Until 1996, nobody called Rachel’s Tomb a mosque

Analysis: UNESCO’s recent designation flies in the face of Jewish history, Islamic tradition and Ottoman confirmation.

Rachel's Tomb 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rachel's Tomb 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On October 21, UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared that Rachel’s Tomb near Jerusalem is the Bilal ibn Rabah mosque – endorsing a Palestinian claim that first surfaced only in 1996 and which ignores centuries of Muslim tradition.
In a series of decisions condemning Israel, the UNESCO board called upon the government to rescind its decision in February to include Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Israel’s official list of national heritage sites. The sharp protests by Ambassador to UNESCO Nimrod Barkan to the UN body’s decision were expunged from the record by the chairman of the session, the Russian representative, on the pretext that they were too aggressive.
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A scrupulous examination of testimonies and historical sources demonstrates that defining Rachel’s Tomb as a mosque does an injustice to facts and traditions anchored in both Muslim documents and Jewish sources, and constitutes distortion, bias and deception. As opposed to the Temple Mount and the Cave of the Patriarchs, which also serve as the location of mosques, Rachel’s Tomb never served as a mosque for the Muslims. The Muslim connection to the site derives from its relation to Rachel and has no connection to Bilal ibn Rabah, Muhammad’s first muezzin.
A Jewish holy site
Rachel’s Tomb is located on the northern outskirts of Bethlehem some 460 meters south of Jerusalem’s municipal boundary. The site has been identified for over 1,700 years as the grave of the Jewish matriarch Rachel. The copious literature of Jewish, Christian and Muslim pilgrims identifies and documents the spot as the place where Rachel is buried.
Many generations of Jews have visited the place for prayer, requests and entreaties. The site has become a sort of Wailing Wall to which Jews come to pour out their hearts and share their troubles and requests with the beloved matriarch, hoping to find solace and healing. Jewish tradition attributes unique and wondrous qualities to Rachel’s tears, and visitors to her grave ask her to cry and pray on their behalf.
According to the Book of Genesis, Rachel died when she gave birth to Benjamin: “And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.” In Jewish tradition, her tears have been identified, by authors, poets and biblical commentators with almost every disaster that befell the Jewish people.
Over hundreds of years, visitors to her grave have established the tie between Rachel and her burial place. “The house with the dome and the olive tree” became a Jewish symbol. An additional room that was attached to the original structure by Sir Moses Montefiore in 1841 has only enhanced the link. The depiction of Rachel’s Tomb has appeared in thousands of Jewish religious books, paintings, photographs, stamps and works of art.
Yet anyone visiting the site today will find it difficult to identify the image known to generations of Jews. The small, domed structure now sits within an armored concrete sleeve containing firing positions and defensive fortifications, and covered with camouflage netting. At the height of the second intifada, the government decided on September 11, 2002, to place the sacred compound inside the area of the Israeli security barrier in the Jerusalem area.
The Muslim link to Rachel
The Muslim link to the site derives from the figure of Rachel rather than from Bilal ibn Rabah, who is buried in Damascus. The accepted Muslim tradition that venerates Rachel identifies the site at the outskirts of Bethlehem as her grave. According to Muslim tradition, Rachel’s name comes from the word “to wander,” because she found her death on one of her wanderings and was buried on the way to Bethlehem. Rachel is alluded to in the Koran and other Muslim sources where, just as in Jewish sources, Joseph tearfully falls upon the grave of his mother, Rachel, when the caravan of his captors passes by the site.
For hundreds of years, the shape of Rachel’s Tomb resembled the grave of a vali (a Muslim saint). The building received its distinctive shape in 1622 when the Turkish governor of Jerusalem, Muhammad Pasha, permitted the Jews to wall off the four pillars that supported the dome and for the first time Rachel’s Tomb became a closed building. This was allowed by the Turkish governor to prevent Arab shepherds from grazing their flocks at the site. Yet according to one report, an English traveler claims this was done “to make access to it more difficult for the Jews.”
For centuries, Rachel’s Tomb was considered only a Jewish holy place.
The 16th-century Arab historian Mujir al-Din regarded Rachel’s Tomb as a Jewish holy place. Beginning in 1841, the keys to the place were deposited exclusively with Jewish caretakers who managed the site until it fell into Jordanian hands in 1948. In contravention of the armistice agreement, Jordan prevented Jews from accessing the site during all the years of its rule (1948-1967).
Following the Six Day War, Jews returned to Rachel’s Tomb, with millions of Jews from around the world having visited the site. According to Jewish tradition, Rachel died on the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Heshvan; in 2010, some 100,000 Jews visited Rachel’s Tomb on that day (October 19).
