I remember it well. Rachel’s Tomb was closed to Jews right after Rosh Hashana of 2000, during the very first days of the second intifada.
Today, the day before the yahrzeit of the biblical matriarch, I drove the 10 minutes from my apartment to the tomb to see what was happening there in the wake of the firebombs of two days ago and yesterday’s UNESCO decision that Kever Rachel (and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron) are now designated as Muslim holy sites.
Back in 2000, the constant barrage of Arab violence at Kever Rachel caused the IDF to prevent access to Jews. An IDF closure order approved by Prime Minister Ehud Barak followed the destruction of Joseph’s Tomb as well as the 6th century Shalom al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho. Jews praying at the Western Wall had been stoned.
The pattern became clear. The Palestine Authority first tried to discredit Jewish claims to the holy sites, then moved in to physically attack them, either destroying them completely, or generating enough violence that Jews are prevented from coming close to the place.
In the case of Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem they were successful because there was no permanent Jewish presence surrounding the area.
At Rachel’s resting place, the action of a few determined people in 2000 ensured that the same thing would not happen. After the few weeks of closure, a group of 30 women and their babies took things into their own hands and walked into Kever Rachel from the Gilo Junction. Their intention was to stay until the yahrzeit to ensure the site would remain open to all who wanted to pray there. I watched as the women were forcibly evacuated that afternoon with the promise that bulletproof buses from the Junction would be allowed later that day.
From that day for the next eight or nine years, those protected buses were the only way to visit the by now heavily fortified Rachel’s Tomb. Several years ago, after an extended period of relative quiet, the site was opened to private cars, and the parking lot nearby was always filled.
When I showed up in my car today, I was stopped at a makeshift checkpoint at the Gilo Junction. The intersection was crawling with police and Border Patrol who directed me to park (illegally!) on an embankment on the road leading to Mar Elyas monastery and then wait for the shuttle bus.
A small group of us rode the bus around the security barricade to the entrance to the tomb–the domed roof over the tomb built by Moses Montefiore hasn’t been visible for years, ever since the site was made into a military enclave because of the constant barrage of firebombs and sniper attacks.
There were more security personnel than visitors, and an entire army platoon had set up sleeping quarters just under the concrete barricade.
I walked south past the entrance to the tomb to take a look at the building that now houses the Bnai Rachel Yeshiva.
I remember watching Tourism Minister Benny Elon hammer the mezuza into the doorpost back in 2003. Today, there’s a lovely Beit Midrash (study hall) and a couple of families living in the building. They set up a garden that backs onto the grey concrete barricade, and they haven’t repaired the window with the bullet hole that’s been there since 2002.
In the women’s section of the tomb, no more than a dozen women were praying in front of the covered stone monument. In a quiet year, the crowds overflow the building on the day before the yahrzeit..
Kever Rachel need not be the exclusive domain of the ultra-orthodox. It’s one of our most important national heritage sites. Maybe now is the time to take back the tomb to prevent a deja vu to the dark days of 2000.