The non-governmental organization (NGO) Regavim* concentrates on preserving Israel’s land on both sides of the 1949 Armistice Line. Along with that, Regavim schedules tours throughout the Land of Israel to acquaint Israelis and tourists with our historical homeland. We went on such a tour recently, to Susiya, located in the Judean Desert near the Hebron Hills. Regavim’s Ari Briggs led our group from Ra’anana, while another group from Jerusalem joined us at the heritage site. Ari, a Regavim director, explained that Susiya has been much in the news lately, but most often is portrayed in a misleading way. We were about to see Susiya for ourselves by exploring the ruins of the talmudic-era city, which flourished in a time coinciding with Byzantine control of the entire region.
Susiya was populated by the tribe of Judah in biblical times. Because the water resources in the desert area are scant, thousands of water cisterns were created throughout the area. The land was used for both agriculture and grazing, but not by the same people. The Judeans were sedentary people of the highlands — farmers — who periodically were encroached upon by the nomadic herdsmen of the desert.
Nearly two hundred years after the Roman destruction of the Holy Temple (70 CE), Susiya was founded. It prospered, peaking at the time of the Arab incursion in the 7th century. Susiya was substantial and well organized, with many dwellings attesting to the Jewish character of the town, most notably the many mikvas and the substantial synagogue located at the highest point in town. It is conjectured that Cohanim, descendants of the priests from the Holy Temple in not-too-distant Jerusalem, settled Susiya, after being expelled by the Romans. Within a few hundred years of the Arab conquest in 632 CE, Susiya suddenly declined and was depopulated; no definite explanation has been found for its abandonment.
Nachson, our engaging guide, first led us through the arid desert landscape to a burial cave, pointing out the defensive way the town had been constructed, with the thick exterior walls of the buildings forming a strong barrier against intruding bands. He pointed out the niches in the door frames of the dwellings for mezuzahs, a carving depicting a seven-branched menora, and a mikveh for ritual purity, one of thirty-five in the town. We saw a cave where weaving was done, an olive press, and a substantial area for winemaking. To allay any lingering doubt about Susiya being a Jewish town, its cemetery is located outside the city wall at the precise distance dictated by the Talmud.
The youngsters among us had a great time stomping barefoot on local grapes in the area of the wine press, while all of us enjoyed tasting them. Nachson told us that the nearby and fairly large Arab town of Yatta (thought to be named after the Judean city of Yuta mentioned by Joshua) has a family named “winemakers.” Nachson reminded us that winemaking is forbidden to Muslims and that the hamula (clan) of that name was probably originally Jewish. It is common knowledge in Israel that many Beduin are of Jewish heritage.
We saw many caves quarried in the soft limestone that is common in the area. In one large cave, we saw an excellent documentary on Susiya, described from the viewpoint of a skeptical college student. He was attempting to find out about the sudden and mysterious abandonment of the town. Some people theorize that the periodic droughts which occur in this arid region may be the reason. In the same time period, Nabatean cities in the desert were also abandoned, perhaps from the same cause.
Then most of us crawled through a fairly long and cramped escape tunnel connecting the northern side of the town to the synagogue courtyard. This tunnel indicates the high priority of security for the inhabitants and the central role in the town’s defense of the strategically located synagogue. Nachson told us that there are twelve different halls underground with tunnels connecting them.
The synagogue, which was being decorated for a wedding later in the day, was probably the highlight of our tour. Reinforcing the idea that wealthy Cohanim populated the town, the beautiful mosaic floor of the synagogue was donated by Isai the Priest, as attested to by a marble plaque in the courtyard. The mosaic work depicts Daniel in the lion’s den, animals, and geometric and astrological designs. The bima (platform) had an ornamented balustrade, a large menorah, and marble columns, with a niche on the same north-facing wall (prayers are always directed towards Jerusalem). There are also Hebrew and Aramaic etchings on the walls. You can see an impressive replica of what the bima looked like in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.
Similar to the burial caves, the synagogue entrance had two heavy, rolling “doors” to hinder anyone breaking in and its walls were up to 3 meters thick. The aforementioned escape tunnel from the courtyard leads to the agricultural area of the town. The synagogue served social purposes as well as religious ones, a familiar pattern today. There may have been a school and a law court there too.
We descended from the heights of the synagogue to a modern visitor center, where an excellent lunch had been prepared for us. We learned more about Susiya while we ate, as well as listening to the inspiring story of the female caterer, an Afrikaner who had discovered the beauty of Judaism with her husband and now lives in the area. Before heading home we visited a winery and dairy (goats) farm in modern Susiya, where we sampled the produce and had a chance to purchase wine and cheese from the proprietors.
During our journey to ancient Susiya, Ari had pointed out the Arab buildings near the site and had explained why Susiya was so controversial. According to Jewish sources and the archeological remains, it is obvious that Susiya was a Jewish community. But Arabs from a nearby town have squatted in the vicinity, claiming legal ownership of the land, at least as far back as Ottoman times. The West has been quick to give credence to the Arabs’ claims, which are buttressed by NGOs which dispute Jewish claims beyond (and even within) the 1949 Armistice Line. Even if this were true, constructing buildings on agricultural land is illegal without receiving the necessary permits.
So, with all Susiya’s Jewish history, this is what you will find when you search the Internet for Susiya: made-up history about Arabs being the rightful inhabitants of Susiya. Unfortunately, most of the websites are anti-Zionist ones that castigate Israel for mistreating the “poor Palestinians,” the “legitimate” residents of Susiya — which was never a Jewish town according to some of these “authorities.” Especially disturbing are the Israeli organizations, such as Rabbis for Human Rights and B’tselem, which are leading the charge to have illegal Arab squatters declared to be legitimate land holders in Susiya.
For an explanation, below are some excerpts from Ari Brigg’s article in the Jerusalem Post (7/22/15):
“U.S.State Department spokesperson John Kirby [reading from] a prepared statement pressured Israel not to enforce demolition orders against an illegal Arab encampment adjacent to the [modern] Jewish community of Susiya. The State Department took this stand despite the fact that these demolition orders had been confirmed by Israel’s High Court in May 2015 after decades of appeals.
“The Israelis were astonished for two reasons. One, the State Department was apparently misinformed about basic facts of the case. Two, the statement appears to be an arrogant attempt to undermine the Israeli legal system, including its universally respected High Court.
“Regavim has documented at least 20 illegal structures in the encampment, funded directly by the EU and proudly bearing the EU flag. The encampment is strategically placed between the Jewish community of Susiya and the Susiya archaeological site. Their agenda is clearly intended to obliterate the fact that an ancient Jewish community, including a magnificent ancient synagogue, thrived in this area before Islam even existed.
“It is crucial that the facts be told and the law upheld despite the extreme pressure being applied by the EU and US State Department.”
It’s typical of those who want to undermine Israel’s legitimacy to propagandize against the only Jewish state with false “facts” and bleeding-heart arguments. Go to www.regavim.org to see what Jews must do to fight the onslaught of resurgent anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. And, when in Israel, it wouldn’t hurt to take a tour with Regavim to see for yourself what the Land of Israel is all about!
*Regavim’s two-fold mission is to ensure responsible, legal, accountable, and environmentally friendly use of Israel’s national lands and to ensure the return of the rule of law to all areas and aspects of the land and its preservation. Regavim believes that the government holds the key to protecting our land resources. It operates via legislative and judicial channels to recruit officials and state resources to act on the principles of Zionism – to protect national lands and properties and prevent foreign elements from taking over Jewish territorial resources.