When Ma’arat HaMachpela, the tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, was reopened, after having been closed for almost a year, in 1994, the huge, 2,000 year old structure was divided. About 75% of the building was opened to anyone not Jewish; the other 25% was opened to anyone not Moslem. Excepting 20 days a year; for ten days the entire building was closed to Jews and open only to Moslems and for 10 days a year it was open only to Jews.
The main area for Jewish worship is the central courtyard inside the building, with the two small memorial rooms for Abraham and Sarah to the east and for Jacob and Leah to the west. (The largest room, memorializing Isaac and Rebecca is open only to Moslems.) The courtyard is open, with no roof covering it. Upon division of the building, the IDF constructed a big tent inside the courtyard, in an attempt to provide some semblance of a closed-in structure. That endeavor failed, miserably.
Despite the canvas ‘walls’ and ‘roof,’ it is just that: canvas. Such material does not offer protection from heat or cold, rain, snow, sleet or a hot summer sun. During the rainy season water puddles form on the roof and remain there for months, attracting assorted insects, including mosquitoes and other small creatures. And not only small animals. During the spring and summer months, birds, sensing the holiness of the site, flock to the building. A net had to be stretched above the courtyard to prevent winged creatures from flying around, inside the building. But the net does not prevent them from discharging unpleasant droppings from above, onto holy books, chairs, tables, and worshipper’s heads.
Needless to say, without any heat during the winter, an open courtyard is very cold. And very wet. Last year the tent ripped open as a result of rainstorms, leaving visitors entirely unprotected until a new tent was assembled. This year, for four weeks in a row, women were unable to pray in the women’s section of the courtyard because that area was transformed into something of a pond, as a result of the rain and snow. Additionally, the electrical wiring system, not overly sophisticated, is located dangerously close to this winter swimming pool, creating a life-threatening situation for anyone wading in the water while trying to pray.
This year’s snow added some color to the place. The Ma’ara in white is a beautiful site. But preferably when it is outside. Here, at Ma’arat HaMachpela, we are privileged with indoor snow.
During the summer, without any air-conditioning, during July August and September, there are times when the heat is unbearable.
These features could be dismissed as minor discomforts. After all, Ma’arat HaMachpela, after being off-limits to Jews for 700 years, from 1267 to 1967, is now, thank G-d, back in the hands of its rightful owners, the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Last year, some 700,000 people visited this so holy a site, second in sanctity only to Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
And there lies the real problem.
Any normal people, any normal country, and normal national entity, would glorify such a site. Presently the Arabs are demanding that UNESCO declare Ma’arat HaMachpela as a ‘palestinian national heritage site.’ They invest huge amounts of money at the Ma’ara, performing major renovations in the area open to Moslems as can be witnessed by the structural work and painting inside the Isaac Hall and on the outside of the building.
How is the State of Israel staking it claim? What is the Israeli expression of the Jewish people’s first national heritage site? What does Israel invest?
This is not a disgrace. It is a humiliation to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs; it is debasement upon the heads of thousands and thousands of Jews, who for 700 years stood outside, at the 7th step, pouring out their hearts to G-d above. It tarnishes Israel’s very roots; for this is where the Jewish people began, almost 4,000 years ago.
The solution is quite simple. Construction of beautiful roofing; not a canvas tent, but a world-class designed roof, to prevent the rain, snow and bird-droppings from bothering people’s prayer; allowing for heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. After all, this is the 21st century.
What’s the problem? That’s a good question. It should be put to the 120 Knesset members who represent the people of the state of Israel, it should be put to the deputy ministers and full ministers, to the Chief Rabbis, to the collective leadership of the Jewish people in Israel and throughout the Diaspora and of course, to the defense minister and prime minister of Israel. Shouldn’t Bibi care?
This is not a political issue. It is an ethical concern of the highest value. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, looking upon their holy resting place from above, must be shaking. Not from the cold, not from the rain or snow. Rather they are quiver and tremble from the apathy, from the degradation and contempt displayed by their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, who, it seems, know only how to embarrass them, at their final resting place, at Ma’arat HaMachpela, in Hebron.
All photographs and video: David Wilder, Hebron