We were in Hevron for Shabbath last week. My personal connection with this holy city goes back over thirty years, when I was a young Yeshiva student. I spent a year studying in Kiryat Arba-Ḥevron and become deeply involved in the development of the region. I have extensively photographed the area.
Last Saturday, however, was not just another shabbath. The date was the 29th of Iyar. Ḥebron Liberation Day, the day that Hevron was conquered by one Israeli [Rabbi] General and his driver.
This is an old story which I first heard maybe thirty-five years ago. It is said to be one of the questions posed to officer cadets at the Westpoint Military Academy, "How many soldiers are required to conquer a city, located in a valley, with a population of 60,000?" On shabbath I heard the story again, twice, once from the English speaking spokesman for the Hevron Jewish community, David Wilder, and later, from the Hebrew spokesman, Noam Arnon.
Following the conquest of [East] Jerusalem on the 28th of Iyar, when the cry "Har haBayit b'yadeinu, the Temple Mount is in our hands" went up, but when everyone, including Zionist Rabbis, Rav Shlomo Goren, Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook and the Nazir, Rabbi David Cohen, skipped over Har haBayit and went to pray and blow shofar at the Kotel haMa'aravi (the Wailing Wall), the Israeli army started its advance southward. On that very day our forces passed through Bethlehem just outside Yerushalayim, and onto Gush Etzion. Rav Goren, then the Chief Rabbi of the Israel army, entered the Tomb of our matriarch, Raḥel, where he quoted the prophet Yirmiyahu, "and your children will return to their borders". And here we are!
On arriving at the domed mausoleum, the Rabbi found the door locked. He walks around the building, looking for the key, for an openning into the building. Suddenly the key falls down from the heavens. Amazing! Perhaps the [Arab] caretaker of the building threw it out of his window, overlooking the tomb, towards the rabbi. Of course, like all good hasidic stories, there is another version. Before 1948, a Jewish family had cared for the Tomb for generations. In 1948, when thrown out of Bethlehem by the British-trained Arab Legion, the last caretaker took the key home to Yerushalayim for safe keeping for the day he would again open the door. This old man suddenly appears, key in hand, and unlocks the door for the rabbi. Take your pick as to which version you prefer. [I go for the latter. But as the key was big and heavy, the Arab in the former version perhaps was trying to kill the rabbi? We were after all in the middle of a war.]
Our good rabbi requested from the General in charge of the advancing forces for him to be among the first soldiers to enter into Hevron, to enter the Cave of the Patriarchs, Ma'arath haMachpela, to be the first Jew to enter the building for "seven hundred years", and not just to enter, but to pray in the Cave. Ever since the Moslem (Marmeluke) defeat of the Catholic Crusaders at the end of the thirteenth century, Jews had not been allowed into the building. They were not allowed past the seventh step [of probably thirty — Moshe Dayan destroyed that stairwell in 1967 so I am unable to count]. Not that I imagine we were allowed into the building during the Christian period either — remember these Crusaders killed every Jew in Yerushalayim when they took the city in 1099. They built a large Gothic styled church inside the Cave courtyard. Today we call this structure Oolam Yitzhak, the Isaac Hall, the largest room in the Cave complex. You can still see the church steeple on what is today a mosque, and occasionally a synagogue.
My rabbi, Rav Yisrael Shurim of blessed memory, told me that in 1937 he was a young yeshiva student at the Hevron Slobodka Yeshiva, by then in Geula, Yerushalayim. The yeshiva moved there from Hevron following the 1929 massacre of the Hevron Jewish community. In that year, the Gerer Rebbe undertook a trip from Poland to visit the Holy Land. At that time, during the British [mandate] rule of Palestine [the Land of Israel], while in theory one could travel anywhere in the country, unlike today, it was not easy to reach Hevron. Given the stature of the Gerer Rebbe, the British agreed to organise a convey and military guard to protect the rebbe on a visit there. Rav Shurin told me that he and many others jumped at the opportunity to visit Ma'arath haMakhepela (for his first time) and hitched a ride to Hevron with the military convoy.
On arriving in Hevron, the large Jewish group made its way to the Cave. They gathered around the infamous steps. The Rebbe went onto the first step, then the second. He continued to walk up the stairs. To the seventh step. Then in his excitement, he lost count and stepped onto the eighth step, with his escort of hitchhikers following very close behind. He was immediately pushed down the stairs. By an official of the Moslem Wakf? No, by a puny limey — an English policeman. The courteous British. "Excuse me venerable Rabbi, you have inadvertently come up too many stairs. Please step back one. I really am sorry. I have to enforce the Moslem custom. I am truly sorry."