Harassment of Jews
For many centuries, Jews were compelled to pay protection money and ransom to the Arabs who lived in the area so they wouldn’t harm Rachel’s Tomb and the Jews who visited it. In 1796, Rabbi Moshe Yerushalmi, an Ashkenazi Jew from Central Europe who immigrated to Israel, related that a non-Jew sits at Rachel’s Tomb and collects money from Jews seeking to visit the site. Other sources attest to Jews who paid taxes and levies, and presented gifts to the Arab residents of the area.
Dr. Ludwig August Frankl of Vienna, a poet and author, related that the Sephardi community in Jerusalem was compelled to pay 5,000 piastres to an Arab from Bethlehem at the start of the 19th century for the right to visit Rachel’s Tomb. Other testimonies relate that in order to prevent damage to Rachel’s Tomb, payment was transferred to members of the Beduin Taamra tribe who lived in the area, who had also begun to bury their dead near the tomb during that era. There is a Muslim cemetery on three sides of the compound that mainly belongs to the Taamra tribe and the entire attitude of the Muslims to Rachel’s Tomb derives to a large extent from this tribe, which began burying its dead at the site during the 18th and 19th centuries due to its proximity to Rachel’s Tomb. The origins of the practice, as the Land of Israel researcher Eli Schiller writes, is the popular Muslim belief that “the closer that the deceased is buried to the tomb of a sainted personality, the greater will be his rewards in the world to come.”
Taxes were also collected from the Sephardi community in Jerusalem to pay the authorities for various “rights,” such as passage to the Western Wall, passage of funerals to the Mount of Olives, and for the protection of gravestones there, as well as payment to the Arabs of Bethlehem for safeguarding Rachel’s Tomb.
In 1856, 15 years after Montefiore had built another room to Rachel’s Tomb, James Finn, the British consul, spoke about the payments that the Jews were forced to pay to Muslim extortionists at some holy places including Rachel’s Tomb: “300 lira per annum to the effendi whose house is adjacent to the site of crying” [the Western Wall] for the right to pray there and “100 lira a year to the Taamra Arabs for not wrecking Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem.”
Jews expand the tomb in 1841
In 1841, Montefiore obtained a license from the Turkish authorities to refurbish Rachel’s Tomb and add another room to it, which changed its appearance and improved its formerly neglected status. A door to the domed room was installed and keys were given to two caretakers, one Sephardi and the other Ashkenazi.
Fourteen years previously, an official of the Sephardi kollels (religious study centers) in Jerusalem, Avraham Behar Avraham, laid the groundwork for Montefiore’s activity at Rachel’s Tomb when he obtained recognition for the status and rights of Jews at the site from the Turkish authorities. This was, in practice, the original firman (royal decree) issued by the Ottoman authorities in Turkey recognizing Jewish rights at Rachel’s Tomb.
The firman was necessary since the Muslims disputed ownership by the Jews of Rachel’s Tomb and even tried by brute force to prevent Jewish visits to the site. From time to time Jews were robbed or beaten by Arab residents of the vicinity, and even the protection money that was paid did not always prevail. Avraham Behar Avraham approached the authorities in Istanbul on this matter and in 1827 the Turks issued the firman that gave legal force to Rachel’s Tomb being recognized as a Jewish holy site. Additionally, in August 1830, the governor of Damascus sent a written order to the mufti of Jerusalem to implement the sultan’s order. And another firman was issued in April 1831. (See related story.)
Montefiore received the permit for building an additional room attached to the existing structure from the Sublime Porte in Constantinople. The permit, bearing the seal of the Sublime Porte, resided for many years in the museum named after Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson at Hechal Shlomo in Jerusalem. Many saw it, but it was then lost and quite possibly stolen.
We have no details regarding the conversations of Montefiore with the Turkish authorities on this topic. Nevertheless, one can assume that Montefiore arrived at an informal arrangement with the authorities on a modus for dividing the rights to use the additional room, the room that leans on the older structure from the south.
We can find support for this in the mihrab – a niche symbolizing the direction of prayer to Mecca that was built in the new room. Subsequently, Muslim dead were purified in this room on occasion.
Yehuda Burla, the son of Yehoshua Burla, the caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb, and his wife, Miriam, recount in their memoirs that the additional room was built so the Muslims would keep their hands off of the room marking the grave itself. The Jews who came to Rachel’s Tomb also used this room, either as a waiting room or as a prayer room, especially on those days when a large public had gathered at Rachel’s Tomb. In practice, in any event, presumptive ownership at the location was Jewish.
Shlomo Freiman, the last Ashkenazi caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb, documents in his diary the friction with the Muslims who from time to time attempted to purify their dead in the additional room until they desisted from the practice in return for a sizable amount of money.
