Monday, February 13, 2012

KYRIAT ARBA


KYRIAT ARBA

JEROLD S. AUERBACH


(Editor’s note: AFSI will be running a series on the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. Those who live in them are Israel’s most courageous and patriotic citizens, not “occupiers” but people with the faith and determination to recreate Jewish communities in the land of their forefathers who “settled” there millennia ago. We are giving them the voice denied them in an overwhelming hostile media (shockingly, in Israel as well) which depicts them as zealots, fanatics and chief barriers to peace
Kiryat Arba is connected to the ancient holy city of Hebron by the umbilical cord of Torah and a miraculous moment in modern Israeli history.
In Kiryat Arba, ³which is Hebron² (Gen. 23:2), Sarah died and was buried in
Ma¹arat HaMachpelah, the cave in the land that Abraham purchased from Ephron
the Hittite for four hundred silver shekels. Meaning ³the city of four,²
Kiryat Arba was variously identified with four confederated tribes who
resided there and with Arba, said to be the father of the fearsome giants
encountered by the spies sent by Moses to scout the land.
According to the Babylonian Talmud, Arba was ²the city of four couples² who
were entombed in Machpelah: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and
Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah. But during the centuries of Muslim rule,
between 1267-1967, Jews were not permitted inside the Machpelah enclosure.
Kiryat Arba virtually disappeared from Jewish history.
In the spring of 1968, nearly a year after the Six-Day War brought biblical
Judea and Samaria under Israeli control, Rabbi Moshe Levinger rented the
Park Hotel in Hebron for the Passover Seder. But it was not for one night
only. He intended to rebuild a Jewish community in Hebron, restoring a
Jewish presence in the venerated city that had been Judenrein ever since the
horrific 1929 massacre.
After the holiday ended, several dozen Israelis refused to leave the hotel.
Following six weeks of negotiation with an Israeli government that was
apprehensive about conflict with hostile local Arabs, the persistent
settlers were relocated to a nearby military compound overlooking the city.
There a dozen families, joined by a cohort of yeshiva students, lived in
cramped quarters for two years.
Early in 1970 the government authorized the establishment of an ³upper
Hebron,² to be named Kiryat Arba, on an empty hilltop site overlooking the
city. In an attempt to satisfy the settlers and mollify hostile Arabs it
would be located near Hebron but not in it ­ intended as ³an uneasy
compromise between security, demography, emotion, and history.²
The following year, just before Rosh Hashanah, fifty families moved to
Kiryat Arba, a ten-minute downhill walk to Hebron. Planned as a small
community with 1,000 dwelling units, it grew slowly. Kiryat Arba resembled
other Israeli development towns, remote from main population centers and
economically precarious. After five years the population reached nearly
1,500, including 140 yeshiva students, but many apartments remained empty.
A diverse community, its primary cohort was Orthodox. There were immigrants
from Arab countries, Americans, refuseniks from the Soviet Union, and
several hundred Ethiopian newcomers living in an absorption center at the
entrance to the town. But from the beginning, Kiryat Arba was intended by
its founders to be a way station for the return of Jews to Hebron.
Led by Rabbi Levinger, Kiryat Arba residents probed for opportunities to
rebuild a Jewish community down the hill. They secured government permission
to pray in Machpelah. Baruch and Sarah Nachshon, who had attended the
Passover Seder in the Park hotel and decided to stay, secretly held a bris
for their infant son inside the ancient shrine.
Six months later, the Nachshon baby suffered crib death. Despite Israeli
government opposition (lest local Arabs be offended), Sarah was determined
that he be buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Hebron. After the
funeral she declared: ³If we open the Jewish cemetery, we open the gates to
the city.²
Soon after Passover in 1979, in the middle of the night, ten Kiryat Arba
women led by Sarah Nachshon and Miriam Levinger, accompanied by thirty-five
children, climbed into Beit Hadassah, the old Jewish medical clinic in the
heart of Hebron. Once inside, the excited children sang v¹shavu banim
l¹gvulam, God¹s promise of return to Zion. A four-year-old girl explained to
a surprised Israeli soldier: ³Jacob, our forefather, built us a ladder and
we came in.² Hebron, Miriam Levinger announced, ³will no longer be
Judenrein.²
Kiryat Arba residents would pay a high price for their determination to
rebuild a Jewish community in Hebron. Nine months later a yeshiva student
was murdered in the Hebron market. The next day, men from Kiryat Arba seized
five empty Jewish-owned buildings in Hebron and demanded the right to
