One of the central cities of the Bible, Hebron, has remained a tension point for millennia, depending on the perspective; a fact that is owed to Hebron’s denomination as one of the four holy cities of Israel, along with, of course, it being the burial place of Abraham. Yet, while in Jerusalem, Tzfat and Tiberius (the three other holy cities) walking around feels like a trip to the past, or a visit to a magical, liminal space which seems to demand recognition as such, Hebron takes the other extreme and shows the reality of modern Israel in its struggle with its current significant issue: the cousins of the Jews, the Palestinians.
Of course, that is not to say that this conflict is what best summarizes Hebron. Indeed, I wasn’t able to experience 97% of Hebron for the simple reason that it remained closed off to me. Even though 20% of the city is mandated to the Israelis, only 3% percent has been allotted to the development of homes for Jewish citizens. Following decades of legislative battles, and bloodshed, these powder kegs are primarily located along the city’s eastern border, near the Maharat HaMachpelah, or ‘Cave of the Patriarchs’, one of the holiest sites in Israel, that which has determined Hebron to be a focal point of trouble. This is the only area accessible to Israeli civilians within Hebron.
The cave itself, in which the great patriarchs and matriarchs, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeccah, Jacob and Leah are buried, is considered the second holiest site in Judaism, after the Temple Mount. It is located under a huge enclosure dating back to the time of Herod, now split 20(synagogue)/80(mosque). The tomb itself is sealed, for the most part. Seeing as a hand grenade thrown down the staircase leading into the tomb of the progenitors of three major world religions, the decision seems justified; in the words of the first Israeli to freely enter the holy place, Major General Rabbi Shlomo Goren, “This place, Maharat HaMachpela, is a place of prayer and peace.”
With this knowledge in mind, a tourist might be surprised to see how pleasant the interior of the complex is. After walking through a checkpoint and heading up the immediate staircase, you are greeted by the picture of an ordinary synagogue, it’s placement being the only reason for its notoriety. After putting on a kippah and walking through a couple of halls, you would hear the soft snores of a student weary of his studies, farther along, you would begin to see the markers of the graves of these great ancestors. We did not manage to see all the sites seeing as we weren’t there during the ten days where Jews are permitted to visit the entirety of the enclosure. What I felt from the experience was a sort of wandering outside of the Holy of Holies, or being aware of a membrane that separated the mundane from the spiritual. The basis of that idea, I suppose, would simply be the tombs beneath us, and the legends surrounding them; a famous one being the story that Adam and Eve also were buried there, and deeper down the tomb would be the Garden of Eden. In fact, during the occupation by the Christian Crusaders, Benjamin of Tudela made a pilgrimage to the tomb and recorded the six sepulchers as well what he called the house of Abraham, with a spring in front of it.
As it is now, this impenetrability of the cave has garnered an almost messianic fervor amongst certain sects within Judaism that believe that the retaking/resettlement/conquest (whichever term can be suitable for such a sensitive topic?) is a national duty that will usher in the new age. Religious Jews, in general, would find the notion difficult to evade, for how can they escape the spirits of their forefathers? In turn, Palestinians and Arabic organizations have realized the importance of the place, as Muhammad had by announcing, ‘He who cannot visit me, let him visit the Tomb of Abraham’. Both groups living within the city see the other’s position as irreconcilable, and ever since the establishment of Israeli presence in the area, flare ups, riots, murders and protests would occur regularly, and continue to do so to this day.