From the leftist Israeli media you would never know that 50,000 Jews celebrated Zionism in Hebron on the weekend.
Despite the intense focus on Israel’s ongoing political stalemate, the Israeli media has found plenty of room in recent days to run lengthy features on food, music, sports, shopping and social gossip.
This includes the victories of Tottenham, Manchester and Liverpool in the British Premier League, another visit to Israel by Quentin Tarantino and the pregnant Daniela Pick, a comedy show in Tel Aviv by Louis CK, Sasha Baron Cohen’s attack on Facebook, oodles of advice about where and whether to buy cellphones on Black Friday, instructions how to baste your Thanksgiving turkey, Miri Mesika’s tell-all magazine cover story, and much excitement about the upcoming seventh annual Solidarity film and Jacob’s Ladder music festivals.
But Israeli media found little reason to cover the biggest festival of the month – the largest-ever gathering in at least 2,000 years of Jews in Hebron, last Shabbat (Nov. 22-23), to mark the anniversary of Abraham’s purchase of the Jewish People’s first piece of land in Israel, the field and cave of Machpela.
Perhaps 50,000 (!) Israelis and Jews from around the world camped-out in downtown Hebron adjacent to “Me’arat HaMachpela” (the Cave of Machpela or Tomb of the Patriarchs), to celebrate the “Chaye Sarah” Torah reading, which tells the story of Abraham’s negotiations over a burial plot in that city for his wife, the matriarch Sarah.
Of course, the importance of Hebron in Jewish tradition and nationalism is broader than the spiritual legacies of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah – all of whom are buried in Hebron according to the Biblical record. King David’s throne was established in Hebron, and he ruled there for seven years before moving his capital to Jerusalem.
Moreover, the Jewish community of Hebron – which had been in place for centuries – was massacred and expelled by Arab rioters in 1929, making the return of Jews to Hebron over the past 40 years a matter of principle and pride.
With Hamas the predominant political force in Hebron today, the presence of a small Jewish community in the city (100 family-strong) is especially dicey; thus, doubly important for Jews with strong Zionist-nationalist leanings.
Jewish “resettlement” in Hebron is a way of pledging allegiance to the Providential powers behind the Jewish return to Zion, and a way of defying Israel’s enemies who deny any deep Jewish rights in the Land of Israel.
Indeed, then-Israeli ambassador to the UN Chaim Herzog formally entered the Biblical passages of Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpela into the UN record, and circulated the Jewish People’s Abrahamic “deed” to the Land of Israel as an official document of the General Assembly. That followed passage in 1975 of the UN’s infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution, and the Islamic Conference’s 1976 “outright denial of all Jewish associations with the city of Hebron, both religious and historical.”
MY FAMILY AND I were privileged to participate for a third time in the uplifting celebration in Hebron this past Shabbat. It was a hoot: A cross between Uman and Woodstock, Rosh Hashanah and Purim, a solemn prayer gathering and a community street party.
Tens of thousands of people camped-out in tents and trailers adjacent to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and on every sidewalk and in every parklet; and tens of thousands of other revelers were hosted in nearby Kiryat Arba. The crowds were so thick that at times it was hard to walk down the main street that connects the scattered Israeli-held properties in Hebron.
Even at the early hour of 8 am on Shabbat, I couldn’t get into Me’arat HaMachpela for morning services; it was already filled to capacity. So I joined one of at least 100 different prayer quorums on the outdoor plaza under old olive trees, in glorious sunshine and festive atmosphere, reading the Torah portion about Abraham and Sarah, while meeting friends from around the world.
Chabad hosted 6,000 paying guests for each of the three Shabbat meals in gigantic tents outfitted with chandeliers; which is said to set a record for the largest-ever Shabbat meals.
The pilgrimage encompassed many types of Jews: religious and secular, haredi and national-religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Israeli and Diaspora, city dwellers and settlers, many large families, the elderly and the young, (mostly) mainstream and (some) fringe types. A potpourri of Am Yisrael.
It was a transcendent experience.
My delight in the proceedings is amplified by a profound family connection to Hebron. My late father-in-law, Rabbi Yitzhak Pechman, founded The Hebron Fund in America, and raised the funds behind many projects built in Jewish Hebron since then. Residents and leaders of the Jewish community of Hebron still speak in reverence of him.
In fact, the entire concept of designating Shabbat Parashat Chaye Sarah as a special weekend focused on Hebron was his idea; first marked in 1980 in American synagogues alongside a “Chai to Chevron” fundraising campaign, with “shares” in rebuilding Hebron sold for $18 per brick.
Rabbi Pechman would have been amazed and overwhelmed with joy to see how his fledgling “Shabbat Chevron” initiative in America has today become a powerhouse display of belonging and loyalty to Hebron in Israel.
BUT AS MENTIONED, Israeli media almost completely ignored the mass gathering in Hebron this past weekend. It just wasn’t “deserving” of coverage; especially not when compared to news of rock concerts or Black Friday sales. Even a nationalist newspaper like Yisrael Hayom devoted a mere paragraph (one paragraph!) along with two tiny, stamp-sized, photos to the gathering in Hebron. (The Jerusalem Post published nice, but short and colorless, stories, before and after the weekend).
Only Haaretz gave more prominent coverage to “Shabbat Chevron”; but this was to disparage and denounce the event. As it does every year on the Sunday or Monday after Parashat Chaye Sarah, Haaretz charged “the radical settlers” in Hebron with violence against Palestinians, from rock-throwing to pepper spray attacks. And the paper spewed-out its usual scolding about the “masses of settlers” forcing Palestinians into a near-curfew in their homes for two days.
I didn’t witness any Jewish violence in Hebron this weekend (except for some drunk youngsters mildly harassing other Jewish visitors), and my reading of the crowd puts 99% of the Jewish pilgrims into the normative category of law-abiding and respectful people. The only violence I heard about, witnessed by one of my sons, were two Arab men throwing chairs and bottles off a rooftop at Jews on the street below, which caused the police to close off an alleyway for one hour.
But of course, Haaretz has a narrative of “settler violence and dispossession of Palestinians” to uphold – a stale and generally false narrative – so the paper always seeks to highlight the “evils” of Jewish celebration in Hebron.
Instead, Haaretz might have reported on the unique and successful space-sharing and time-sharing prayer arrangement between Jews and Moslems that pertains in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. (For ten days a year, including Shabbat Chaye Sarah, Jews have use of the entire complex; for ten holy days a year, Moslems pray exclusively in the complex; and for most of year, Jews and Moslems share/partition the complex). How right and appropriate it would be for such a respectful arrangement to be introduced on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount too!