By Andrea Simantov
When my soldier son was deployed to Hebron for five months, I felt ashamed that I knew very little about the city. My husband had often mentioned that his father had been a yeshiva student there during the 1929 massacre and miraculously survived. On his infrequent visits home, Ariel shared little other than superficial tales of bored Arab children and bitterly cold patrols.
I grew determined to visit Hebron. Driving down from Jerusalem, I recalled that Kiryat Arba is one of the earliest cities mentioned in the Torah. Broad, tree-lined streets, modern transportation, leisure and business services in addition to attractive homes suggest that despite international condemnation of this “Israeli settlement,” Kiryat Arba is not going anywhere.
Exiting the town toward Hebron, the streets grew narrow and dangerously steep as we wended our way around donkey carts and poorly parked vehicles toward the ancient city. Old men in robes and kefiyahs sat outside of idle stores smoking hookah and drinking copious cups of thick botz, ignoring the blue-uniformed schoolgirls who were returning home for the day.
We emerged to the sounds of Hasidic music. The great lawn and adjoining areas that flanked the Machpelah Caves were crowded with food, souvenir vendors and a regular contingent of beggars. Picnicking families lazily watched their babies wander from blanket to blanket, only to be returned to their rightful parents in due course. Party atmosphere notwithstanding, tension lurks. Hebron is a dangerous place.
The main street is divided by a low cement wall, because distrust the hatred between the residents is patently obvious. Unlike the rest of Israel, there is little contact between Hebron’s two peoples.
We were not permitted to freely explore the nooks and alleys of the city. Other than specifically protected areas, Hebron is Judenrein. Plaques pepper street corners and ruins of once beautiful homes and businesses, offering a glimpse into the bloody history.
We came upon a private patio sporting a large coffee urn and plates of cookies for soldiers to enjoy free of charge. This 24-hour refreshment corner is named in memory of Gilad Zar, age 41, shot dead in a terrorist ambush while driving between Kedumim and Yizhar.
A little up the road stands the (in)famous Bet Hadassah, housing the Hebron Museum. The building was constructed in 1893 by the Jewish community as a free health clinic and community center for Arab and Jewish residents. During the 1929 riots, thousands of Arabs turned on their Jewish neighbors, maiming, raping and ultimately slaughtering 67 of them. Victims included women, babies and the elderly. After fleeing and returning for a brief period, Jews were expelled from Hebron again in 1936, liberation occurring only in 1967.
In 1979, a group of principled women and their children moved into the dilapidated Beit Hadassah. These intrepid women were determined to renew the Jewish presence in Hebron, despite living under siege. An ensuing terror attack at the entrance killed six young Jewish men from the Kiryat Arba yeshiva who had come to dance and make Sabbath kiddush for the inhabitants. (In 2000, the building was rededicated “Beit HaShisha,” or “Building of the Six.”)
In the summer of 1984, seven families moved into mobile homes on Jewish-owned land at Tel Rumeida. The new neighborhood was called Admot Yishai (Jesse’s Lands) due to its proximity to a site that Jewish travelers from the middle ages identified as the burial place of Yishai, father of King David. This neighborhood represents the heartbeat of a city that is very much alive despite the blood-soaked land upon which it was built.
After signing the Hebron accords in 1997, the city was divided and left Jews with access to only 3 percent of the city. Until today, they are restricted to one street that is one kilometer long. The Arab sections of the city boast thriving commercial and shopping centers that remain off-limits to Jews.
The ‘Oslo War’ (Second Intifada) of 2000 brought additional closure of Hebron’s business and more wounding and murder of Jews. Among the unspeakable atrocities was the targeting of 10- month-old Shalhevet Pass, sleeping in her father’s arms. The Arab terrorist aimed his gun at her, fired and struck her in the head.
Only now can I understand why my son did not talk about his Hebron experience. The enormity of Jewish existence in such an angry place is too large for contemplation in anything more than half-teaspoon doses.
Machpelah, the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs, left me altered, imbued with hope and awe. I smile to think that some have called me ‘brave’ for living in Israel these past 17 years. Brave? Pshh. I don’t live in Hebron.
A photograph of my father-in-law’s yeshiva class hangs in our hallway; the soon-to-be-maimed-and-slaughtered young men stare at us in perpetuity, blessedly unaware of the horror to come.
May their memories — and the memories of those who have given their lives so that Jews may return year after year to Abraham’s city — be for a blessing.