history of the ancient city. My soldier son had been stationed in Hebron for five months, and the weekends he came home were spent sharing superficial tales of bored Arab children, the bitter cold that accompanied night-patrols, the sounds and aromas of the ancient bazaar. During those visits, he slept a lot, which I conveniently attributed to army fatigue. He was later reassigned to the border of Lebanon.
Thus, when the post-holiday lull arrived, and I was released from KP duties, I announced that I wanted to visit Hebron. Husband Ronney was both surprised and delighted.
Driving through Kiryat Arba for the first time since 1982, I determined that three decades had done wonders for a city that is one of the earliest mentioned in the Bible. Broad, tree-lined streets, modern transportation, leisure and business services in addition to attractive homes suggest that despite international condemnation of this “Israeli settlement,” Kiryat Arba is not going anywhere.
Exiting the town, it became apparent that time stands still for the Arabs of Hebron. The streets grew narrow and dangerously steep as we wended our way around donkey carts and poorly parked vehicles toward the ancient city. Old men in robes and kefiyahs sat outside of idle stores smoking hookahs and drinking copious cups of thick botz, ignoring the blue-uniformed schoolgirls who were returning home for the day. Nothing indicated that we were in the land of Israel until we came to a pronounced bend in the road; armed soldiers guarded this isolated and potentially dangerous corner for those who were sojourning further.
We emerged to the sounds of Hasidic music, coming upon a carnival-like setting. The great lawn and adjoining areas that flanked the Machpelah Caves were crowded with food and souvenir vendors, CD hawkers and a regular contingent of beggars. Picnicking families lazily watched their babies wandering from blanket to blanket, only to be returned to their rightful parents in due course. Despite the delightful atmosphere, however, tension lurks. Hebron is a very dangerous place.
The main street is divided by a low cement wall, because distrust – indeed hatred – between the residents is patently obvious. Unlike Jerusalem and, indeed, most of Israel, there is little contact between Hebron’s two peoples, unless it is hostile.
We were not permitted to freely explore the nooks and alleys of the city. Except for specifically indicated and protected areas, Hebron is Judenrein. Memorial plaques pepper street corners and ruins of once beautiful homes and businesses, offering a glimpse into the bloody history. Streets, plazas and buildings are named after the martyrs who, with their blood, ensured a continuing Jewish presence.
We came upon a house where a porch table groaned under the weight of a large coffee urn and plates of cookies and cakes for soldiers to enjoy free of charge. As with everything else in Hebron, an explanatory sign shared that this 24-hour refreshment corner is named in memory of Gilad Zar, age 41 (obm), shot dead in a terrorist ambush while driving between Kedumim and Yizhar.
A little up the road stands the (in) famous Bet Hadassah, which houses the Hebron Museum. The building was constructed in 1893 by the Jewish community of Hebron as a free health clinic and community center for both Arab and Jewish residents. During the 1929 riots, thousands of Arabs turned on their Jewish neighbors, maiming, raping and ultimately slaughtering 67 of them. Victims included women, babies and the elderly. After fleeing and returning for a brief period, Jews were expelled from Hebron again in 1936, liberation occurring only in 1967.
In 1979, twelve years after it was freed, a group of principled women and their children moved into the dilapidated Beit Hadassah. These intrepid women were determined to renew the Jewish presence in Hebron, despite living under siege. An ensuing terror attack at the entrance of the building killed six young Jewish men from the Kiryat Arba Yeshiva who had come to dance and make Sabbath kiddush for the inhabitants. Subsequently, the government authorized the reestablishment of a Hebron Jewish community. The building was rededicated “Beit HaShisha” (Building of the Six) in 2000.
In the summer of 1984 seven families moved into mobile homes on Jewish-owned land at Tel Rumeida. The new neighborhood was called Admot Yishai (Jesse’s Lands) because of its proximity to a site that Jewish travelers from the middle ages identified as the burial place of Yishai, father of King David. This neighborhood represents the heartbeat of a city that is very much alive despite the blood-soaked land upon which it was built.
After signing the Hebron accords in 1997, the city was divided and left Jews with access to only 3 percent of the city. Until today, they are restricted to one street that is one kilometer long. The Arab sections of the city boast thriving commercial and shopping centers that remain off-limits to Jews.
The “Oslo War” (2nd Intifada) of 2000 brought additional closure of Hebron’s business and more wounding and murder of Jews. Among the horrifying atrocities was the deliberate targeting of ten-month old Shalhevet Pass, sleeping in her father’s arms. The Arab terrorist aimed his gun at her, fired and struck her in the head.
I now understand why my son did not talk about his Hebron experience. The enormity of Jewish existence in such an angry place is too large for contemplation in anything more than half-teaspoon doses. The aforementioned incidents barely scratch the surface in describing the sacrifice that has occurred in establishing a free Hebron.
Machpelah, the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs, left me altered, imbued with hope and awe. I smile to think that some have called me “brave” for living in Israel these past 17 years. Brave? Pshaw, pshaw. I don’t live in Hebron.
The photograph of my father-in-law’s yeshiva class modestly graces the hallway; the soon-to-be-maimed-and-slaughtered young men stare at us in perpetuity, blessedly unaware of the horror that will soon befall them.
May their memories – and the memories of those who have given their lives so that Jews may return year after year to Abraham’s city – be for a blessing.