For 700 years, Jews stood on the Seventh Step leading to the stone entrance to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and spilled their hearts on the ragged staircase as the muezzin call to prayer lifted in the air over their heads. In the place that was King David’s first capitol of Judea, the Jews were forbidden by the Muslim rulers of Hebron from climbing any higher.
For 700 years, from 1297-1967, Jews pressed their hearts and heads and hands against the white walls Herod built for them, aching to get closer to the Mothers and Fathers of the people of Israel. Humiliated, the Jews stood outside the field that Abraham bought as a burial plot for 400 silver sheqels almost 4,000 years ago and longed for the day they would be permitted inside.
Since 1967, Jews have been permitted access to a small part of the Ma’ara — Judaism’s most holy site after the Temple Mount. Under constant attack and heavy restriction, they are permitted to pray in 20% of the compound — with special dispensation to 80% of the compound only ten days a year. Beneath turquoise domes and minarets and Quranic calligraphy, the Jews sway and cry and pray under the cameras of both the Waqf and the IDF. Under severe restriction from making any repairs or improvements, Hebron is derelict.
This past Shabbat we read the Torah portion that recounts the purchase of the field and the burial of Sarah on that site. As Jews have done every year that this Torah portion is read, thousands traveled to the Ma’ara to pray. It is one of the ten days that Jews are permitted to enter the hall of the tombs of Isaac and Rivka. This year, I was one of those Jews.
Under the vigilant and extensive protection of soldiers and police, I walked with my parents through the tiny Jewish quarter of Hebron where approximately 60 Jewish families now live. Until 1979, this city, so holy to the Jewish people, was judenrein — a policy that was enforced by Israel’s own government and security forces. Nearing the Ma’ara, we heard shots. Suddenly we were pushed aside by soldiers who quickly rounded a corner, surrounding someone or something in the decaying courtyard behind an abandoned storefront. We kept walking as flares lit up the sky over our heads.
“I’m sure it’s just firecrackers,” I said as much to myself as to those panicking around me.
Inside the hall of Isaac and Rivka, the carpets of Muslim prayer piled in a corner under the muezzin’s microphoned platform, a woman’s voice grating and broken through the loudspeakers instructs all the worshippers to please move quickly inside. Two Jewish boys have been shot by an Arab sniper. A soldier has been shot in the head by a 16-year old Palestininan boy. But we don’t know this yet. It’s nearly Shabbat, our phones are turned off and have been left in our rooms.
Thousands of Jews gathered in the Ma’ara for Friday night services, their voices echoing through the damp hall, their dancing shaking plaster loose from the high ceilings — its falls on our shoulders, leaving traces of fine white dust. Looking around at the women praying alongside me, I see many of them are crying. Moved by the sanctity of thousands of years of Jewish prayer in this place, moved by the blood and tears that continue to be spilled in order for us to safely worship here, the women cry. I look through the temporary dividers separating us from the men and see that on the other side the men are crying too.
Suddenly I am angry. Shaking and angry and crying. We are like starving people who are enraptured by a crumb thrown to us. So grateful are we for the crumb, we forget our starvation. For ten days a year, we are permitted here. For 355 days a year, this hall is forbidden to us. And we are grateful. After a millennium of standing outside on the Seventh Step, we are grateful for these crumbs. The Jews who live here are called settlers for choosing to live in the second holiest city in Judaism. Confined to one square kilometer of the Old City, unable to purchase properties, they are surrounded on all sides by the 200,000 Palestinians of Hebron. There are several attacks on Jews weekly. This week, we are told, there have been several attacks daily.
The next day we walk to the Avraham Avinu synagogue. Built in 1540, it had been the center of Jewish life in Hebron until 1929 when the Jews were massacred and expelled from the city by their Arab neighbors as the British stood by. The synagogue was razed in 1948 and deliberately used as a public toilet, garbage dump and goat shed until 1976, when restoration of the site was approved by the Israeli government. There we touch the tips of our fingers to a 500-year old Torah scroll rescued from the Spanish Inquisition, and rescued again and again from arson and theft, before bringing our fingers to our eyes and our lips.
Later in the afternoon, more shots ring out. By now we know that Hebron has been seething all day. Our eyes sting and our noses burn as the cool winds carry teargas through the Old City. In the dining hall of Yeshivat Shavei Chevron, our hosts for Shabbat, the regional commanders of both the army and the police stand next to Chief Rabbi David Lau. Together they stand, embracing one another, and each delivers the same message: We must protect the Jewish presence in Hebron. We must protect Jewish access to Ma’arat Ha Machpela. For a thousand years, we stood on the Seventh Step, pressing our prayers against the stone. No more.
What has happened in Hebron is the insidious deprecation of the right for Jews to pray at their holy sites. This cunning manipulation has been quite successful: by accusing Jews of unlawfully occupying their own holy sites, our history is being erased and undermined. The duplicitous propaganda of the Palestinians, and the naïve acceptance of these lies as political correctness by ‘liberals’, is eroding Israel’s security. This is not about settlements or borders or politics, it is about Jewish access to Hebron. Just as it is about Jewish access to the Temple Mount.
Some Israelis have either forgotten or decided that it is irrelevant that Jews are entrenched here because of our beliefs and not because of some UN declaration. We have always faced Jerusalem in prayer. We have always come to Hebron to pray at the tomb of our forefathers and mothers. When Jews come to pray at these sites, it is not an attack or an affront to Islam. It is not an effort to conquer territory. It is quite simply Jews visiting and praying in the places they have always visited and prayed at. THAT is the status quo. Anyone who says otherwise is ignoring 4,000 years of Jewish belief and history.
This Shabbat in Hebron, I stood on the roof of a tall building and looked up to the hills around me. Children stood on their roofs waving Palestinian flags. When they saw me some lifted their hands, making their fingers into a V — not for peace, but for victory over the Jews. Others gave me a ‘thumbs down.’ After Shabbat, I read about the attacks on Jewish settlers and occupying forces. But we are not settlers. We are not occupiers. We are worshippers. We are the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We put the ‘ju’ in ‘Judea’. We cannot occupy a piece of land that has been an uncontested Jewish holy site for millennia. Like the violence over the Temple Mount, these accusations are lies. Blatant lies that serve no purpose other than to delegitimize Jewish history and presence in the land of Israel, and incite violence against Jews.
This Shabbat in Hebron we lifted our voices as flares lit the sky and explosions punctuated our song: “The eternal nation does not fear the long road”. For nearly a millennium we stood on the Seventh Step. No more.