Last week, in the most unlikely of places, I came face to face with the power of
Jewish unity. It was well after midnight when the convoy of heavily-guarded
Israeli cars and buses began the short drive through the deserted streets of
Posted along the way were young men in IDF uniforms,
keeping a watchful eye on the hundreds of Jews who were braving the late hour
and our hostile neighbors to visit an ancient Jewish holy site in the heart of
For years, I had wanted to visit
Joseph’s Tomb, the burial place of one of our greatest Biblical forbears and one
of Israel’s premier sites of religious, historical and archaeological
significance. Indeed, the late Dr. Zvi Ilan, one of Israel’s foremost
archeologists, described Joseph’s Tomb as “one of the tombs whose location is
known with the utmost degree of certainty and is based on continuous
documentation since Biblical times” (Tombs of the Righteous in the Land of
Israel, p. 365).
According to the Book of Joshua (24:32), “The bones of
Joseph which the Children of Israel brought up from Egypt were buried in Shechem
in the portion of the field that had been purchased by Jacob.” Ancient rabbinic
texts such as the Midrash mention the site, as did the early Church historian
Eusebius of Caesarea, who visited it nearly 1,700 years ago. Arab geographers,
medieval Jewish pilgrims, Samaritan historians and even 19th-century British
cartographers all concur regarding Joseph’s Tomb and its location.
ever since Israel ignominiously abandoned the site under a hail of Palestinian
gunfire on October 7, 2000, visiting it has become a logistical
Currently, Israelis are allowed access to the tomb only once a
month in the wee hours of the night and under tight IDF
BASIC PRINCIPLES such as freedom of worship and assembly are
tossed aside, with the result being that a total of only about 1,200 Jews are
able to visit the tomb in the one night per month that is made
That may sound like a lot, but the demand is far greater.
During my visit, I noticed how the cellphones of the organizers did not stop
ringing, as they were forced to contend with people who were pleading to be
granted a space on one of the buses so they could visit the Tomb. Nearly all had
to be turned away.
When we arrived at the small compound, which was
recently refurbished after having been desecrated by local Palestinians,
worshippers descended from the buses and rushed into the tiny room, seeking to
get as close to the tomb as possible.
Silent prayers were recited, as
various worshippers rocked back and forth, their eyes closed and heads turned
heavenwards. Others pulled out small volumes and quietly wept as they read the
timeless words of the Psalms.
After putting in a few pleas of my own to
the Creator, I looked around the room, marveling at the spiritual power of the
place. Many nations pay tribute to their founding fathers, but only the Jewish
people do so in such transcendent terms, invoking their righteousness in the
hopes of eliciting Divine mercy.
And then a scene caught my eye, one so
subtle yet sublime that it took me a few moments to appreciate its
Standing at the tomb, next to each other, were four men with
seemingly nothing in common. One was a Religious Zionist IDF officer in drab
Alongside him stood a Hassidic Jew with a long-flowing
white beard, dressed in traditional garb. Next to him was a Sephardi policeman
standing beside a tourist from America in a baseball cap emblazoned with the
THESE FOUR Jews all live in different worlds, I thought to
myself. Their backgrounds are varied, their customs and ideology are diverse,
and even the daily rhythms of their lives are different.
And yet, for a
few brief moments, they were all drawn to this holy place, and despite
everything which may divide them, they stood there together as one, putting
aside all the distinctions and discrepancies.
They were four Jews who had
come to pray, nothing more and nothing less.
And that is how it ought to
For millennia, Joseph’s Tomb has been a magnet for Jewish pilgrimage
and prayer. But nowadays, it is serving an equally important function: as a
shrine of Jewish unity and concord. How perfectly ironic, I thought to myself,
that Joseph, who had been the victim of sibling rivalry in the Biblical story,
would now prove to be such a force in forging Jewish fraternity.
our current circumstances, that alone should be reason enough to expand Jewish
access to his tomb. Currently, like thieves in the night, Jews are compelled to
slip into Shechem under cover of darkness in a monthly arrangement that is as
humiliating as it is off-putting. No self-respecting nation would impose such
restrictions on visiting a site of such national import, and neither should
The Jewish state should reassert full control over Joseph’s Tomb
and put measures into place that would ensure that Jews can visit whenever they
wish, including during daylight hours. Freedom of religion demands no
Twice in Jewish history, Joseph was forsaken by his brothers and
handed over to foreigners. The first time was in the Biblical story, when he was
tossed into a pit and sold to traveling merchants. The second time was in
October 2000, when his tomb was surrendered to Palestinian rioters.
time that we right that wrong once and for all and take back Joseph’s Tomb and
with it, the key to Jewish unity.