A Historical Perspective on the Jewish Community in Hebron

By Miri

The history of the City of Hebron is probably one of the most turbulent ones in the whole of Palestine/Israel. Constituting one of the holiest sites to Judaism as well as to Islam, both communities are claiming their rootedness within the city. In the book of Genesis it is told that it was in Hebron where Abraham chose to reside after his arrival in Canaan. It is also in Hebron where he purchased a plot of land in order to lay his wife Sarah to rest, which was later to become the Tomb of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs), where apart from Sarah, Abraham himself, Isaac and Jacob, as well as Rebekka and Lea are said to be buried.

Both the Hebrew name “Hevron” as well as the Arabic “al Khaleel” most likely originate from the respective word for “friend” and refer to God choosing Abraham/Ibrahim as his ally. According to Jewish historiography, Hebron was one of the major Jewish cities during the First and Second Temple periods and also later, throughout plenty of centuries and under different rulers, a  mainly Arabic speaking Jewish community called Hebron its home.

Until the time of the British Mandate over Palestine, the relationship between Muslims and Jews are mostly described as peaceful and neighbourly and only with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, tensions began to grow between the two communities. In August 1929, triggered by a provocative action at the Wailing Wall by a radical Jewish nationalist group, a series of attacks were carried out by Muslims against members of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. Fearing further attacks, the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organisation which was later to become the Israel Defense Forces, offered the leaders of Hebron's Jewish community to provide them with defense or, alternatively to assist their evacuation. The Jews of Hebron declined, insisting on their trust in the Arab notables to protect them.

In the course of events, and following a rumour that Jews were planning to attack al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, violent riots spread all over Palestine. In Hebron a total of 67 Jews were killed. 435 members of the Jewish community were however saved by their Muslim neighbours who at great risk for themselves, provided them protective shelter in their homes. The survivors of the incident were eventually evacuated by the British authorities, however many returned in 1931.

With the outbreak of the Arab revolt in 1936, all but one family, were again evacuated. This last family finally left Hebron at the eve of the war of 1947/1948. After the foundation of the State of Israel and specifically after the 1967 war, the situation in Hebron changed dramatically. In 1968 a group of extremist settlers occupied a hotel in Hebron and refused to leave. The government aimed to appease them by allowing the establishment of the first settlement, Kiryat Arba in 1970. Kiryat Arba today counts over 7000 residents and forms part of a greater infrastructure of settlements in and around Hebron.

The Jewish settlers living in Hebron today, almost none of whom are descendents of the prior community, often seek to legitimise their presence by referring to the latter, and claiming that they re-settled the city in their name. Shabtai Gold, whose grandfather survived the 1929 events, was quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying that his family dreamed of returning, but not to a city where Palestinians have no freedom of movement and where the buildings are filled with graffiti that state: 'Death to the Arabs.' He was particularly concerned, the article continues, 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."