The city of Hebron is located in the southern portion of Judea, 30 km south of Jerusalem. It is mentioned many times in the Tanach from Avraham’s purchase of the Cave of the Patriarchs (Mearat Hamachpelah) to King David’s royal residence there hundreds of years later. Today it is home to approximately 250,000 Palestinians, and 850 Jews concentrated in and around the old quarter.
The name “Hebron” traces back to two Semitic roots, which coalesce in the form ḥbr, in Hebrew and Amorite and denoting a range of meanings from “colleague”, “unite” or “friend”. In the proper name Hebron, the original sense may have been alliance.
Israelites lived in Hebron from the time of its capture by Joshua until the destruction of the first Temple when they were exiled to Babylon.
According to some historians their place was taken by Edomites in about 587 BCE. Some Jews appear to have lived there after the return from the Babylonian exile. During the Maccabean period, Hebron was plundered by Judah Maccabee in 167 BCE. The city appears to have long resisted Hasmonean dominance, however, and indeed as late as the First Jewish–Roman War was still considered Idumean. Herod the Great built the wall which still surrounds the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Hebron was captured by the various armies that swept through Israel, the last being the British in 1917. Throughout the centuries it always maintained a small but cohesive Jewish community and was visited by many travelers and great Rabbis including the Ramban in 1270, who came to pray at the Mearat Hamachpelah, even though the Muslims did not allow the Jews inside the compound.
By the nineteenth century the Jewish community consisted of 60 Sephardic families (some dating back to the Expulsion from Spain) and 50 Ahkenazic families, mostly Lubavitch Hasidim who came in 1823.
In 1928 the Lithuanian government was trying to draft yeshiva students into the army, the Lithuanian Congregation relocated to Hebron, and by 1929 had attracted some 265 students from Europe and the United States.
During the 1929 Hebron massacre, Arab rioters slaughtered some 64 to 67 Jewish men, women and children and wounded 60. Jewish homes and synagogues were ransacked, 435 Jews survived by virtue of the shelter and assistance offered them by their Arab neighbors, who hid them.
Two years later, 35 families moved back into the ruins of the Jewish quarter, but on the eve of the Palestinian Arab national revolt (April 23, 1936) the British Government decided to move the Jewish community out of Hebron as a precautionary measure to secure its safety. This decree ended the Jewish presence in Hebron which had been continuous for thousands of years. The sole exception was the 8th generation Hebronite Ya’akov ben Shalom Ezra, who sold dairy products in the city. Yaakov blended in well and resided there under the protection of friends. In November 1947, in anticipation of the UN partition vote, the Ezra family closed its shop and left the city. There were no Jews in Hebron for the first time for the next 20 years.
In December 1948, the Jericho Conference was convened to decide the future of the West Bank which was held by Jordan. Hebron notables, headed by mayor Muhamad ‘Ali al-Ja’bari, voted in favor of becoming part of Jordan and to recognise Abdullah I of Jordan as their king. Again, no Jews were allowed to worship at the Cave of the Patriarchs.
After the Six-Day War in June 1967, Israel reclaimed Hebron along with the rest of Judea. In the spring of 1968, without government consent, Rabbi Moshe Levinger together with a group of Israelis posing as Swiss tourists rented the main hotel in Hebron and then refused to leave. The Labor government’s survival depended on the National Religious Party, and was reluctant to evacuate the settlers, given the massacre that occurred there decades earlier. After heavy lobbying by Levinger, the settlement gained the tacit support of Levi Eshkol and Yigal Allon, while it was opposed by Abba Eban and Pinhas Sapir. After more than a year and a half of agitation, the government agreed to legitimize Levinger’s settlement.
Supporters of Jewish resettlement within Hebron see their program as the reclamation of an important heritage dating back to Biblical times, which was dispersed or, it is argued, stolen by Arabs after the massacre of 1929. The purpose of settlement is to return to the ‘land of our forefathers’.
This thrilling historical novel (written in hebrew) by Naomi Frenkel tells the story of a Sephardi family in Hebron. The father of the family was raised as a Christian, but came back to Judaism. The story of people torn between forced Christianity and persecuted Judaism, between adjusting to a new land and longing to the homeland that turned its back to them, and above all – their hope for salvation in Eretz Israel.
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