Hebron Jews' offspring divided over city's fate

"People living here now are carrying out the dream of Jews who lived here for hundreds of years."

1929 refugees 298.88 (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
1929 refugees 298.88
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Ya'acov Castel, a 78-year-old survivor of the 1929 Hebron riots, needed a helping hand walking down the city street to confront a group of descendants from that original Jewish community who entered the city Tuesday to speak against the 500 settlers who live there now. "You can't bring back the dead," Castel said, "but there are people living here now who are carrying out the dream of the Jews who lived here for hundreds of years." Shulamit Rahav disagreed. "My grandfather was cruelly killed here," said Rahav, who came to the city Tuesday as part of a tour organized by two left-wing groups, Sons of Abraham and Breaking the Silence. Standing on a street lined with the locked metal shutters of Palestinian shops closed by the IDF, Rahav told a gathering crowd that the humanist values she learned from her family are not being enacted in this city where Arabs live under harsh conditions as the result of Jewish settlement. "I'm not saying what happen here [in 1929] was right," she said, "I'm saying that one wrong doesn't justify another." The argument that ensued between Rahav and Castel is part of a division between survivors and descendants of the 1929 Hebron massacre, regarding the city's future. Remnants of the prior 800 member community that fled following a riot in August 1929 in which 67 people were killed, on Tuesday sent the government a letter urging it to allow the return of eight Jewish families evacuated in January from the homes they set up in empty shops by the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. They also urged the government to continue in their names its support of Jewish settlement in Hebron. "The possibility that the community might be sacrificed for the second time was like a dagger in our heart," they said in a petition to the government. The petition with over 1,000 signatures of descendants and area residents includes those of 10 survivors, said Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the city's Jewish community. Arnon said he believes that the Jews in Hebron now, almost none of whom are descendents of the prior community, are living there in the name of the prior community that wants Jewish history to continue but which has been blocked from returning by the persisting trauma of the 1929 massacre. But not all survivors and their descendants agree on this point. Amnon Birman, for example, suggested that the Jews in Hebron should leave altogether. "My roots are in Hebron," he said. "But just like I don't want to see the Palestinians return to Jerusalem's Baka neighborhood where I live, I don't think Jews should live in Hebron." Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence said he helped bring the group of descendants to the city to show that there was no connection between the original community and the present settlement. Descendent Shabtai Gold recalled how his grandfather was injured in 1929 and buried under a pile of his friends' dead bodies. Gold said he doesn't think the Hebron Jews should leave, but they have to find a way to live in harmony with their Palestinian neighbors. His family dreams of returning, he said, but not to a city where Palestinians have no freedom of movement and where the buildings are filled with graffiti that states: "Death to the Arabs." He was particularly concerned, he said, by acts of violence on the part of settlers in the city against the Palestinians. "This way of doing things was not the way of the old community," Gold said."What we are saying is don't use our name to justify the violence." But Castel said that as someone who had lived as a boy in peace with his Arab neighbors, he believed that the Jews of Hebron were acting out his family's dream. Earlier in the day, Castel told The Jerusalem Post how his family had fled from Spain following the 1492 Inquisition. They lived first in Gaza and then came to Hebron hundreds of years ago because they believed it was the most holy city possible for Jews to live in. During the massacre, Castel said, his family was saved by an Arab man who knew his father. Following the Six Day War, his mother asked him to find the man who saved them. Castel said that when they found him in Amman they helped him return to Hebron to fulfill his wish of dying in his native city. Castel said his family returned briefly following the riots but were forced to leave again by the British in 1933 who feared that another riot could break out. Walking around Beit Hadassah, he pointed to the place where a small school had been set up in the early 1930s for the Hebron children and showed off the small sanctuary where Jews pray today in the place where they worshiped in the earlier part of the century. With tears welling in his eyes, he spoke of how he believes his father is with him when he returns to the city. "When my father left in 1929, and went for half a year to Jerusalem, my father said we are in the Diaspora. We need to return to Hebron. It's more dear to me than Jerusalem. And I want to fulfill his dream," said Castel. "My father's dream is to live here, but he won't come here until there is a just peace," responded Gold.