The Jewish Presence in Hebron

This February, a lone Jewish man walked into a mosque inside of a shrine built over the cave of Machpelah in Hebron. Dressed in Israeli military garb, he gunned down 29 Muslim Arabs who had come there to pray. He also died that day. To a small segment of Jewish people, he died as a hero; to most, he died as a villain.

Reaction was immediate. The Arab community cried foul. Yasser Arafat and the PLO, acting on the incident, received a resolution from the United Nations Security Council drawing Jerusalem into the situation and demanded a “temporary” foreign presence in Israel to protect Palestinians. A 150-member European peacekeeping force has since been deployed in Hebron.

To understand the significance of this one violent act in a small city half a world away, we must first understand the history of the Jewish people in that city.

The Biblical Background of Hebron

Numbers 13:22 states that Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. It was a Canaanite city located 19 miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean hills, at an elevation of 3,050 feet. The name Hebron comes from a Hebrew root word meaning friend. Joshua 14:15 states that an earlier name for Hebron was Kiriath-arba.

The first biblical mention of Hebron occurs during the narrative of the life of the patriarch Abraham. In Genesis 13:14–18, God gave Abraham further details concerning a covenant He had made with him earlier (see ch. 12). “Then Abram … dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar unto the LORD” (Gen. 13:18).

Many years later Abraham’s wife Sarah died in Hebron, and he needed a burial place for her (Gen. 23:2). While in mourning, he asked the inhabitants of the area if he could buy the cave of Machpelah as a burial plot, which he subsequently purchased for 400 shekels of silver. Abraham entombed Sarah in the cave, which eventually became the resting place for Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah.

Numbers 13 relates that early in the Exodus Moses chose 12 men to spy out the land of Canaan. He wanted to know about the land, the crops, and the enemies he might face. When the spies entered the land, they arrived at the ancient city of Hebron and, after forty days, returned to Moses with grapes from the area. Ten of the spies reported that it would not be possible to conquer the land; however, Joshua and Caleb disagreed, and Caleb said, “Let us go up at once and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it” (Num. 13:30).

The Scriptures do not mention Hebron during the next 40 years. All of the Israelites who were adults at the time of the Exodus died in the wilderness because of their unbelief. Only Joshua and Caleb lived to go in and possess the land.

Shortly after Joshua and his troops crossed the Red Sea, they took Lachish, Eglon, and Hebron Josh. 10:36–37). Following their complete conquest of the land, Joshua divided it as God had ordained. In the process, Caleb reminded Joshua of the Lord’s promise to him, “And Joshua blessed him, and gave unto Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, Hebron for an inheritance. Hebron, therefore, became the inheritance of Caleb, the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite, unto this day, because he wholly followed the Lᴏʀᴅ God of Israel” (Josh. 14:13–14; cf. 15:13–14).

Another biblical reference to Hebron is found several hundred years later in the Old Testament chronicle. After the death of Saul, David was led by the Lord to make Hebron his royal city (2 Sam. 2:1). From there he ruled over Judah for seven and a half years, until he became ruler over the northern part of the kingdom as well. Then he left Hebron and made Jerusalem his capital (2 Sam. 5:1–5; 1 Chr. 11:1–5).

Other biblical events of somewhat lesser importance also occurred in Hebron. Abner, a cousin of Saul and leader of his armies, who later defected to David, was killed by Joab and buried in Hebron (2 Sam. 3:6–31). The assassins of Ish-bosheth, a son of Saul, brought his head to David in Hebron. They were then hung by David in Hebron for their deed (2 Sam. 4).

Located in the mountain district, Hebron was a city of refuge (Josh. 20:7) and a Levitical city (Josh. 21:11). It was an important administrative center, which is why King Rehoboam fortified it (2 Chr. 11:5, 10).

After the Babylonians conquered Israel and took the Jewish people into captivity, the Jewish inhabitants of Hebron were exiled, and the area was taken over by the Edomites. According to Nehemiah 11:25, some Jews still lived in Hebron when the captivity ended, but they were not involved in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

Thus, from the time of God’s commandment to Abraham to dwell there, through the conquest of the land by Joshua, Caleb’s inheritance, and the beginning of David’s reign there at the command of the Lord, Hebron was truly a city that belonged to the Jewish people.

The Post-Biblical History of Hebron

During the intertestamental period, as recorded in the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees, Judah Maccabee attacked Hebron while it was occupied by the Edomites. Its towers were burned, and the city was captured and was later incorporated into Judah.

King Herod built a wall around the cave of Machpelah, which still stands. In the first war against the Romans, Hebron was conquered by the Zealots and was later burned by the Romans, but Jews continued to live there.

Over the next two thousand years, Hebron was ruled by several groups. During the Byzantine period a church was erected over the cave of Machpelah. Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, and finally the British had a presence in Hebron. For most of that time there has been a continuous, although small, Jewish settlement there. At times the Jews were forced out, and even during the best of times their economic plight was serious. Often they had to rely on the outside world for help just to survive. The Jewish population in Hebron was seldom more than 1,100.