inhabit them. Not long afterward several dozen Jews, returning to Kiryat
Arba from Machpelah, were ambushed as they neared Beit Hadassah. Caught in a
cross-fire of grenades and bullets, six were murdered.
Kiryat Arba and Hebron residents remained vulnerable. In 1994 respected
Kiryat Arba doctor Baruch Goldstein, distraught and infuriated by
unrelenting Palestinian terrorism following the Oslo Accords, was warned by
Israeli military commanders of an impending Arab attack in Hebron.
Determined to prevent it, he killed 29 Muslims at prayer in Machpelah before
he was beaten to death. Buried near the entrance to Kiryat Arba, he was
eulogized by chief rabbi Dov Lior as a righteous man driven to desperation
by the government failure to confront Palestinian terrorism.
Nearly a decade later, as a group of Kiryat Arba residents was returning
home from Shabbat prayer in Machpelah, they encountered a fusillade of
bullets and grenades near the gate to their community from three Palestinian
members of Islamic Jihad. Four Israeli soldiers, five border policemen, and
three members of the Kiryat Arba emergency response team (including a father
of seven) were murdered.
Yet despite the terror, trauma and sorrow, Kiryat Arba has become a normal
Israeli community located in an abnormal place that is layered with Jewish
history, both ancient and modern. Now home to nearly 8000 residents who have
made aliyah from the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America, it is a
thriving suburb of Hebron with modern apartment buildings and schools, the
respected Nir yeshiva, lovely parks, shops, and synagogues. Its mayor,
Malachi Levinger, is the son of the founding rabbi of the Hebron community.
I first visited Kiryat Arba some twenty-five years ago. In the apartment of
an oleh from Kentucky who was evidently accustomed to welcoming strangers
with tea and sweets, I met Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, one of the founders of the
Hebron/Kiryat Arba community and head of Nir yeshiva.
After a few minutes of conversation I sensed that he was my religious
Zionist Other. Growing up in the ultra-Orthodox Williamsburg neighborhood of
Brooklyn (while I was growing up in the ultra-assimilated Forest Hills
neighborhood of Queens), he studied at the Flatbush Yeshiva (while I played
basketball at the Horace Mann School). Then he returned to Israel (he was
born in Petah Tikva, a year after my birth in Philadelphia) to learn in a
Bnei Akiva yeshiva. I set off for college in Oberlin, Ohio.
Rabbi Waldman did not suffer Diaspora fools gladly. In response to my first
question about the legality of Jewish settlements, he suggested that illegal
settlements were to be found in Boston (where I lived) and New York, not in
Hebron or Kiryat Arba. He reminded me that the largest Jewish settlement in
the Middle East was the State of Israel.
It was not an auspicious start, but he mellowed and I was sufficiently
stimulated to return for another visit several years later, shortly after
the arrest of two dozen settlers ­ including several from Hebron and Kiryat
Arba ­ for belonging to a terrorist underground group. Seated together in
his study, he guided me through the distinction between ³understanding² the
settlers¹ violence (which he did) and ³justifying² it (which he did not), an
illuminating example of Talmudic exegesis applied to life in contemporary
Israel.
Some years later, in the attractive Kiryat Arba neighborhood of Har Sina, I
was welcomed into the home of Elyakim Haetzni, another founder of the Hebron
community. Severely wounded in the Independence war, he became a lawyer in
Tel Aviv, joined Moshe Levinger and Hanan Porat in planning the return to
Hebron (where, he would say, ³I am at home, in the bosom of Abraham²), and
moved to Kiryat Arba, where he has lived ever since.
Surrounded by shelves overflowing with books in four languages, he patiently
answered my questions about the Hebron community. Then, inviting his wife to
join us for the ride, this sprightly eighty-year-old gentleman strapped on
his pistol for our safety and drove down the hill to Beit Hadassah, where he
chatted briefly with old friends before returning home.
Kiryat Arba, still linked to Hebron after four thousand years, is a
distinctive community whose modern history as a pioneering settlement
provides a bridge to the biblical past. For more than thirty years its
residents have assumed enormous personal risks in their ceaseless
determination to restore a Jewish community in Hebron. It is a historic
achievement, for which lives have been sacrificed. Yet the normality of
daily life in Kiryat Arba and the vitality of the Jewish community in Hebron
testify to their remarkable achievement.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the
Land of Israel (2009), from which portions of this essay have been taken.
His recent writings about Israel can be found at jacobsvoice.tumblr.com
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