Wednesday, January 31, 1996

The Heart of the People

The Heart of the People

"On the occasion of the thirty second anniversary of the renewal of the Jewish Community of Hebron, I am happy to convey to the entire community blessings of success and shalom. The right of Jews to live tranquilly in the city of the Forefathers securely, protected from all danger, is not disputed."

So begins Prime Minister Ehud Barak's letter of good wishes to The Jewish Community of Hebron.  
The renewed Jewish Community of Hebron is 32 years old. The day before Passover in 1968 a group of families arrived at the Park Hotel in Hebron. The proprietor rented them half of the kitchen, which they promptly koshered. The women and children slept in the rooms; the men and boys slept in the lobby and on the floor. It was the first Jewish Pesach in Hebron since 1936.

Following the riots, massacre and exile in 1929, a small group of Jews returned to Hebron in 1931. About thirty families lived in the city until just after Passover, 1936, when they were expelled by the British. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, Jews again had access to the first Jewish city in Israel. In 1968 they officially came back home.

Moshe Dayan z"l, then Minister of Defense, arrived in Hebron shortly after Passover. Following several weeks of discussions he offered the group two choices: either be forcibly removed from the city, or go live in the Hebron military compound, several kilometers outside the center of the city. This building, originally a British police station, had been transformed into the Israeli military Headquarters of Judea. It was not overly conducive to a civilian lifestyle. Dayan must have expected that the young families, including women and babies, would soon throw up their arms in frustration at the poor living conditions and leave of their own accord. 

Dayan was partially correct. The group did eventually leave. But first they lived in the military headquarters for two and half years, until the first neighborhood of the newly founded Hebron suburb, Kiryat Arba, was completed.

There was, however, a yearning to return to Hebron, to Beit Hadassah, to the 450 year old Jewish Quarter, home of the ancient Avraham Avinu Shul, to reside adjacent to Ma'arat HaMachpela. Attempts were made, again and again, all leading to failure. Only in 1979, when Menachem Begin was Prime Minister, did a group of 10 women and 40 children succeed in setting up house in the basement of the old medical center, Beit Hadassah, in the middle of the city. Living in adverse conditions for close to a year, these women and childen became the nucleus of Hebron's renewed Jewish community. In 1980, following the murder of six young men outside Beit Hadassah, the Israeli government finally gave official recognition and authorization of Hebron's Jewish Community. 

The present Jewish Community of Hebron numbers some six hundred people, including almost 60 families, over 300 children, and 150 post-high school yeshiva students studying at Yeshivat Shavei Hevron in Beit Romano. The reason there aren't more people living in Hebron is simply because of lack of space. There are not any apartments available. Two new buildings, allowing room for 12 new families, are virtually finished and should be totally occupied shortly after Passover. Were there more room in Hebron, there would be many more Jews living in the city.

However, in spite of the small size of the community, according to number received from the IDF and Civil Administration, well over 500,000 people visit Hebron and Ma'arat HaMachpela annually, in spite of transfer of over 80% of the city to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. The tremendous support generated for Hebron around the world is beyond doubt. 

Why do we choose to live in Hebron? Again, the answer is quite simple. Last June, a group of people associated with the New Israel Fund visited Hebron. Following a short visit on the Jewish side of the city, they crossed the 'border' and met with Hebron's Arab mayor, Mustepha Natsche. They asked him whether Jews were allowed to pray at Ma'arat HaMachpela, the second holiest site to the Jewish people in the world. His answer greatly surprised them. He said no. "Ma'arat HaMachpela is a mosque, and only Moslems can pray in a Mosque," said Arab Mayor Mustepha Natsche. 

The Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs was off-limits to Jews for 700 years. During that time Jews, (as well as Christians), were not allowed inside the 2,000 year old Herodian structure atop the Caves of Machpela. Today we are told by Hebron's Arab Mayor that should he (i.e. the Palestinian Authority) ever again control all of Hebron, again this holy site will be closed to anyone not Moslem.

The only reason that Ma'arat HaMachpela is still accessible to Jews is because there is a permanent Jewish presence in the city. The disappearance of the Jewish Community of Hebron would be tantamount to abandoning our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Could any Jew, be they religious or secular, dream of abandoning the Fathers and Mothers of our people?

What is our goal, living in Hebron? Despite media reports, the goal of Hebron's Jewish community is not to expel the Arabs living here. Anyone of any race or religion should be able to live in Hebron. However, we demand that our Arab neighbors accept the fact that the Jews have an eternal, legitimate right to live in the first Jewish city in the land of Israel. This is our goal: living normal lives, just as anyone else, anywhere in Israel.

Prime Minister Barak's blessings to Hebron continued: "The test of the renewed Hebron Jewish community, which is the same test of the Arab majority, is the ability to develop good neighborly relationships. Mutual honor and a joint effort are necessary to overcome the scars, the pain and the difficult reminders left from the despicable carnage which desecrated this holy city."

Hebron's Jewish Community could not agree more with this statement.  The time has come for our Arab neighbors to stop throwing rocks and firebombs at us, for no other reason than because we are Jews living in Hebron. The time has come for them to stop shooting at us and stabbing us, for no other reason than because we are Jews living in Hebron.  Perhaps they believe that by killing us, or by attempting to murder us, they will scare us away. They cannot be further from the truth, because Hebron is the heart of the Jewish people, the life-blood from which the Jewish people derives its sanctity. This is a truth that even a left-wing prime minister not only understands, but also agrees with. We truly hope and pray for the day when true peace will prevail, both in Hebron, and throughout the land of Israel.

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