Rachel's Tomb: Beyond or Within?

The security fence is not a political fence, but the right relates to the route in the Bethlehem and Rachel's tomb area as if a permanent frontier, rather than a security line, is being drawn.

Nadav Shragai
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Nadav Shragai

A number of yeshiva students hung the parochet - the ark curtain - taken from Joseph's tomb, which the Palestinians torched at the start of the intifada in the early part of the war, on the tomb of Rachel, Joseph's mother. This is within the fortified compound that the Israel Defense Forces built around the tomb building, just 463 meters from Jerusalem's municipal boundaries toward Bethlehem.

The fate of the "son," or rather that of his tomb, is one of the points in the current debate between the right and the IDF over the exact route the Jerusalem peripheral fence will take. A number of years ago former Knesset member Rabbi Hanan Porat was the driving force behind the kolel (yeshiva for married men) that is a branch of Merkaz Harav yeshiva in the Rachel's tomb compound.

He says the question we will soon face is "whether Rachel's tomb will remain beyond or within the fence." The extremist fashion in which Porat has chosen to present the debate is no coincidence.

Despite repeated clarifications coming out of the prime minister's office saying the route of the Jerusalem periphery fence will be decided according to security rather than political considerations, the right relates to the route in the Bethlehem and Rachel's tomb area as if a permanent frontier, rather than a fence or security line, were involved.

A senior official in the prime minister's office who heard what Porat was saying responded that the real question is not if the tomb will be annexed to Jerusalem, but rather when - whether de jure as part of a final status settlement or now, de facto.

Not many people remember, but only seven years ago, Israel agreed to hand over the tomb compound and define it as Area A - under compete Palestinian security and civil control. The chief rabbis of Israel, religious parties and numerous public figures exerted pressure on then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and foreign minister Shimon Peres, and ultimately managed to get the decision reversed.

`It's Mama Ruhi'

Hanan Porat recalls "one fateful meeting" with Yitzhak Rabin, following which, he believes, "the die was cast." Porat came to Rabin in the summer of 1995 carrying a large aerial photograph of the tomb compound and the Bethlehem-Gilo border. He met Menahem Porush MK at the entrance to Rabin's office.

"What are you doing here?" asked Porush. "I have come to lobby for Rachel's tomb," Porat responded. Porush asked if he could join him at his meeting with Rabin and Porat agreed.

At first, Porush remained silent. He listened to Porat, who drew lines on the aerial photograph and illustrated how short was the distance and shooting range between Gilo and Bethlehem. Porat also asked Rabin if he would be willing to give the Palestinians the grave of Ben Gurion or that of his Palmah commander Yigal Allon.

Rabin was preparing to respond when Porush stood up, approached Rabin, embraced him and burst into tears, shouting and sobbing, "It is Mama Ruhi. How can you give away her grave?"

"It was beyond words," recalled Porat last week. "Reb Menahem sobbed, crying real tears onto the prime minister's shirt, and Rabin begged him, `Reb Menahem, calm down.' Reb Menahem shouted at him `how can I calm down. You are planning to give away Mama Ruhi's grave. The Jewish people will never forgive you if you abandon Mama's tomb.'"

Ultimately, Rabin promised the two Knesset members that he would reexamine the issue. Just a few days later, the 463 meters separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem were restored to their Area C status under complete Israel security and civil control. The Palestinians were compensated with other territories.

A few months later, Rabin was assassinated. It happened on the eve of Rachel's passing, according to Jewish tradition, the 11th of Heshvan. When asked where they had been on the night of Rabin's assassination, almost all the National Religious Party's leaders and other religious-Zionist public figures answered "in the traffic jam on the way to Rachel's tomb."

Fence it in

Efi Eitam, Yitzhak Levy and Shaul Yahalom are currently trying to convince a prime minister of "their own," Ariel Sharon, to go one step further and turn that Area C into Jerusalem municipal area, and locate the peripheral fence south of the tomb compound.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who toured the site of the tomb a few days ago with Sharon, notes that unlike the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which both Islam and Judaism view as sacred, there is no real dispute over Rachel's tomb, undoubtedly one of the holiest sites in Jewish religion and tradition, and its exclusive holiness to Jews.

Olmert also notes that there is a consensus between the two large parties, Likud and Labor, that a final status settlement would place the tomb inside Israel's borders. It is therefore appropriate, says Olmert, to move the peripheral fence beyond the tomb compound rather than to leave it outside the fence's path. In this way, he is convinced, the safety of those visiting the site can be assured.

