The city of Hebron means something different to almost everyone who’s aware of it. Its many meanings are deep, sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, and always complicated.
For a Jew steeped in traditional texts, there is a clear connection between the Jewish people and Hebron from the time of Abraham 4,000 years ago, when the patriarch bought a field outside the city walls from Ephron the Hittite, to create a family burial plot. Tradition claims this as one of three places in the Land of Israel where the Jewish people have incontestable ownership as their purchase is recorded in the Bible. Here is the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the opening to the Garden of Eden, where generations of Jews lit candles and prayed outside the entrance to the burial complex during centuries of exclusion from the premises. This is the place where King David first ruled over Judea for seven years before moving his capital to Jerusalem and being declared king over a united Israel.
The Struggle for Hebron
And yet today Hebron is also a place of struggle and of violence. It’s a place where a small group of Jews insist on sticking, like a burr in the throat, in the middle of a large Arab city. Alternately, it’s where a brave band of Jews struggle against violence and extremism to maintain a Jewish presence at an ancient holy site. Either way it is contentious and we only hear of Hebron in the news in the context of violence and division.
All of these visions are true. But Hebron is also a real place, as real and as alive as New York City or Jerusalem, as Cleveland or Tel Aviv, and more worthy of a visit than most. It’s a place with streets and cars and buildings, with tourist sites, shops and cemeteries. Since the 1990s Hebron has been divided into two sections, one under the control of the Palestinian Authority which contains the vast majority of the city’s population of Muslim and Christian Arabs, and a single road running a few blocks from the Tomb of the Patriarchs to the Tel of the ancient city and old Jewish cemetery at the top of the hill, where a few hundred Jewish residents live protected by a large contingent of Israeli soldiers.
Once inside the Jewish enclave, connected by an Israeli patrolled road from the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, one finds walls reminiscent of the Western Wall, but never torn asunder as in Jerusalem.
Here one can see the only monumental Herodian structure from the time of the great builder Herod in the 1st century BCE, still completely intact from top to bottom. For most of the year the structure is divided into two areas, one for Muslims, and the other for Jews and others. Many men and women come here to pray specifically at the graves of Sarah, Rebbeca and Leah, or those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, hoping that their prayers and petitions will be answered in the special merit characteristic of that individual patriarch or matriarch.
Up the hill one finds Tel Hebron (also known as Tel Rumeida), the site of the ancient city. In a stretch of about a hundred feet (30 meters) there are exposed remnants of buildings from the time of the Canaanites, of Abraham, the Judges, King David and more, all properly preserved marked and explained by signage in Hebrew and English. There is a four room house, a structure characteristic of Israelite dwellings in the Iron Age, as well as a grain silo. One can make out the steps leading to the city gate which Abraham surely walked up when he came in from his camp to trade and do business, and the beginning of the city walls which stood when David was king in Hebron.
There are also several modern sites worth visiting. The Avraham Avinu (Abraham out Father) synagogue was the original synagogue of the local Sephardic community until the massacre of Jews by local Arabs ended the Jewish presence there in 1929. After years of struggle following the miraculous Israeli victory in 1967, Jews resettled the neighborhood and rebuilt the synagogue.
The neighborhood itself is bright and modern, and a pleasure to walk around, with the sounds of children playing flitting up the alleyways. Up the hill is Beit Hadassah, the hospital built by the Jewish Women’s charitable organization of that name which served the local population from its founding in 1893 until the massacre in 1929 temporarily ended the local Jewish presence. The hospital served local Jews and Arabs alike, and the building was later used as a clinic for Arabs only, run by local authorities and returned to Jewish hands only in the 1990s. Today the building houses Jewish apartments, as well as a museum dedicated to the 1929 massacre.
Whatever one thinks about the political situation in Hebron, it is one of the central pillars of Jewish history in the Land of Israel, of the Biblical narrative, and of archeological and religious importance for Jews and Muslims. A proper tour of the city takes no more than half a day, leaving plenty of time to explore the surrounding area including Gush Etzion.