Field Trip, Another’s Fanaticism

Excerpt: Politicians and educators, the left and the right face off over a proposal to send schoolchildren into a cauldron of controversy.

Purim in Hebron  (photo credit: reuters)
Purim in Hebron
(photo credit: reuters)
AT PASSOVER IN 1968, MOSHE LEVINGER, A gaunt, bearded, 33-year-old firebrand of a rabbi, checked into the Park Hotel in the southern West Bank city of Hebron with his family and several other clans in tow. It was 10 months after the Six Day War, when Israel came into possession of Hebron and other locales considered central to the Jewish biblical narrative, and just under four decades since the last of the city’s Jews fled a horrific Arab massacre.
Hebron is the site of what many consider history’s first parcel of land to come under Jewish ownership. The Book of Genesis says the plot, with its series of caves, was purchased by Abraham to bury his wife Sarah. According to Jewish tradition, it ended up being the burial spot not only for Sarah, but for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for Isaac’s wife Rebecca, and for one of Jacob’s two wives, Leah, coming to be known as the Cave of the Patriarchs. Many consider it Judaism’s second-holiest site, after the Temple Mount, which includes the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
But Muslims also consider the cave holy, seeing themselves as descendants of Abraham through Ishmael, the patriarch’s other son and Isaac’s half-brother. In the 7th century, with Islam and the Arab culture spreading west from Arabia, Muslims turned a large stone structure believed to have been built around the site by Herod into what is to this day called the Ibrahimi Mosque, and with Muslim rule of the area, they forbade Jews from entering, an edict that remained in force into modern times.
So with Israel now in control, it wasn’t just for Passover that Levinger and the others came. It was, in fact, the first step in an attempt to circumvent an Israeli directive aimed at preventing Jewish nationalists from reclaiming what they believed to be their birthright – for at the end of the holiday they refused to leave, holding out until defense minister Moshe Dayan threw up his hands and told them they could temporarily stay at a former Jordanian army camp a 15-minute walk to the east.
The army camp became Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement with a population that today numbers about 7,000 residents. Their presence, together with another 500 Jews living in central Hebron, thanks to quiet real estate transactions and additional acts of subterfuge over the decades, means that 43 years after checking in, Levinger’s followers have yet to check out.
TODAY’S HEBRON MIGHT BE CALLED A MICROCOSM of the Israeli-Arab dispute. It is the story of two communities living side by side in anything but peace, with great tension and unease that often boil over into heated exchanges, spitting and cursing, the throwing of rocks and trash, and even shootings and bombings. The 500 Jewish settlers who live in the center of town require the presence of an even greater number of soldiers, some of whom serve as armed guards for Jews visiting the Cave of the Patriarchs, and others who find themselves protecting local Arabs targeted by antagonistic settlers. The atmosphere has become so poisoned that virtually the only Israelis who venture there are ultranationalists and the religious, with most everyone else preferring to stay away.
It was in this reality that a visiting (and well-protected) Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar declared in mid-February that the Cave of the Patriarchs would go on the list of field trips for Israeli schoolchildren, and a ministry statement said Sa’ar’s policy was to “reinforce the historic roots of the people of Israel in the Land of Israel.”
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