All the signs appear to indicate that Sharon shares this view, although the army takes a different position. GOC Central Command Yitzhak Eitan commented during the tour of the site, which included Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer that if the fence is erected and the barrier is in Area C on the Bethlehem border rather than near Barrier 300 on the Jerusalem city limits, a few dozen buildings located between the tomb compound and the city line will have to be demolished in order to guarantee the safety of the soldiers and visitors to the new barrier.

The army's Central Command takes the view that the peripheral line should be drawn at Barrier 300, with visitors being taken by bulletproof bus from the barrier to the tomb site, which would be secured by IDF soldiers. One of the homes located in those 463 meters belongs to Bethlehem Mayor Hana Nasser, and what is making the decision all the more complicated is a petition to the High Court of Justice submitted by a few dozen Palestinians living in the area between Jerusalem and the tomb compound.

Palestinians agree

These Palestinians, who have Jerusalem identity cards, are asking the court to forbid the IDF from placing the fence at the Jerusalem city limits, arguing that this would infringe their ability to move from their homes to Jerusalem (as happened with the residents of Kfar Akab in the north).

In other words, they too for their own reasons want to include Rachel's tomb, de facto, within Jerusalem's city limits. Minister of Religious Affairs Asher Ohana takes yet another view. He proposes that Israel dig a tunnel under those few hundred meters from the Jerusalem city limits to the tomb to transport visitors to and from the site.

Before Sharon makes his final decision, members of right-wing organizations active in East Jerusalem are quickly mapping out the lands along the road between Jerusalem and the tomb. A Muslim cemetery closes the tomb in from the north, west and south.

In the east, the tomb borders on the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road, on the side of which are two parcels of land apparently owned by Jews. One is the Kalisher plot, about 2.6 dunams in size (a dunam is .25 acres), and the second is the Natan Strauss plot, 1.4 dunams, which in the past was under the control of the Jewish National Fund and upon which Arabs have since built a house.

Jewish individuals have bought other land in the area in recent years. Another possibility currently being examined is that there are Jewish-owned lands in the Eida refugee camp (about 100 meters from Rachel's tomb) and in the Gaza refugee camp (about 300 meters south of Rachel's tomb), similar to Jewish-owned lands bought over a hundred years ago in Deheishe, Kalandia and the Anatot area.

A document recently uncovered in the World Zionist Organization archives records a meeting held in 1944 between Eliyahu Freiman, the Ashkenazi caretaker of Rachel's tomb, and representatives of the chairman of the Va'ad Leumi (National Council), Yitzhak Ben Zvi. Freiman reports details of the plot that belonged to the JNF and the Kalisher plot, and that "its title deed is apparently located in America," and that "other lands are owned by the Gerer Rebbe."

Follow the leads

"Mr. Y.M. Tennenbaum apparently owns 150 dunams in the area and Western Jews also own land in the area," reported Freiman. The members of the improvised lobby for Rachel's tomb are currently trying to follow up these leads, with the help of energetic people who have been active in the field for a number of years now. Each morning, a small group of Merkaz Harav students arrives at the tomb. They study until noon after which they return to Jerusalem.

Olmert, NRP members and Yesh Sachar Lifulatech, a group of women working to renew Jewish control of the tomb, have been active for a number of years pressuring the Egged bus company to renew regular public transportation to the tomb after agreements with the Palestinians were suspended.

The principal struggle was conducted by women from Hebron, Gilo and Mea She'arim in Jerusalem, especially in late 2001, during the period when the IDF did not allow Jews access to the site for fear of their safety. During that time, when Palestinians were attacking the tomb compound almost daily with automatic fire and hand grenades, a number of soldiers were injured.

At first, the women disobeyed the soldiers and marched along the road to the tomb, ignoring the warnings from the soldiers and sometimes even scuffling with them. Then the army gave in and for a long period, a bullet-proof bus made its way back and forth from Barrier 300 to the tomb.

Sometimes the women were given bullet-proof vests too. There were Bratzlav women there from Mea She'arim, women from Hebron led by Miriam Levinger, and especially one woman, Miriam Adani, an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem woman who has arranged for hundreds of events to be held at Rachel's tomb, including Bat Mitzvah and birthday parties, gatherings and women's events. In May 2001, there was an exchange of fire between IDF soldiers and Palestinians while a group of about 50 men and women were visiting the tomb.

