In a nutshell: Shabbat in Hebron

Andrew Friedman spends Shabbat in Hebron and witnesses up close the fraught relations between Jewish and Muslim residents of the city.

David Wilder (photo credit: BAZ RATNER / REUTERS)
David Wilder
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER / REUTERS)
Monday early afternoon, downtown Hebron in the southern West Bank – The streets around the Cave of the Patriarchs are quiet, save for a handful of Jewish residents preparing for a large influx of visitors expected the weekend of October 26 for the reading of Chayei Sara, the Torah portion that details Abraham’s purchase of the site from Ephron the Hittite.
Present, too, are several groups of foreign peace activists who have come to observe and document the separation of Jews and Arabs in this troubled city.
Inside the 2,000-year-old Herodian building, the midday air is still but not stagnant, and there are few signs of human activity. Adjacent to the main entrance of the building, next to the second metal detector, a group of married yeshiva students are completing their morning session of Talmud study, but only a handful of people are in the compound itself.
And yet the Cave is an odd combination of tranquility and tension. In many ways, Hebron is more suited to prayer and private introspection than Jerusalem.
In contrast to the Western Wall site – grandiose, polished, and crowded with penitents, tourists and beggars – the Cave is mysterious, ancient and quiet.
Religiously, the Wall evokes vivid, visceral imagery – sacrifices emanating from the Temple Mount, Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, or the Prophet Mohammed beginning his night journey from the same spot. The Old City of Jerusalem symbolizes at once Israel’s greatest military victory, but also the 19-year pain inflicted by Jordan’s exclusion of Jews between 1948 and 1967. No site in the country more symbolizes the exhilaration of Zionism; no site evokes a sense of nationalist pride than the Old City of Jerusalem. Paratroop commander Motta Gur’s declaration, “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” set off a national celebration rivaled only by David Ben-Gurion’s Declaration of Independence 19 years earlier.
On the other hand, the religious and national experience at the Cave is more personal, more intimate. To many Orthodox Jews, the Cave is an ideal setting to pray – a fulfillment not only of the desire to pray at the graves of the righteous, but also a nose-thumbing at the history of Arab-ruled Hebron: Jews were forbidden from entering the site beginning in the 14th century.
On a religious level, too, visiting the site evokes a deeply emotional connection with the founding fathers of Judaism. With the Cave virtually silent – the only people inside the small chamber believed to rest atop the tombs of Abraham and Sarah are a Haredi man reading quickly out of a well-thumbed prayer book, and a woman sobbing quietly to herself on the other side of a partition – the setting calls out for introspection and humility.It also provides a framework to connect with the rich Jewish history of Hebron, and with the revolutionary spiritual messages that Judaism brought to the world.
Studying the Book of Genesis here forces the reader to connect with Abraham’s powerful integrity as he argued with God over the fate of Sodom.
Outside the Cave, the city of Hebron is no less compelling and no less emotional.
Up the hill, the excavations at Tel Hebron are stunning. According to David Wilder, the community’s English-language spokesman, the archeological digs here show the ancient gates to the city, a notion backed up by archeologists who say the ruins unearthed here date back not less than 4,500 years.
In Palestinian-ruled Hebron, too, there are signs of the long history of Jewish life in the city. In the Casbah, the openair market that abuts both the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Jewish community of Hebron, many properties were owned by Jews prior to the 1929 riots that left 69 Jews dead and hundreds wounded, and many doorposts still feature indentations where mezuzas once demarcated Jewish homes. More than a few buildings still bear the Star of David and menora etchings.
And yet, alongside the historical and religious resonance of Hebron, there is something deeply unsettling about this fractured city. Shuhada Street, running along the Jewish communities of Avraham Avinu and Beit Hadassah, is a ghost thoroughfare, having been closed to Palestinians since 1994, following the massacre by Jewish doctor Baruch Goldstein of 29 Muslims at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque (the Muslim name for the Cave).
Apart from a small handful of Jews, most of the midday traffic along the road is made up of Israel Defense Forces troops patrolling the area.
Since Goldstein’s terror attack, Jews and Muslims have been separated at the holy site. For most of the year, Jews have access to the Abraham/Sarah and Jacob/Leah rooms, while Arabs have access to the Isaac/ Rebecca room. On 10 Jewish holidays a year, Muslims may not enter the building at all, as Jews are granted access to the entire compound. The arrangement is reversed on 10 Islamic holidays a year.
A short walk along Shuhada Street, renamed King David Street by the local Jewish community, reveals well over a dozen memorial sites to members of the community murdered by Arab terrorists. Rabbi Ra’anan Cohen was murdered here; 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass was shot to death in her father’s arms over there. Every building seems to have been named in memory of one or another victim of Arab terror.
“I don’t feel at all guilty for the fact that Arabs aren’t allowed on King David Street,” Wilder tells The Jerusalem Report. “First of all, we are excluded from 97 percent of Hebron that is accessible to them. They are excluded from one kilometer, maybe three percent of the city. And remember, the road was open until the second intifada, when Arabs shot at and attacked our homes, buses and cars more times than anyone could count. When you begin a war, there is a price to pay. They still attack us; the road is still closed.”
