Forty eight years ago it couldn't have happened.
Dozens of Israeli men and women, in uniform, standing in formation, in the plaza outside Ma'arat HaMachpela.
Yesterday we celebrated Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the liberation of the holiest city in the world, Jerusalem. Foreign occupation, beginning some 2,000 years ago finally ended. True, this sacred city was not (and still is not) 'complete' – but, Jews, as those who for hundreds of year gave their lives reciting the words "Next year in Jerusalem" could finally actualize this dream.
Today we celebrate Yom Hebron, Hebron Liberation Day. The following day, after liberation of Jerusalem, the Jewish people came home to Hebron.
This phrase, 'coming home,' cannot be taken for granted. I speak with hundreds of people from around the world who cannot grasp how or why Hebron is 'home' to the Jewish people, and who cannot fathom why people like myself would come to live here.
The story of our return is well known. Following the liberation of the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the then Chief Rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Shlomo Goren zt"l, traveled from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion, about half-way between Hebron and Jerusalem. There he met up with the Israeli forces who had, that same day, freed that area too. Knowing that the next morning they would be leaving for Hebron, he made a short speech about the importance of Hebron, and lay down to rest for a few hours.
When he awoke, the site was empty of people. Rabbi Goren woke up his driver, saying, 'They left without us – get in the jeep, we'll catch up with them.'
So it was that a Rabbi and his driver, alone, drove from Gush Etzion south, towards Hebron. Driving into Hebron, Rabbi Goren quickly realized the Arab enemy had surrendered, viewing white sheets hanging from windows and rooftops. The city's Arab residents remembered all too well the 1929 massacre, when 67 Jews were slaughtered by their next-door neighbors in August of that year. Fearing retribution, the Arab men fled the city, with the women and children waiting for the liberating forces.
Rabbi Goren quickly made his way to Ma'arat HaMachpela, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, which had been totally off-limits to Jews for 700 years. This, the first Jewish possession in the first Jewish city in Israel, second in sanctity only to Temple Mount in Jerusalem, was finally back in Jewish hands.
Rabbi Goren ran up the western staircase, only to find the doors closed and locked. Unable to open them, he shot at the doors with his Uzi submachine gun. However, the doors remained locked. He backed his jeep up the stairs, attached chains to the jeep and the doors, and proceeded to pull then down. At last inside, he began to pray, thanking G-d for the miracles happening.
The Mufti of Hebron sent a messenger, wanting to surrender. Rabbi Goren sent him away, saying 'This place, Ma'arat HaMachpela, is a place of prayer and peace. Surrender elsewhere.' Which is what happened.
Rabbi Goren later explained: I have the rank of General. Why should I give them the honor to surrender to a General? Let them surrender to a lower ranking officer.' Which too happened.
However, when the Rabbi left in his jeep from Gush Etzion, his goal was to catch up to the army. Where were they?
What he didn't realize was that the IDF was unaware that Hebron's Arabs were about to surrender. They had made their way to the western side of Gush Etzion, to prepare the attack. They had also sent a contingent to enter the city from another direction.
In other words, Rabbi Goren liberated Hebron for the Jewish people, singlehandedly.
That's how we came back to Hebron.
Last night, we again reaffirmed our allegiance to this so holy a place.
For the past two years, Colonel Avi Bluth commanded the Judea Division, sometimes called the Hebron Division. Avi grew up in Israel. His parents made Aliyah, that is, came to live in Israel from the United States. Last night, at a unique and special ceremony, Avi transferred command to another young colonel, Yariv Ben Ezra. The ceremony took place in the plaza outside the huge structure, atop the caves of Machpela.
It is very difficult for me to express the emotions I sensed during the half-hour ceremony. I might call it pride, but actually it's much more than that.
First, about the commander. Avi Bluth is a military man. But he is also a religious Jew.
For many years, it was almost impossible for an orthodox Jew to reach such the rank and position of Colonel. And today, when it is possible, I'm asked about the 'religious people' 'taking over' the army.
When religious Jews didn't undertake military service, as did others, they were accused of 'not serving the country.' Now, when religious Jews do undertake to serve, and reach high-ranking positions, they are accused of 'taking over.' As one person described it to me, 'you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don’t.'