`I see barriers'

For quite a few hours, the members of the group were under siege and only after the fire died down was it possible to return them to Jerusalem. On some days, the army refused to allow visits to the site even in bullet-proof vehicles. At that time, the women went on sit-down strike in a container placed at the Gilo junction, manning a permanent protest center at the spot.

In meetings with ministers, Knesset members and rabbis, a poem by the late Yitzhak Shalev, "I see barriers," written after the signing of the Camp David accords almost 23 years ago, is often read. Shalev wrote back then, long before the Oslo agreements and the creation of the Palestinian Authority: "I see barriers once again on the way to Efrata/ Ghost barriers arising from the land of 1948/ And I see a narrow opening and before me a long line/ Of Jews waiting for permission from the cruel soldiers to come to Rachel's tomb."

Shalev also saw "a green flag hoisted over the tomb," a picture that almost became a reality, "And I once again hear the sound, the sound of terrible weeping/ Rachel is crying for her sons."

The lobby uses a completely different type of material in its fight to annex the grave site to Jerusalem. It appears that Rachel's tomb was very nearly annexed to Jerusalem immediately after the Six Day War, to be included within the sovereign borders of the State of Israel. Then prime minister Levi Eshkol instructed his minister of justice to include the tomb in Jerusalem's new city limits, and was furious when he discovered that his orders had been ignored.

In his book, "Jerusalem, A City Without a Wall," Uzi Benziman reveals that while Eshkol in fact demanded that Rachel's tomb be included within Jerusalem's city limits, his justice minister did not follow his instructions.

"Yaakov Shimshon Shapira," writes Benziman, "viewed the drawing up of borders as a matter related exclusively to security, and in such matters relied entirely on Moshe Dayan. To his friends, the justice minister would say, `When I need a suit, I go to a tailor. For security matters, I go to Dayan.'"

Then defense minister Moshe Dayan did not want to include Rachel's tomb in Jerusalem's city limits. He had the support of the then NRP interior minister Moshe Haim Shapira, who was convinced that international sensitivity stemming from Israel's control over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City was sufficient.

Then minister of religious affairs Zorach Warhaftig disagreed. He sought to have the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem also transferred to Israeli control. As he saw it, the two sites sacred to Christianity should be under Israeli sovereignty "so that the Christian world would recognize its importance."

Only six months after the Six Day War did Eshkol, who supported Warhaftig's view, realize that his instructions had been ignored and the tomb remained outside of Jerusalem's borders.

The confusing prophet

Samuel the prophet confused the researchers. Genesis 35:19,20 says: "And Rachel died and was buried on the way to Efrat, that is Bethlehem. Over her grave, Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel's grave to this day."

But then, the prophet Samuel speaks of "the burial of Rachel in the border of Benjamin at Tseltsah..." (I Samuel 10:2), north of Jerusalem. This contradiction caused a number of scholars to cast doubt on the location of the site currently accepted as the site of Rachel's burial, on the way to Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem.

One scholar identified Rachel's tomb with the ancient tombstones located east of Jerusalem which the Arabs call Kebur Beni Yisrael - the graves of the children of Israel. These tombstones are located near the Arab village of A-Ram.

Other scholars, such as Dr. Yoel Elitzur, resolve the apparent contradiction by explaining that the portion of Benjamin within which Rachel's tomb is located is in fact far larger that commonly realized and extends from north to south until the road to Efrat on the way to Bethlehem. Popular tradition however pays no attention to this conundrum.

In earlier times, from the period of the anonymous tourist from Bordeaux in 333 CE, to the tourist Rabbi Petahya who visited in the land of Israel in 1180, Nachmanides (1267) and a group of Christian tourists (1483), tradition has it that the grave of Rachel of the Torah is located on the road to Bethlehem at the site we all know today.

For a number of generations, the grave was located under a round dome supported by four stone pillars, and only later were walls constructed between the pillars, which were themselves encircled by a small room with a dome, built with special permission from the Turkish governor of Jerusalem, Mohammed Pasha.

In 1841, Moses Montifiore obtained a permit from the Turkish authorities to refurbish Rachel's tomb. They recognized as fact that the site was the sacred property of the Jewish people. A heavy iron door was placed at the entrance to the tomb and a Jewish caretaker was entrusted with the key.

The room surrounding the tomb was also refurbished and another room built near the existing one. That is how Rachel's tomb took on the appearance familiar to Jews all over the world for so many years. This appearance is preserved within the fortified compound, which was built after the Palestinians began sniping at visitors to the tomb.



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