Five days later, the Hebron experience could hardly have been more different.
Driving south from Jerusalem on Friday afternoon, the IDF presence along Route 60, the quasi-highway that traverses Judea and Samaria, becomes more pronounced the closer one gets to Hebron. Halfway between the Etzion Bloc and Hebron, a gaggle of army jeeps are parked outside a Palestinian house overlooking the road, with an IDF soldier stationed on the roof. It is apparent that the army has taken over the house to provide security for the road.
As Shabbat draws near, the Jewish community of Hebron transforms from a sleepy, almost pastoral community into a pulsating hub. Hundreds of people have come to celebrate what has become an annual pilgrimage to the city; tents are pitched on the grassy area across from the Cave of the Patriarchs and along the eastern length of Shuhada Street.
But there is also an aggressive quality to the festive atmosphere. Many visitors wear stickers reading “Kahane Was Right!” – a reference to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated expelling Arabs from the Land of Israel. His Kach party was banned from the Knesset on grounds of racism.
Along the south side of Shuhada Street, the atmosphere is a sharp contrast to the party atmosphere across the street. In the courtyard of a Palestinian kindergarten, graffiti reading “Death to Arabs” has been scrawled in Hebrew.
Sitting on the roof of a Palestinian home adjacent to the Beit Hadassah complex, members of the Sharabati family sip small cups of Turkish coffee to keep warm in the cool evening air, but family members are clearly tense about what the weekend will have in store.
From the roof, the lively Shabbat songs, casual conversation and short explanations of the Torah reading emanating from Beit Hadassah are clearly audible. From the vantage point of Palestinian Hebronites, the songs represent little more than a foreign curiosity, even after more than 30 years as neighbors.
“We often have problems with the settlers, but Jewish holidays are particularly bad,” says Mufeed Sharabati, the owner of theand our homes, and the army is here to protect them, not us.”
Sharabati does not have to look far to illustrate his claim. He is 47 years old, but could easily be mistaken for a man 15 years older. He walks with a cane and wears a brace around his midsection, the result of an altercation with a settler that, he says, ended with a swat from the butt of an IDF gun and the soldier’s knee in his chest.
By 10:30 p.m., most of the Friday night meals have ended, but the area remains lively well into the night. There are few security incidents, although sometime after 11 p.m., a group of teenagers sing “Am Yisrael Chai” (The Jewish People Lives) and their dancing in the street devolves into loud banging on the metal doors and window shutters along the street. A solitary stone-throwing incident into the Sharabati’s property at 1:30 a.m. appears to have been the only violence overnight.
Tension eases off as Shabbat morning dawns. Outside the Sharabati home, Palestinians and Jews walk along Shuhada Street without incident, with Arabs crossing through the IDF checkpoint into the H-1 section of Hebron, and Jews making their ways towards the Cave of the Patriarchs.
At the end of Shuhada Street, the Arab side of the IDF checkpoint, marking the demarcation line between Palestinianand Israeli-ruled Hebron, is littered with stones and bricks, following clashes earlier in the week. But the downtown area is alive with commerce, noise and traffic, with a contingent of Palestinian police to maintain a modicum of order.
Walking into the Old City, the Casbah is crowded and alive. Clothing merchants selling modest hijabs and clothing for women, and knock-off brand name jeans hawk their wares freely, as do falafel and spice vendors. Shop owners step out of their stalls to show their wares to foreign tourists, as do teenage and adult peddlers selling handmade bracelets.
By mid-afternoon, the atmosphere heats up again. Along Shuhada Street, a loud scuffle turns violent, ending up with blood on the sidewalk and two Palestinian men in their 20s detained by the Israel Police.
As with most clashes here, there are conflicting accounts of the incident.
Back in the Casbah, hundreds of Jews are participating in walking tours through the souk, ostensibly to survey Jewish-owned property and historical sites, with IDF troops on hand to prevent clashes between the visitors and the locals.
But the “tour” is not exactly the typical tourist junket. As IDF soldiers open the gate separating Beit Hadassah from Bab el-Baladiyyeh Square at 3 p.m., dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tourists swarm through the gate, with more strains of “Am Yisrael Chai” but no tour guides to give information about the Jewish property, archaeology or general history of the site. Prior to the tour, some Palestinian merchants close up shop; others pull their wares off the alley and wait for the wave to pass.
“The settlers made a lot of noise this time, but for the most part the Shabbat has passed quietly for us,” says Hisham, the owner of a leather goods shop. “In the past, we have had a lot of problems when the settlers came through – they sometimes steal and break stuff, so I pulled most of my merchandise into the store before the tour began.”
Although most shop owners agree that the settlers’ tour passed quietly this time, Hisham does point out one shop that has suffered damage. The ceramics shop he points out was shuttered, but debris from broken pieces of pottery are strewn on the floor outside the store.
As Shabbat draws to a close, pick-up minyanim (prayer services) gathered along the length of Shuhada Street to mark the end of the day, only to be drowned out by muezzins announcing the Islamic prayers at nearby mosques – Hebron in a nutshell.