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Inside Hebron: A Personal Encounter

May 9, 2009 | by David Klinghoffer

This city that feels like an entrance to Hell is said to be the point where Earth is united with Heaven.

Above the dashboard of public bus no. 160, which travels the 50-minute route from Jerusalem to Hebron, somebody had pinned a button to the fabric with a little red heart in the middle, reading "I LOVE THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST." I had just pointed this out to my wife, with whom I was visiting from Seattle, when a rock the size of grapefruit, hurled by an unseen Palestinian, hit a window of the bus precisely at my wife’s elbow.

We had come to Israel to look at some of the historical sites associated with the patriarch Abraham, the first monotheist, discoverer of the One God. Of these Abraham-related places, Hebron is perhaps the foremost. According to Biblical tradition, he lived there for 35 years, and, along with his wife Sarah, was buried there. For several days after arriving in Jerusalem, Nika and I questioned friends about how insane we would have to be to contemplate a visit.

Israelis traveling by car were being wounded or killed by Arab drive-by shooters almost every day.

In the early winter of 2000, Israelis traveling by car in the West Bank were being wounded or killed by Palestinian drive-by shooters almost every day of the week. Hebron is in the West Bank, the big chunk of real estate that Israel has been thinking about turning over to total Palestinian control. I had figured that a guided tour with military escorts a routine precaution in the besieged Jewish land -- would probably be our best bet. But those friends who didn’t immediately tell us we must give up all hope of seeing Hebron suggested the counterintuitive idea of taking the public bus. For unlike other buses it happens to be bulletproof.

Or supposedly bulletproof. Rock-proof? Certainly the one that somebody threw at Nika bounced off without a problem. But the very day that she and I gathered our courage and got on board bound for Hebron, one of the two chief rabbis of Israel was riding in another "bulletproof" bus when he was ambushed by Palestinians whose automatic weapons easily shattered the windows. (The rabbi was unhurt.)


Happily our ride south from Jerusalem was unmarred by gunshots, automatic or otherwise, though we were struck by the quiet. Israel is a noisy nation. Israelis will shout at the slightest provocation; their radio talk shows basically consist of people screaming at each other. But despite the standing-room-only crowd of civilians and off-duty soldiers, bus no. 160 was utterly silent. As the vehicle wound through terraced rocky hills, everyone listened for the crack of rifle fire or the hiss of an anti-tank missile like the one that had struck a busload of Israeli school children some weeks before.

Most of the passengers were headed for Kiryat Arba, a fortified Jewish settlement. Immediately adjacent, Hebron itself is the home of 20,000 Arabs but only 700 Jews. One of the latter, David Wilder, spokesman for the city’s Jewish community, was waiting for us at the bus stop outside the ancient compound containing Abraham¹s resting-place.


In Palestinian eyes, those 700 Jews may be the most offensive group of individuals on the planet. A goodly portion of Palestinians share a fantasy of seeing all Jews expelled from the land of Israel (or rather Palestine), but they give marginally less thought to the entirely Jewish regions of the country like the one on the coast around Tel Aviv. The Palestinian mind is focused above all on Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. Other Jewish settlements in the West Bank are at least set off at a distance from Arab towns. In Hebron the Jews occupy a neighborhood, dotted with Israeli military posts, that is distinguishable from the rest of the city only if you’re looking at a map. While any Jews whatsoever remain alive in Hebron, it’s hard to see how Palestinians will ever accept a permanent peace.

While any Jews remain alive in Hebron, it’s hard to see how Palestinians will ever make peace.

About this -- and much else (which that day made one less-than-fearless American visitor in particular shiver in his Land’s End windbreaker -- our New Jersey-born host was, like everyone else we met in Hebron, remarkably matter-of-fact. David Wilder had recently got done sandbagging the windows of his home against the Palestinian snipers who fire from the hills at night. Sometimes they shoot during the daylight hours too. But driving us around town past dagger-eyed Arab children, he seemed oblivious to the possibility of our being shot.