In any case, my personal feelings, seeing a man like Avi, serving with such distinction, in a place like Hebron, are overwhelming. At a short farewell meeting in our offices, I told him that not too many people have had the privilege and honor to serve where Abraham, the Jewish people's first General, and David, who became King of Israel in Hebron, lived and served.
The fact that Avi is religious didn't affect his decision-making. There were times when we agreed with his decisions and actions, and times when we didn't. We had many meetings with him and conducted an open line of communications. As has been the case with previous commanders, and as will continue with the new commander. His assessments determined his decisions, as should be.
What I didn't say to Avi was how much he reminded me of a previous Hebron commander, Col. Dror Weinberg, hy'd, who was killed in Hebron during a major terror attack over ten years ago. Both men are very similar. Both young, very determined, very loyal, very hard working, and also, both religious.
But Avi mentioned him during his outgoing speech last night, saying that Dror was his first commander, and that he was to him an example to be followed.
Avi also spoke of the honor and privilege to serve and command in Hebron.
And all of this, at this so special a site, the Tombs of the first Jews, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rivka, and Ya'akov and Lea. Liberated, exactly 47 years ago today.
What an experience!
Lately I've found some words, which perhaps, express in the most lucid way possible, our connection to Hebron.
The Jews are the most tenacious people in history. Hebron is there to prove it.
It ties 20 miles south of Jerusalem, 3,000 feet up in the Judaean hills. There, in the Cave of Machpelah, are the Tombs of the Patriarchs. According to ancient tradition, one sepulchre, itself of great antiquity, contains the mortal remains of Abraham, founder of the Jewish religion and ancestor of the Jewish race. Paired with his tomb is that of his wife Sarah. Within the building are the twin tombs of his son Isaac and his wife Rebecca. Across the inner courtyard is another pair of tombs, of Abraham's grandson Jacob and his wife Leah...This is where the 4,000-year history of the Jews, in so far as it can be anchored in time and place, began.
Hebron has great and venerable beauty. It provides the peace and stillness often to be found in ancient sanctuaries. But its stones are mute witnesses to constant strife and four millennia of religious and political disputes. It has been in turn a Hebrew shrine, a synagogue, a Byzantine basilica, a mosque, a crusader church, and then a mosque again. Herod the Great enclosed it with a majestic wall, which still stands, soaring nearly 40 feet high, composed of massive hewn stones, some of them 23 feet long. Saladin adorned the shrine with a pulpit. Hebron reflects the long, tragic history of the Jews and their unrivalled capacity to survive their misfortunes. David was anointed king there, first of Judah (II Samuel 2:1-4), then of all Israel (II Samuel 5:1-3). When Jerusalem fell, the Jews were expelled and it was settled by Edom. It was conquered by Greece, then by Rome, converted, plundered by the Zealots, burned by the Romans, occupied in turn by Arabs, Franks and Mamluks. From 1266 the Jews were forbidden to enter the Cave to pray. They were permitted only to ascend seven steps by the side of the eastern wall. On the fourth step they inserted their petitions to God in a hole bored 6 feet 6 inches through the stone.
...The Jewish community, never very numerous, was ferociously attacked by the Arabs in 1929...When Israeli soldiers entered Hebron during the Six Day War in 1967, for a generation not one Jew had lived there. But a modest settlement was re-established in 1970. Despite much fear and uncertainty, it has flourished.
So when the historian visits Hebron today, he asks himself: where are all those peoples which once held the place? Where are the Canaanites? Where are the Edomites? Where are the ancient Hellenes and the Romans, the Byzantines, the Franks, the Mamluks and the Ottomans? They have vanished into time, irrevocably. But the Jews are still in Hebron.
Hebron is thus an example of Jewish obstinacy over 4,000 years.
These words where not authored by myself, rather by a Gentile historian, Paul Johnson, in a book called: A History of the Jews.
This is Hebron, this is Eretz Yisrael, this is Am Yisrael, this is Torat Yisrael.
All wrapped up in one.
As exemplified by Col Avi Bluth, by Col Yariv Ben Ezra, and by so many others.
Happy Hebron liberation day.
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