Hebron During World War I and the British Mandate

The small but flourishing Jewish community in Hebron was all but wiped out in 1914. With the outbreak of World War I, the young Jewish men of the city were conscripted into the Turkish army. Channels of financial aid were closed, and hunger and plagues hit Hebron’s Jewish community, almost destroying it.

In 1918 there was grave financial depression, but when the British captured the city, the Jewish community began to recover. The economic situation improved, schools were established, and the Jewish population rose to about 700.

Then came the tragic blow of 1929. A well-planned Arab attack almost eliminated the Jewish settlement. Women and children were not spared, and the British military officers in control of the area did nothing to defend the Jews. The final result was 67 killed, 60 wounded, the community destroyed, synagogues razed, and Torah scrolls burned.

Refusing to give up their rights to Hebron, 35 new Jewish families arrived in 1931 to resettle it. The community slowly began to rebuild. Then, on the night of April 23, 1936, during the upheavals that shook the area that year, the British authorities evacuated the Jewish settlements, and an even smaller group remained until 1947.

Hebron After 1948

After the British Mandate ended and Israel became a state, Hebron was incorporated into the kingdom of Jordan, remaining part of that country for the next 19 years. It was captured by the Israeli army in the Six–Day War of June 1967 and has been under Israeli control since then. It is now considered part of the “occupied territories” of the West Bank.

Following the 1967 war, Jews visiting Hebron, the city considered to be the second most holy place in Jewry, found the Jewish quarter nearly destroyed and their cemetery made into a public restroom.

Hebron’s 1967 demographics showed 38,309 inhabitants, of which 38,203 were Muslims and 106 were Christians. Interestingly, Hebron has a much smaller number of Palestinian Arab refugees than most other towns in the West Bank.

On the eve of Passover 1968, a group of religious Jews went to Hebron to reestablish the Jewish settlement. They encountered opposition from both local Arabs and the Israeli authorities, who contended that the move did not have proper authorization. The settlers had to fight for official permission to build homes in the city.

Times were difficult for these settlers. They were moved into the area of the Israeli military headquarters for their own protection, but they were not permitted to participate in any economic activity, thus depriving them of a source of income.

In 1970 the Israeli government decided to permit Jewish settlements again, and 750 homes were built in Kiryat Arba, a settlement adjacent to Hebron proper. Through the influence of the Arab mayor, Ali-al-Jabari, the town remained relatively quiet, although there were several random attacks on Israeli soldiers, visitors, and settlers. Some of these attacks were against Jews who came to pray at the cave of Machpelah, and there were also heated arguments about their very right to pray there.

At the present time there are 400 Jewish settlers living among 110,000 Muslim Arabs in Hebron (Newsweek, April 11, 1994). It is, to say the least, a trouble spot. Few tourists visit there for fear of encountering terrorist incidents, many of which have occurred in recent years.

Hebron in 1994

It was in this troubled area that Dr. Baruch Goldstein fired his weapon into the crowd of Muslim Arabs praying in the mosque at the cave of Machpelah.

Quite naturally, the mainline Jewish community was appalled, and apologies came quickly from many sources, including the Israeli government. The Arabs were stunned and immediately protested. Others questioned whether this incident would derail the peace talks.

Many have tried to determine what caused Goldstein to commit such a violent act.

David Hoffman of the Washington Post wrote, “Those who knew Goldstein [believed] the death of the Lapids [two Jewish residents of Hebron who were murdered by Arabs in December] on his lap sent the doctor into what one called an ‘emotional crisis.’” Other writers noted that the Jews of Hebron are depressed and feel powerless as the terror against them continues. Barbara Amiel wrote, “There is not a group of people on earth who, after 45 years of terrorism and violence, would not have crazed fanatics among them” (Sunday Times, London).

The results of Goldstein’s act are enormous. It has divided the nation of Israel once again. The PLO called for the establishment of an international armed force, which has already begun. The mayor of Hebron called for the ouster of the Jewish settlers, and the Israeli government has begun plans to evacuate them.

Many of Hebron’s Jews have vowed to withstand any attempts to remove them, and Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel, insists that he is not considering an evacuation at this time. Right-wing Jewish leaders plan to block evacuation attempts by any possible means, short of fighting fellow Jews. Three leading Israeli rabbis issued a judgment that Israeli soldiers should disobey orders to remove Jewish settlers from Hebron “just as they would refuse an order to eat pork.”

Nevertheless, the peace process moves along, albeit slowly. However, there are issues that must be resolved. According to the accord signed in September 1993, Palestinian autonomy is now granted in Gaza and Jericho. It is supposed to expand from those two areas to other West Bank Arab population centers, including Hebron, within a short time. The Jewish settlers of Hebron insist that they have a right to live under Israeli rule in the city where David reigned as king.

Hebron is called by some the “red line,” which the Israeli government should not be allowed to cross. Two Israeli newspapers recently published editorials stating that the battle over the future of Jerusalem will be waged in Hebron. They contend that removing the Jews from the city would be a very dangerous step, for the Palestinians then would make the same demands of Jerusalem as they have of Hebron.

It is reasonable to expect that an area given by God to the Jewish nation, purchased by Abraham, inherited by Caleb, ruled over by David, and won in battle should be a place where Jewish people can live in peace. Unfortunately, we know that that will not occur until the coming of “The Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).

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