Hebron is a fascinating city, and it rightfully holds a special place in Jewish history and culture. Hebron is the first parcel of land owned by the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael. It’s a city where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried in the cave built on a plot of land purchased by Abraham as a burial place for Sarah. David was anointed King of Israel in Hebron. And the Jews remained in Hebron even after the failed Bar Kochba rebellion.
The importance of the city and its history should be clear, so what is it then that causes even proud Zionists to discount the Jewish claim to the city? And why do some Zionists draw a false equivalence between Jews who are drawn to this – the second holiest city in Judaism, and Arab extremists who refuse to allow Jews to live in even a small part of Hebron.
For all its importance, many American Jews treat Hebron as if its connection to the Jewish people is expendable. It may be that only a fraction of American Jews have visited Israel and a tiny fraction of those have stepped foot in Hebron and felt the electric energy that permeates the city’s Jewish quarter and the Cave of the Patriarchs. It may also be that those who attempt to rationalize the presence of a few hundred Jews in a sea of Arabs conclude that since they would not voluntarily choose to enclose themselves in a tiny ghetto, only irrational extremists would choose to do so. Besides, it is natural for a human mind to seek symmetry, thus if there are extremists on one side, it’s convenient to assume that the other side is likewise extremist. Once the residents are defined as extremists, they are attributed the most radical characteristics and motivations.
In this vein, even from well-established Zionists, references are commonly made to “two Hebron massacres” – one by the Arabs and the other committed by a Jew. It’s almost as if there is nothing before or in between. The inference is that a certain equivalence exists between the two sides. The reality is that such framing does a great historical injustice and creates a flawed understanding of the present.
Firstly, as a symbol of Arab aggression, many refer to the Hebron Massacre of 1929 when an Arab mob murdered 67 Jews and injured 60. While this massacre should be brought up as an example of Arab violence and brutality against the region’s Jews, giving it singular standing in Hebron’s history is erroneous. Doing so suggests that anti-Jewish aggression in the city was limited to a unique set of circumstances that accompanied the event. Furthermore, such framing places the act of Arab aggression into a relatively distant past.
The truth is that Hebron’s history is filled with examples of Arab (Muslim) violence and discrimination against the Jews. Some of the more famous pogroms predate the modern Zionist movement by decades and even centuries. When the Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1517, they committed a violent pogrom against the Jews forcing the surviving community to abandon the city for 16 years. Another pogrom against the Hebron Jews took place in 1834 during Mohammed Ali’s rebellion against the Ottomans. And yet the Jews continuously gravitated to Hebron for its spiritual, historical, and cultural significance. The Jews returned to Hebron even after the 1929 Massacre, and were evacuated from the city by the British in 1936 out of fear of further attacks.
The city remained ethnically cleansed of Jews for over 30 years until Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, when Jews began coming back to Hebron. Among them were the same Jews or the descendants of those who had lived in Hebron for many years before 1929. Others were those who believed there was a sense of redemption in returning to the holy city from where the Jews were violently expelled. Yet now, the Jews were pejoratively labeled as “settlers.” Oddly, this terminology caught on even in the Zionist world. Jews returning to a site of their historical genesis just a few decades after a horrific massacre were now portrayed as a foreign element. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call these people “returnees.”
Not all Arab residents of Hebron were pleased to see the Jews return, and the attacks on Jewish residents of Hebron and its surrounding area began almost immediately. In 1968, 47 Jews were injured when a Palestinian threw a grenade at them while they were praying at the tomb. A major terrorist attack took place in 1980 when Palestinians used gunfire and grenades to attack a group of Jews returning from Shabbat services. As a result of the attack, 6 Jews were killed and 20 injured. These are only two of the more notable examples of Arab violence in the city.
In the early 1980s, members of the Jewish underground were arrested and given prison sentences for their violent activities against the Arabs. However, it was clear that much of the violence came as retribution for violent acts from the Arabs. The Jewish underground quickly adopted many of the tactics used by the Arab side. However, the comparative frequency of attacks remained highly lopsided.
The second Hebron massacre that is typically brought up and one that elicits a visceral reaction from many Jews was committed by a Jewish physician, an American transplant, Baruch Goldstein. What Goldstein did was a terrible act of stunning proportions. He entered the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site revered by Jews and Muslims alike, and started shooting. By the time his rifle’s magazine jammed, Goldstein had killed 29 and wounded . Goldstein was killed by the crowd.
As we acknowledge the horror of Goldstein’s act, it is also important to properly contextualize it. Of relevance is the state of affairs that existed between Jews and Arabs at the time of the massacre. Many sources provide limited detail, as if to suggest that Goldstein’s act in February 1994 was a stand-alone event. It wasn’t. Arab attacks aimed at Jewish residents of Hebron occurred both before and after Goldstein’s shooting attack.
The reality is that late 1993 and early 1994 saw a dramatic spike in activity by various terrorist organizations. Hamas in particular was active in and around Hebron. In late December of 1993, Goldstein’s friend, Mordechai Lapid, was shot together with his son, and both died in Goldstein’s arms. Just a week before Goldstein’s attack, Zipora Sasson was killed when terrorists sprayed over 40 bullets at the car carrying her and her family. Zipora was pregnant.
While the world would focus on Goldstein a week later, Israel was deeply traumatized by Zipora’s murder. Based on testimony, it may have been Zipora’s and Lapids’ murders that pushed Goldstein to act. Hamas took responsibility for the murders and issued a leaflet stating, “Hamas will turn every day into hell for the Israelis.” Instructively, after the IDF liquidated three Hamas members in Hebron in 1995, a local resident shouted, “We are all Hamas! The whole city is Hamas!”
At the same time, it may be beneficial to consider Hebron within the general security situation of the moment. Thus, taking a broader geographic perspective, by mid-February of 1994, deadly Arab attacks against the Jews had become an almost daily occurrence. The number of Israelis killed in terror acts had risen dramatically (21 killed in 1991 versus 45 in 1993, and 65 in 1994). Notably, in 1994, through the end of February, the murder rate was consistent with the aforementioned annual figure.
Turning our attention back to Hebron, intelligence information of the time suggested that new terror attacks on the Hebron Jewish community were imminent, and some of the local Arabs did little to hide their bloodthirsty sentiments. Furthermore, it appeared that the Israeli establishment had no immediate ability or political will to proactively address the imminent and rapidly escalating Arab violence.
Goldstein’s act should be instructive to Israeli authorities, as it clearly illustrated that when an institution tasked with providing security to a population is unable or unwilling to do so for whatever reason, members of the victimized population will seek to impose a direct or indirect cost on the perceived aggressor to the extent of their own abilities, with the results possibly far more destructive than if the deterrence were enforced by the institution itself.
Viewed through a historical lens, Goldstein committed an extremely deadly act within an otherwise mostly one-sided distribution of violence. Thus, the pretense of equivalence between the disposition toward violence of both sides is at best misinformed and at worst maliciously disingenuous. And no matter how shocking the realization that Jews are also capable of violence may be to some, Goldstein’s act should not be used to suggest a cycle of violence, as such distortion only serves to dismiss the history of the consistent deadly threat aimed at the Jews of Hebron (and of Israel generally), nor should it serve to stifle the open conversation about the Jewish connection and claim to one of Judaism’s holiest cities.