Since Roman times, Jews have been buying property in the Land of Israel. They braved hostile governments, including the Ottoman Empire, which banned all land purchases by foreigners. A United Nations report in 1980 asserted that from 1880 to 1947, the Jews, whether individually or through institutions, took over 1.85 million dunams of land, mostly through purchases from Arab landowners. This comprised less than 10 percent of the total land mass of the British mandate of Palestine.
A key challenge in buying land was determining ownership. Until 1858, the Ottomans refused to provide legal title to land, leaving that to tradition. Legal title hardly mattered to the Bedouin tribes who conquered peasant farms and villages. The most notorious of these tribes was Ben Sakr. For their part, the Jews stayed away from the Bedouins and focused on land that was not deemed arable. In 1878, the Jews established Petah Tikva. Four years later, Russian Jews bought the land for Rishon Lezion. Most of the deals were made with absentee landlords, including the Turkish sultan.
The practice of buying land in Eretz Yisrael began with Abraham some 3,000 years earlier. The patriarch insisted that he purchase rather than receive as a gift the cave in Hebron that would serve as the burial ground for Sarah. Ephron the Hittite offered the cave for free. After all, Abraham had fought the war against Nimrod that spared the Hittites from slavery. Ephron knew that his tribe had no right to any land, bequeathed by Noah to Shem, Abraham’s ancestor. The Hittite saw Abraham as restoring the Land of Canaan to his forefathers.
But Abraham refused any favors, regardless of how just his claim. He could have invoked G-d’s promise that he would inherit the entire Land of Canaan. Instead, he insisted on paying cash so he could bury Sarah without incurring the rancor of the locals. He wanted Hebron to witness this transaction to avoid claims that this was not Ephron’s property. Ephron finally asked for a whopping 400 minted silver coins. Abraham handed over the cash. The money was not important: What was important was that the cave and the surrounding field would become an heirloom to Abraham’s offspring — the Children of Israel.
In the words of Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, known as the Or Hachayim, “Behold, Abraham was wise to purchase the cave in a way that could not be challenged…During his time, Ephron did not see the cave as anything but darkness and emptiness, and so, he could have later argued, when he understood the value of the cave, that he withdraws from the deal and that Abraham does not have the right to claim it for eternity.”
The Jewish people have been one of the few nations that did not steal their country. Like Abraham, King David bought the threshing floor on Mount Moriah that would later serve as the First Temple. Although he had the authority to confiscate the land, he chose to purchase it from Araunah the Jebusite for 50 silver coins. Like Ephron, Araunah offered the tract for free. David refused and bought both the threshing floor and cattle. Then, the king built an altar in an effort to end the plague that was ravaging Israel.
Today, the State of Israel has been the most notable opponent of honoring the purchases by Abraham and David. The state has refused to allow Jews a presence on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This includes the right to pray on or adjacent to the holiest place in Judaism. Instead of recognizing the purchase of King David, Israel has legitimized the Muslim conquest of the site of the two Jewish temples.
In Hebron, the state has refused to allow Jews to reclaim the land and property stolen by the Arabs in wake of their massacre in 1929. The Habad, or Lubavitch, movement has seen its property given to Arab squatters. Their deeds of purchase have been rejected by Israeli courts.
Habad established roots in Hebron in 1816 when Hasidic Jews, directed by Rabbi Dov Ber Schneuri, relocated from Safed. By the middle of the century, Habad Hasidim comprised most of the Ashkenazic community in Hebron. They joined Sefardi Jews, many of them exiles from Spain, who prayed in the Avraham Avinu synagogue, built in 1540. In 1879, the Sefardi community helped build what became known as Beit Romano, financed by the Turkish merchant Haim Yisrael Romano.
Like Abraham, Habad paid dearly for the right to settle Hebron. In 1904, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Schneerson, the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, paid 22,000 silver rubles for a mansion in the city. An adjacent lot was later bought for 3,100 rubles.
Some of the Habad property was reacquired in the 1970s after Israel conquered Hebron. In wake of the Six Day War, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, could have demanded that the Arabs vacate the buildings immediately. Instead, he offered to again purchase the assets and compensate the squatters. The rebbe was aware that Israel was against the return of the Jews to Hebron and that powerful Israelis identified with Peace Now were promising huge sums to the Arabs to refuse the Habad offer. The rebbe was also skeptical whether the Israeli government would protect the Jews returning to the city or side with the Arabs as the British had done 50 years earlier.
The rebbe was correct. Since his death, Israel has divided Hebron, transferring 80 percent of the city to the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, the state has blocked Jewish settlement to the most indisputable city in Jewish history. Today, more than 50 years after the city was conquered, there are a mere 500 Jewish residents, who face official discrimination as well as constant provocation by local Arabs and their foreign backers. Abraham would have been ashamed.
“It is not the goyim that I am afraid of, G-d forbid,” Rabbi Schneerson said in 1979, “but the views of our mistaken Jewish brethren who are granted free choice.”