Each time we got out of the car to view -- for instance, a daycare center where rubber safety flooring had been installed under the jungle gym, a heartbreaking gesture to normality in the midst of deadly danger -- I looked apprehensively up at the hills. One of them is probably the site of Mamre, the district of Hebron where Abraham actually lived. Tradition records that Mamre was named for a member of the Amorite people (one of the seven Canaanite nations) who befriended Abraham when the locals were more warmly disposed toward Jews.


This morning none of today’s locals decided to take a potshot at us, and at last Wilder’s tour circled back to the Biblical patriarch’s tomb. We were at the bus stop in front of the cyclopean walls built by King Herod in the 1st century BCE. The walls enclose a mosque and the cenotaphs of Abraham and his wife Sarah, and two of their sons along with their wives: Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.

To get in, there is first of all the usual security checkpoint, where any bags you’re carrying are inspected and you pass through a metal detector. One gets used to this in Israel, but at the tomb of Abraham, called the Cave of Machpelah, the soldiers are particularly scrupulous. In 1994, an American doctor who had immigrated to Israel got the idea in his mind that Palestinians were planning a terrorist attack on the Hebron community and that the Israel Defense Force had decided to let them go ahead and kill all the Jews they wanted. Or so goes the post-mortem speculation. Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who must have lost his mind in very short order because his family recalls no evidence of madness prior to the tragedy, showed up armed at the Machepelah wearing an IDF uniform, walked right in and opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 29.

No one really knows what Dr. Goldstein’s thoughts were, for he died at the hands of the enraged Muslims before soldiers could arrest him. Whatever he intended, he succeeded in pointing up the enduring irony of Hebron. So had the Arab Hebronites done who famously rioted in 1929, murdering 67 of the 1,000 Jews then living in Hebron and forcing the Jewish community to go into exile from the city until the West Bank was captured by Israel from Jordan in 1967.


In the Bible, places like Hebron and people like Abraham have both a geographical and biographical significance and a (multilayered) symbolic one. The symbolic meaning of Hebron is hinted at in the Hebrew spelling of its name. Hebrew is a language constructed on a system of three-letter roots which carry deep meaning. The root of Hebron is ch-b-r. This can also be pronounced chibur, which means "joining" or "bringing together." The city that, of all cities in Israel, signifies the bloody division of Arabs and Jews alludes in Biblical terms to the ultimate unity.

This city that feels like an entrance to Hell is said to be the point where Earth is united with Heaven: the very portal to the Garden of Eden. The chibur alluded to in its name is also the eternal joining together of the four married couples buried here: the three patriarchs and their three wives, plus Adam and Eve, who lie in a cave perfectly preserved and surrounded by the scent of paradise.

When my wife and I entered the shrine, we were met with silence: not however the quiet of paradise but rather that of bus no. 160, a quiet of watchfulness and apprehension.


For 700 years, between 1267 and 1967, this structure was a mosque which Muslim authorities put off-limits to all non-Muslims. After the 1967 war, Israel made the place accessible to Jews and Muslims alike, though the two religions are strictly separated. We saw only the part that has been made into a synagogue.

There is, finally, not much to see. Abraham’s cenotaph is behind an iron grille. The cave, which has an outer and inner part, itself is inaccessible, which is just as well. Stories from medieval times tell of those who attempted to penetrate the underground halls that lead to the outer cave hearing strange voices, feeling a wind of unknown origin coming from below, sometimes dying suddenly or going mad or dumb. If this is the place where, contrary to all appearance today, Heaven joins with Earth, then the cave is no place for mortals.

Were it not for the Jews living there today, there would be no access to the Machpelah for Jews or Christians.

Is Hebron a place for Jews? One thing is certain. Were it not for the hardy little community living there today, there would be no access to the Machpelah for Jews or Christians. The Israel Defense Force guards the tomb of the patriarchs only because the IDF happens also to be guarding the Jews of Hebron. Take away the Jews and we return to the situation pre-1967 where non-Muslims, if they wished to pay respects to the man who introduced the world to monotheism, could climb only to the top of the seventh step outside the walls and peer through a tiny hole into the cave.

Personally, I LOVE THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST, but I’m glad there are Jews in Hebron.

David Klinghoffer is a contributing editor at National Review magazine and the author of "The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy."

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