Opinion

The Sanctity of Hebron Was Violated Long Before UNESCO

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is worthy of being called a World Heritage site, not because of the tombs of our patriarchs and matriarchs, but as a monument to the Jewish national religious victory over the Muslims

Israeli security officials stand guard at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, January 2013.
Bernat Armangue/AP

On a dark and rainy night in the enlightened 1970s, several senior officers, including the CEO of Central Command Rehavam Ze’evi, penetrated to the bottom of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. With the help of an electric drill and hammers they broke into the round and narrow opening of the Avraham Avinu hall. The governor’s slender secretary was given a flashlight and lowered into the cave by rope. She was apparently followed by several officers and Shin Bet security service members who were in on the secret of the break-in.

The Shin Bet invented a suitable excuse for the nighttime incursion, claiming that it was searching for wanted men hiding at the site. The acting administrator of the cave on behalf of the Waqf (the Muslim religious trust) was told that the Israel Defense Forces were looking for wanted men at the site, and he was told to leave and to lock the door behind him. Nothing of importance was found during that search, which was initiated thanks to a whim of Ze’evi’s. Neither the sword of Abraham nor Sarah’s nylon stockings. After several hours the diggers exited from the depths of the cave into the open air, tired and unsatisfied. The holy site hadn’t produced scientific proof of its sanctity.

Those were days when the sanctity of the Tomb of the Patriarchs was meticulously divided between Muslims and Jews. The same sanctity would be split again, as is the custom, in order to hold a separate prayer services for Ashkenazi (European), Sephardi (Middle Eastern and North African) and Yemenite Jews. A prayer quorum and a prayer area for every ethnic group. And fixed times for Jews and Muslims — one group has the Jewish tombs, the other group has the mosque, with Abraham as their shared father.

There was a reason for this strict division. Israel’s occupation was still in its infancy, and the country was very careful to demonstrate its respectful attitude to all the religions. But the settlers didn’t see it that way. More than they saw the cave as a holy place, they adopted it as a battlefield. Sometimes among themselves — Yemenites, Ashkenazim and Sephardim — and at other times between themselves and the Muslims.

What's the big fuss about the UNESCO resolution on Hebron?

The place was so sacred in the eyes of the settlers that Rabbi Moshe Levinger allowed his toddler son to urinate at the top of the stairs at the entrance for the Muslims. The settlers of Kiryat Arba had so much respect for the site, and were so meticulous about preserving its sanctity as a Muslim house of prayer, that they brought bottles of wine in order to celebrate a bar mitzva or to perform a wedding ceremony. It wasn’t only a demonstration of strength against the Muslims. The main purpose of such acts was to decimate the rules and regulations meant to maintain the status quo in the cave.

It wasn’t only the authorized presence of the Waqf members in the cave that caused the settlers’ blood to boil — the “obsequiousness” of the army toward the Muslims disgusted them. As expected, in the end, the cave was occupied by the settlers. The Muslims’ prayer times and prayer area were reduced, and the settlers went on to take over new sacred sites: Beit Hadassah, the Avraham Avinu Synagogue, Elonei Mamre. The epitome of holiness was provided by Baruch Goldstein, who contributed the bodies of 29 Muslim worshippers to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

The UNESCO declaration of the Tomb of the Patriarchs as a World Heritage site located in Palestine perfectly sums up its history in the days in which the settlers rule in Hebron. Suddenly the United Nations has touched the Jews’ sense of sanctity as though this site belonged to all the religions. That’s the same sense of sanctity that served to shut down an entire neighborhood in Hebron, paralyzing the city’s main street and destroying Israel’s image as a humanitarian power that gently and politely occupies the holy sites under its supervision.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs has become a fortified army base surrounded by a “sterile” area, an unquestioned symbol of the settlers’ victory over the non-Jews and of the IDF’s subordination to the Army of God. Truly, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is worthy of being called a World Heritage site, not because of the tombs of our patriarchs and matriarchs, but as a monument to the Jewish national religious victory over the Muslims. A symbol that offsets the 1929 massacre of the Jews of Hebron, with the massacre of Muslims 65 years later. Nobody, not even the United Nations, is allowed to deny Israel this great achievement.