Jews Can 'Own' Hebron Without It Being Under Israel's 'Control'

The Bible suggests that we can make a distinction between our connection to places and our sovereignty over them. We must keep that in mind this Shabbat, during the annual pilgrimage to Hebron for Parashat Hayei Sarah.

Calev Ben Dor
Calev Ben-Dor
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Israeli soldiers secure the area as ultra-Orthodox Jews walk toward the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine holy to Jews and Muslims, in Hebron, Oct. 9 2006.Credit: AP / Haaretz Archive
Calev Ben Dor
Calev Ben-Dor

As the memorial for Yitzhak Rabin took place against the backdrop of increased tensions in Jerusalem and as the annual mass pilgrimage to the heavily contested City of Patriarchs approaches, a deep, psychological and theological question integral to our future is being obscured.

For many in the religious Zionist world, this week's Parashat Hayei Sarah is primarily marked with a pilgrimage to Hebron for the weekend The special Shabbat draws thousands to the ancient biblical city, both to commemorate the week in which the Torah reading describes our forefather Abraham purchasing the Cave of Machpelah and to indirectly support a continued Jewish presence in the city.

The mass appeal of the weekend, as well as its proximity to the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination and the public debate over how we discuss issues of national importance (without killing each other), raises an important question that I feel is too often ignored: Should we make any distinction between areas we are nationally connected to and areas we should be sovereign over or control?

Those who visit Hebron and their supporters would most likely say no. They would argue that since the Jewish people have a religious and historical connection to Hebron, the State of Israel needs to apply sovereignty there. That is, they would find no distinction between their ownership of the place and for Israel to have sovereignty over it.

Ironically, despite being on the other side of the political map, the secular left might also reject any distinction between ownership and sovereignty. For all my respect for much of Rabin’s military and political courage throughout his career, his later years reflected little if any sensitivity to the beliefs of those who viewed the West Bank as part of their religious/historical/cultural heritage. Instead, the absence of (future) sovereignty over areas in Judea and Samaria translated into the absence of any emotional connection to it. Opponents to this approach were even encouraged by the late prime minister to "spin like propellers."

For one group then, connection should equal sovereignty (now).

For the other, the lack of (future) sovereignty should equal lack of connection.

But there is another path that reflects both an authentic Jewish and an authentic Zionist ethos to this question, one that finds its source in a different story about our forefather Abraham than the one used to promote Israel’s eternal hold on Hebron.

Several chapters before Isaac’s miraculous birth and Sarah’s tragic death, in the portion of Lech Lecha, (Genesis 13:7) the Torah relates: “And there was a strife between the herdmen of Abram's cattle and the herdmen of Lot's cattle. And the Canaanite and the Perizzite dwelt then in the land.”

Tying the textually ambiguous "strife" of the first part of verse 7 to the presence of the local inhabitants in the second part, the medieval commentator Rashi expounds on the potential background to the disagreement:

"Lot's shepherds sent their flocks to graze in the fields of others. When Abram's shepherds rebuked them for this thievery, Lot's shepherds responded, 'The Land has been given to Abram, whose sole heir is Lot; thus, we are only taking what is rightfully ours.' Yet the Torah comments: 'And the Canaanite and Perizzite dwelt then in the land' [Genesis 13:7]. So at this stage Avraham had not yet inherited the land."

Or in other words, the future (divine) promise of ultimate ownership did not override the rights of the people living there in the present.

In this story, I would argue that Abraham understands the importance of distinguishing between theoretical "ownership" (which he and his progeny would acquire in the future due to God’s promise) and current control, or, in modern political jargon, "sovereignty."

In fact, I think Rashi’s reading of Abraham’s position isn’t too dissimilar to David Ben-Gurion's position of accepting the 1947 UN Partition Plan while simultaneously believing that all the land "belonged" to the Jewish people. According to this reading, neither our first forefather nor Israel's first prime minister believed that there had to be a direct connection between what is "ours" and what we "control," or what belongs to us and what we have political sovereignty over.

Perhaps biblical stories can always be turned and twisted to promote a political position. But as temperatures rise once again in our land and our political discourse shows little sign of maturity (despite President Reuven Rivlin’s admirable and courageous attempts), it might be helpful to try and follow in the footsteps of our Jewish and Zionist forefathers by emphasizing that not everything we feel belongs to us has to be "grazed" on. And that not every territory we may ultimately decide to withdraw from concurrently requires disengaging from our emotional, historical or religious attachment to it.

Calev Ben-Dor grew up and was educated in England before making aliyah in 2005. He currently works as an analyst in the Policy Planning Department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and also lectures on topics of Israeli and Jewish interest. He writes in a personal capacity.

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