By Larry Gordon
The ride from Jerusalem to Hebron is a drive through the centuries. It is all there to behold in one 45-minute trip. The road is curvy and we usually move at a pretty good clip, but as we roll through a series of Arab towns it pays to slow down so as to take it all in.
But all that is just a side show. Once we enter Hebron proper, everything changes. One of the fascinating things about this particular spot on the map and the fact that we have traveled here many times over four decades is that to the casual observer, little has changed over all this time.
Anyone who knows what is going on here will tell you that a great deal has changed here over all these years. The steep hills as we enter Hebron are the same as always. It is important to understand that after all these decades there are just 90 families living in Hebron. Nearby Kiryat Arba features slow but continuous building and a population today of about 5,000 people.
I’m meeting with Dan Rosenstein, the director of the Hebron Fund, so he can bring us up to date on what is taking place in the vitally important and valuable ancient city. Before making aliyah about a decade or so ago, Dan and his family lived in West Hempstead. He now lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh and travels to Hebron almost daily — that is, when he is not in the United States generating important funding to maintain and grow the Jewish presence here.
For all these years that I have been visiting Hebron, the circuitous and hilly drive to the main part of the city has always looked to be the same. The old Arab market stores are just about all boarded up. Depending on the time of day, you might be able to observe a few women or some kids walking home from school or from some obscure shops planted deep inside the Arab side of the city.
Of significant note is that 80% of Hebron is Arab with a population of about 100,000. The Jewish population totals fewer than 1,000. These numbers would seem on the surface to be indicative of a claim that after all is said and done, Hebron is essentially an Arab city.
But it does not work that way around here. No one is really interested in the statistics or the imbalance in the numbers. It is no secret and no one is hiding the fact that Hebron is where Jewish history began and today continues with a struggle — but in a magnificent fashion.
Dan says to meet up with him at the entrance to the Cave of the Machpeilah, the burial grounds of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Yaakov and Leah, Adam and Chava, and even the head of Yaakov’s twin brother, Eisav, which is a story of its own.
The structure is Herodian by design and was built up more than 150 years ago by Sir Moses Montefiore into what it is today. There is a constant tug-of-war going on here on the matter of who are the dominant people in the city — Muslims or Jews. The numbers would seem to add up to an obvious conclusion, but, as I said before, that is not the way it works around here when it comes to the reality of biblical history.
Hebron plays a prominent and important role in the history of the Jewish people. Later on, as we walked up toward the Cave of the Machpeilah, Dan Rosenstein pointed out that the purchase of the cave as a burial place for Sarah was the first real estate transaction recorded and that is not disputable.
Ephron the Hitite, as the Torah tells us, was willing to offer the land to Avraham as a gift or a gesture of neighborly goodwill. Avraham, our forefather, insisted on paying for the land — overpaying as some say. In effect, it appears that he knew well that throughout the years and over the course of the centuries the Jewish claim to this land would be challenged again and again.
There is an evident dichotomy here between the history of this city and actually being here once again, walking through vital parts of Hebron, with each small step oozing with the deep and rich ancient history of Am Yisrael.
As unrealistic as it is, there is a sense not just in the extremist Arab world but in Europe as well that the current situation in Hebron is temporary and subject to negotiations, even though talks of that type are far away and will probably never materialize.
As has always been the case in Hebron, as you make your way into the main Jewish part of the city it is important to park your vehicle near the stairs that lead up to the mammoth cave. As with every historical site these days, the first stop is the gift shop and restaurant where most visitors stop for a while to shop or for a bite to eat.
The soup and the pizza here are actually quite good. While it was once just pizza or borekas, the menu here has been significantly expanded. Dan tells me that the restaurant owner has brought in an expert pizza chef, so I assume that he had brought in someone from Italy or elsewhere in Europe. But no, he says, the new pizza chef is from Crown Heights. O.K., I figure, I guess that makes sense, too.
In a city like Hebron, the concept of status quo is king. It is also emblematic of the constant tug-of-war that takes place in this city quietly every day. Time and again, a push is made for more rightful Jewish settlement in Hebron. But the Knesset and Israel’s Supreme Court are afraid of issuing a ruling or making a decision that triggers violence.
The walk through Hebron on a sunny and not-too-cool day is as pleasant as it is meaningful. Once we pass through the metal detectors and tell the security personnel that we are not carrying any weapons, we are climbing the steps into the holy site.
It’s a Thursday afternoon and a quiet day here. There aren’t too many people on the street and there are few visitors or tourists. Once inside, we pause at the separate locations where the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel are buried. It is a special place to pray. Our sages have said that the gateway to Olam Ha’Ba, the World to Come, is here in Hebron. We daven Minchah here, slowly and methodically, with about 15 others who have made their way on this day to Hebron.
Just before we entered this place, we stood with a group of five or six people outside the Cave, which included Knesset member Sharren Haskel of Likud. According to Dan Rosenstein, MK Haskell visits Hebron every few months to gauge how the city is doing in its ongoing struggle with its overwhelming number of hostile neighbors.
The interesting aspect of this visit was that she wanted to visit some of the Arab-run institutions on the other side of the city but was denied entrance by the Palestinian Authority. That did not sit too well with her and she indicated that she was going to lodge a protest with the relevant authorities in Israel who are in charge of coordinating governance with the Palestinians on the other side of town. We will have to look into how this situation turned out.
The thing about Hebron is that its safety, its security, and its future are the responsibility of Jews everywhere around the world. This history here is great, and the city’s future is potentially even greater.