No! Push, shove, piss off old man, Jew! And you expect me to feel sorry for these guys now that the Moslems are taking over their country. These guys who could have bombed the train lines to Auschwitz (they could not? — give me a break — ever heard of the Dam Busters?) This really could not be happenning to a nicer people. They raped and pillaged all over the world, and now they have the audacity to tell Israel what to do! I know he did not mean it exactly the way it came across, but it is too late, he has said it, the words are out — the Archbishop of Canterbury, the religious head [Elizabeth is the titular head] of the Church of England, said that he could certainly see aspects of Moslem religious shariah law incorporated into English Common Law. Yeah — the pommies are going to cut off the hands of thieves, and the whatever of rapists. [Maybe the latter in not such a bad idea — there are already jurisdictions in the West where sex offenders are being (chemically) castrated in exchange for being let out of prison.]
Back to our army chief rabbi. The south moving troops spend the night in Gush Etzion, halfway between Yerushalayim and Ḥevron. Our chief rabbi joins them, telling the officer in charge to make sure he wakes him before they break camp.
Morning. The rabbi arises early and finds himself alone in camp. What — they left without me! Quick, he calls to his driver. They've left without us. We must catch up to them.
Little did the rabbi know, but his troops were in the next hill. The plan to take Hevron was to encircle it from the hills above, then moving in from two sides simultaneously. They had been working on the assumption, though disproven the previous day in Yerushalayim, that the British [can't get away from those nasties]-trained and armed Jordanian army was the most formidable foe among the Arab armies — our boys didn't want to take unnecessary risks. Hence one more dry run early that morning.
Our rabbi is speeding southward, "catching up to the advancing troops". He arrives in Ḥalḥul, the highest city in Israel, just three miles north of Hevron. Flying from the roof of the minaret at the top of the hill, 1,017 metres above sea level, the rabbi notices a large Jordian flag fluttering in the late spring breeze. They forgot that one he says to himself, dispatching his driver to remove it.
Back in the jeep. Into the valley from Ḥalḥul, and up the other side towards Ẓomet Z'khukhit, the glassblowers interestection, the entrance to Hevron. Straight through the middle of Hevron, towards the burial site of our patriarchs. Every house, every building en route is flying a white flag, a white sheet, from its roof and windows. All the men have skipped town. Just women and children remain. They were expecting to be massacred and so should they. Following their coldblooded murder of the ancient Hevron Jewish community less than forty years before, they knew well what they deserved.
Our rabbi drives on. By now oblivious to the absence of his comrades. He arrives outside his destination. Everything is locked, sealed, shut like Y'riḥo in the time of Y'hoshua. As the Gerer Rebbe before him and the thousands of others during the hundreds of years earlier, he steps onto the first, then the second stair. And the third. He bounds over the seventh, running, excitement overtaking his being. He reaches the top of the staircase, the first Jew * to do so in over a thousand, perhaps almost two thousand years. And the steel bolted door is locked. He cocks his Uzi submachine gun and sprays the lock, emptying an entire cartridge.
Two versions: in the first, the lock, smitherined by his bullets, falls to the floor. He bursts into the cave where after a short prayer, he receives the official Arab surrender of the city — he was after all wearing the uniform of a General. In the second version, seeing that his bullets have no effect on the steel, he calls his driver and they, using a chain, tie the lock to the jeep and yank off the doors.
The oncoming Israeli army arrives soon enough. By now Rabbi Goren has the Israeli flag, which he drew onto a white sheet, flying above the massive Herodian walls. They pray and dance in the courtyard.
Eventually defence minister, Moshe Dayan, arrives. He orders the rabbi to take down the flag (he said schmate, a rag). He is giving the mosque [sic] back [sic] to the Arabs. The rabbi refuses. You do not understand Rabbi, I order you to remove the flag! The rabbi answers, I am a general in the Israeli army and I refuse to take down the flag. I refuse to comply with your order.
Dayan requests another officer to remove the flag. He dutifully does so. He respectfully folds the flag and places it into his jeep. Later in the day, this officer is returning to Tel Aviv, back to general headquarters. On the way he is involved in a fatal traffic accident. He never arrives at the HQ.
* first Jew There were a few who were allowed into the Ma'ara for various reasons that served the purposes of the Moslems. One such was the Ḥesed l'Avraham, Rav Avraham Azulai, kabalist and rav of the city of Hevron, who in 1643 succeeded in entering the caves below the building we today know as the Ma'ara ... but that's another story that I promise to tell you :-)
Menachem Kuchar, 26th May, 2009