Immediately after the Six-Day War ended in June 1967, Hanan Porat – a child survivor of the Arab destruction of Gush Etzion and massacre of more than one hundred Jewish fighters and civilians nineteen years earlier – began to lobby the Israeli government for the restoration of his destroyed community. News of his efforts reached Rabbi Moshe Levinger, living in an Orthodox moshav near Petah Tikvah. They met in Jerusalem with Elyakim Haetzni, a Tel Aviv lawyer who had arrived in Palestine from Germany as a twelve-year-old refugee in 1938. Experiencing the Six-Day War as “a miraculous victory,” Haetzni had decided, “I must go to Hebron.”
Gush Etzion came first. Just before Rosh Hashanah a convoy of cars returned Jews to their former home. For Hanan Porat, it was only “the spearhead of the struggle for the Greater Land of Israel.” When David Ben-Gurion visited the reborn community, he approvingly declared that nearby Hebron also “must be settled by Jews.” Rabbi Levinger, accompanied by an elderly survivor of the 1929 Arab massacre that destroyed the Jewish community in the ancient holy city, came to Hebron to determine whether there might be Jewish-owned property to rent or purchase. In the desecrated Jewish cemetery, where dozens of massacre victims were buried, Levinger experienced “an awakening of tempestuous spirits.” He decided to return to Hebron and restore its Jewish community.
Early in the Spring of 1968 Levinger contacted the military governor and requested permission to hold a Passover Seder in Hebron and spend the night there. Frustrated by government indecision he negotiated an agreement with the owner of the Park Hotel, abandoned by Jordanian visitors following the Six-Day War, for Passover week. Posing as Swiss tourists, the Levinger group left a substantial deposit for “an unlimited amount of people for an unspecified period of time.”
Fifty years ago dozens of Jews arrived to celebrate the first Passover Seder in Hebron in forty years. The Levingers and their four children arrived with a refrigerator and washing machine. The kitchen was kashered and mezzuzas were attached to the door frames. The Seder was led by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, like Levinger a graduate of the renowned Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem. Hanan Porat was there; so was Elyakim Haetzni, who would long remember the festive Seder as “a once in a lifetime experience.”
After its conclusion exultant participants danced and sang v’shavu banim l’gvulam (“your children shall return to their borders”). The next morning, singing and dancing through the streets of Hebron, they carried Torah scrolls to Me’arat HaMachpelah, the massive Herodion enclosure marking the burial site of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people. The following day they sent a telegram to Labor Minister Yigal Allon: “Blessings for festival of our freedom to you from Hebron, city of patriarchs, from first of those returning to it to settle in it.”
Some government ministers opposed the return of Jews to the volatile ancient city where King David had ruled before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. But Labor Minister Yigal Allon came to visit the Hebron celebrants and agreed to have weapons sent from Gush Etzion (“just in case, God forbid, there should be fighting”). Herut party leader Menachem Begin praised the new settlers. From his home in Sde Boker, David Ben-Gurion offered support: “We will make a great and awful mistake if we fail to settle Hebron, neighbor and predecessor of Jerusalem.”
The boldness and tenacity of Jews who returned to Hebron to restore the decimated Jewish community was eventually rewarded. Half a century and many violent tragedies later, it is home to eight hundred Jews who live in a military protected enclave within a thriving commercial city of more than 200,000 Palestinian Arabs.
Ever since Abraham purchased the Machpelah cave from Ephron the Hittite as a burial site for Sarah (Genesis 23), Hebron has symbolized something ineradicable from Jewish consciousness: the power of memory. Now, fifty years after the Passover Seder that marked the return of Jews to Hebron, we can celebrate the exodus from Egyptian slavery and the restoration of Jewish life in our most ancient holy city.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews (2009). His new book, Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016, will be published this summer by Academic Studies Press.