Sunday, February 23, 2014

Time to reclaim Rachel's Tomb

Time to reclaim Rachel's Tomb

Nadav Shragai

Hundreds of thousands of Jews visit Rachel's Tomb -- or her prison, to be more accurate -- every year. Our collective memory evokes images of a humble domed structure, resting in the shadow of an ancient olive tree on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

But the reality is strikingly different. Approaching the area, a fortified compound, reminiscent of a military prison, towers over you. It looks nothing like the iconic image we know from books, painting and religious artifact, and certainly nothing like the new stamp that has recently been issued in its honor.

Fifteen years ago, the defense establishment charged across our landscape, bending historical and environmental values before security needs. The Palestinians, who storm the tomb with stone and Molotov cocktails on a daily basis, left it no choice.

The Palestinians are renowned for the "tolerance" they show Jewish holy places. In the distant past they extended the Jews visiting the Western Wall and the Cave of the Patriarchs the same courtesy, and in the not-so-distant past they desecrated the synagogues of Gush Katif and Joseph's Tomb. Now it is the turn of Rachel's Tomb.

The international community remains unfazed by all this. The Palestinian have reinvented the place as the "Bilal bin Rabah Mosque" and the U.N. followed suit, dubbing it a Palestinian heritage site.

But we are the real problem. Under normal circumstances, the aggressor is the one who should be surrounded by walls that would hinder his abilities to strike. Instead, the Israel Defense Forces send emissaries to humbly ask the elders of the Aida refugee camp for help, with the aim of putting an end to the incessant assault on Rachel and her grave.

It is possible that had the IDF chosen to impose security sanctions and close the nearby Rachel's Crossing, through which thousands of Palestinians enter Jerusalem, the Palestinians would understand that a change in attitude is in order. Maybe the "walls of Rachel" should have been brought down, to restore the site's position as a thoroughfare and free Rachel from her prison.

Rachel, who has become synonymous with the saying "And thy children shall return to their own border" (Jeremiah 31:16), must be rolling in her grave in light of the cultural crime perpetrated in her resting place. As columnist Eli Mohar once wrote, she "was perhaps the only one among our ancestors with whom one could maintain a true and direct relationship, the kind that a mother has with her sons. She was the only one who was inconsolable, the only one whose sons might have felt her comforting presence wherever they were, and especially here, on the way to Efrat, en route to Bethlehem."

The history of the Jewish people is riddled with thousands of emotional accounts telling of the "almost personal" encounters with the biblical character renowned as the nation's mother, as experienced by leaders and civilians alike. But today the tomb radiates alienation and is completely devoid of the very compassion and comfort its visitors seek to find.

The military and landscape architects have a shared mission -- to free Rachel from her prison and restore the spirit and intimacy that once characterized the place.