May 7, 1999
After years of waiting excavations have begun in the Tel Hebron (Rumeida) neighborhood. This location is thought to be the site of the original Hebron, home to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and King David, well over 3,000 years ago. The first week or so of digging revealed a huge (for those days) winery, probably dating to the Byzantine era, about 1,500 years ago. Archeologists working under the auspices of the Israeli Antiquities Authority believe that following the Moslem conquest the area was transformed into an agricultural center.
Another find, capturing all our interests, included several skeletons, some of children and at least one adult. It is clear that at some point in time the land was also used as a cemetery. What we do not know is which people the skeletons belonged to. They were found on a surface above the winery, leading us to believe that they may be Jewish or possibly Moslem. It is still unclear how this revelation will affect the continued excavation. What is clear is that the area being dug out was within the original Hebron wall, part of which has also be uncovered. The implications of this fact are of major significance. It is extremely likely that underneath these discoveries, which are very close to the surface, are ruins extending back in time to the Bronze Age the days of Abraham, and later, King David. To this date the oldest find is that of pottery four thousand years old, uncovered several months ago. Yesterday a pottery signature with the word Melech (King) on it, approximately 2,700 years old, from the era of Hezkiah HaMelech was discovered. (Pictures of the excavations can be viewed on the Hebron Web Site http//www.hebron.org.il/TelRumeida/trdig.htm)
The archeologist heading the excavation is Emmanuel Isenberg. His authority to dig is being challenged by another archeologist, Avi Ofer, who excavated in Hebron over 15 years ago. Ofer is claiming that he should have first rights to continue digging, as a result of his previous work in Hebron. The Antiquities Authority believes otherwise, and the Israeli Supreme Court is due to hear the case and rule in the near future.
Here is where the crossroads of history and politics meet, one way or another. Avi Ofer is not only an archeologist. He is also a major Israeli activist. He is one of the leaders of Shalom Achshav, the Peace Now organization. A few months ago we had a discussion with him in our Hebron offices. His statement, still reverberating in my ears, represents the paradox of politics and Hebron. He said, “Tel Hebron is the second most important archeological site in Israel, second only to Jerusalem and Temple Mount. However, as unfortunate as it may be, the site belongs to Arafat and the Palestinians.”
It is well known that after the excavations are completed, it is the intention of Hebron’s Jewish Community to construct permanent housing at the site. As in Jerusalem, it is possible to build above excavations, thereby allowing accessibility to visitors, while living in buildings above them. Avi Ofer has made it abundantly clear that he opposes any Jewish building at the site, for reasons which extend well beyond his professional interests. The Israeli left demands the removal of Jews from all of Hebron.
The Jewish Community of Hebron had no say, and has no say in the choice of archeologists working at the site. But we know that should Avi Ofer be granted the permit to work there, he will do everything in his power to keep us from utilizing the site for a fully constructed present day neighborhood.
As the digging was getting underway, Israel’s archenemy Arafat was preparing to ‘declare a state.’ On May 4, the day he promised to make it official, we were observing the uncovering of our ancient history. The land the Arabs (and Avi Ofer) claim is theirs is being bared for all to see. True, at some time in history it is possible that Moslems lived there. But that was many hundreds and thousands of years after Jewish Israelites had settled that same land. Tel Hebron, known also as Tel Rumeida and Admot Ishai is not only a crossroad of civilization. It is the roots of all civilization. Those roots, from which we still soak up the teachings of our Forefathers, are based in Hebron, at Tel Hebron and Ma’arat HaMachpela, which is located in the valley under the neighborhood. Jews lived at Tel Hebron 4,000 years ago, three thousand years ago, two thousand years ago, one thousand years ago. And, of course, today. How an archeologist, whose primary objective is to uncover the past, enabling us to learn about our land and ourselves can make such a statement, “but it belongs to Arafat” is beyond my comprehension.
The crossroad of civilization still runs via Tel Hebron. Our people and our state stem from Tel Hebron. This neighborhood provides and represents, perhaps more than any other place in Israel, the moral and historical justification of our existence, not only in Hebron, but in all of Israel. The crisscross of present day politics cannot eradicate the roots of our existance. That is why we are here, and that is why we will stay here, forever.