How Rachel’s Tomb was Islamicized
Between 1993 and 1995, Palestinian groups committed terror and suicide attacks that killed 80 Israelis. In February 1996, the IDF feared that Rachel’s Tomb would furnish a convenient target for an attack of this sort, as it was situated on the main highway connecting Jerusalem and Hebron, with heavy Jewish and Arab traffic. Demonstrations of a nationalist Palestinian character erupted at Rachel’s Tomb as Muslims began to raise the argument that the site involved “Islamic soil.”
At the end of September 1996, the “Western Wall Tunnel Riots” broke out. After the attack on Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus and its fall to the Palestinians, hundreds of Arabs from Bethlehem and the Aida refugee camp attacked Rachel’s Tomb. They set on fire the scaffolding that was erected around the tomb as part of fortification work at the site and tried to break into the compound. Marching at their head was Muhammad Rashad al-Jabari, the governor of Bethlehem, an appointee of the Palestinian Authority. The IDF dispersed the demonstrators with gunfire and stun grenades. Scores were wounded, including Kifah Barakat, the commander of Force 17, the presidential guard of PA chairman Yasser Arafat.
With the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, Palestinians again attacked Rachel’s Tomb, and for 41 days Jews were prevented from visiting the site due to shooting incidents.
The Muslims also escalated their rhetoric. They stopped calling the site “Rachel’s Dome,” as they had done for hundreds of years, and began calling it the Mosque of Bilal ibn Rabah. The Muslim religious authorities (Wakf) first began to employ this name in 1996, and it eventually took root in Palestinian national discourse.
Bilal ibn Rabah, an Ethiopian by origin, is known in Islamic history as a black slave who served the household of the prophet Muhammad as the person in charge of calling the Muslims to prayer five times a day – the first muezzin. Upon the death of Muhammad, he went to fight the wars of Islam in Syria, was killed there in 642 CE, and was buried in Damascus. The Palestinian Authority raised the argument that, according to Islamic tradition, the Islamic conquerors of the country called the mosque that was established at Rachel’s Tomb after Bilal ibn Rabah.
Yet the Palestinian argument ignores the presumptive ownership that the Jews acquired at the site for many hundreds of years and from the firmans that the Ottoman authorities issued awarding Rachel’s Tomb to the Jews at the beginning of the 19th century.
The Palestinian arguments ignore even the accepted Muslim tradition that venerates Rachel and identifies the site as her burial place. Prof. Yehoshua Porat termed the claim of a mosque at Rachel’s Tomb as mendacious. He noted that the place was known in Arabic as “Rachel’s Dome – a Jewish place of worship.”
For many years in official publications of Palestinian national bodies, there was no reference to any other name for the site, including in the Palestinian Lexicon issued by the Arab League and the PLO in 1984, or in the Al-mawsu’ah al-filastiniyah published in Italy by the Palestinian Encyclopedia organization after 1996.
The book Palestine the Holy Land simply relates that “At the northern entrance to the city [Bethlehem] the Tomb of Rachel appears, the mother of the matriarchs, who died while giving life to Benjamin.” The book The West Bank and Gaza – Palestine also fails to mention the location of Rachel’s Tomb as a mosque. Despite this, the deputy minister of religious trusts and religious affairs in the Palestinian Authority defined Rachel’s Tomb as an Islamic site.
On Yom Kippur 2000, six days after the IDF retreated from Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, the official PLO newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida published an article indicating Rachel’s Tomb as the next Palestinian target. “Bethlehem – Rachel’s Tomb or the Mosque of Bilal ibn Rabah is one of the stakes that the occupation government and the Zionist movement drove into most of the Palestinian cities... This grave is spurious and was originally a Muslim mosque.”
During the second intifada, Rachel’s Tomb was attacked by gunfire both from the direction of the Aida refugee camp between Beit Jala and Bethlehem, as well as from the rooftops of houses to the west, south and east. Palestinian Authority forces, who were presumably in charge of preserving order and should have prevented violence, not only did not prevent it but took an active part in the fighting. At one point, 50 Jews found themselves besieged at Rachel’s Tomb while a gun battle between the IDF and Palestinian Authority forces was taking place around them.
On April 2, 2002, the IDF returned to Bethlehem in the framework of Operation Defensive Shield and remained there for a protracted time. A bomb was thrown at Rachel’s Tomb on April 10, 2005, and another on December 27, 2006, while on February 10, 2007, scores of Palestinians attacked the site with rocks.
The High Court of Justice has recognized the clear security need of defending this holy site. On February 3, 2005, it rejected petitions by Palestinians who wanted to change the route of the security barrier near Rachel’s Tomb, ruling that the current location of the barrier preserved the balance between freedom of religion and the local residents’ freedom of movement.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, for whom this Jerusalem Issue Brief was written. www.jcpa.org