It is stated in the Midrash, regarding the Cave of Machpelah, that it is one of the three places where the non-Jews are not able to say that the Jewish people have stolen it from them. Ironically, today these are the very places to which we are denied our rights.
For hundreds of years, Jews were only permitted to ascend the first seven stairs outside the Cave of Machpelah. (This fact would make a wonderful entry in “Ripley’s Believe it or not.”) Any Jew attempting to go further, however important he might be, was in peril of his life. It was in 1935, that the Gerrer Rebbe made a visit to Eretz Israel and came to Hebron together with a number of his followers. He did not stop at the seventh stair but went on - some say as far as the eleventh stair. This was something unheard of to the Arabs and they started screaming. The Rebbe was not intimidated and he answered, “They ‘the shekatzim’ are permitted to go up, only we are forbidden.” The policeman at the gate roughly pushed the Rebbe, which, as to be expected, led his followers to shout and some say it came to blows. Naturally, it was just some of his followers who were arrested, brought to court and fined.
Over thirty years later, in June 1967, Hebron, including the Cave of Machpelah, was liberated by Israel. Apparently they did not have an Israeli flag with them at the time and one was hastily made by painting one on a white sheet, which was then hung up on this building by Rabbi Goren, Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Army. At that period Moshe Dayan, the then Minister of Defence, gave an order to remove the Israeli flag from the Temple Mount. Whether or not a similar order was given for the Cave of Machpelah, I don’t know.
What I do know is that in a catalogue of filmstrips brought out by Sirtonei Chinuch of Holon, very likely in March 1971, there is a photograph of the entrance to the Cave of Machpelah. At this entrance is an Israeli flag and underneath it a plaque erected by the Israeli Army. It is difficult to read the entire inscription from this photograph but what can be read says, “Open every day. On Sabbaths and Festivals entry is forbidden.” - the reason for such a closure was to prevent desecration of these holy days by Jews travelling to Hebron. This photograph was obviously taken very soon indeed after the Six Day War.
The Arabs did not like this situation of Jews being able to come in when they wanted and obviously appealed to the Israeli Government. When we were in the Memshal, Yitzchak Ganiram related to me what had transpired a few months after the Six Day War. A meeting had been arranged between the Sheikh of the Cave of Machpelah, Moshe Dayan and Rabbi Goren. Dayan then notified Rabbi Goren that this meeting had been postponed. This was in fact not true and that Dayan wanted to meet alone with the Sheikh. At this meeting between just the two of them, they agreed to severely limit Jewish rights there. Afterwards Dayan told Rabbi Goren what he had done!
The Israeli flag disappeared and a freshly worded plaque appeared with all these new “regulations.”
THE CAVE OF MACHPELAH
Rules of Behaviour for Visitors
1. Visiting is permitted from Sunday - Thursday between the hours 7.30 - 11.30 in the morning, 13.30 - 15.00 and 16.00 - 17.00 in the afternoon.
2. On Friday, Shabbat and Jewish Festivals, no visiting is permitted.
3. It is forbidden to enter this Holy Place in immodest attire.
4. Food may not be brought in.
5. Smoking is forbidden in this place.
6. It is forbidden to carry weapons.
7. It is forbidden to light candles.
You are requested to observe these instructions implicitly.
Army Chief Rabbinate
The term “visitors” meant anyone who was not a Moslem. We had therefore become “visitors” to our holy site and what is more our “visitations” were very limited. We only had a few hours each day to “visit” and when we could enter, we could not even go where we wanted to. We were totally excluded on Fridays, including the evening services for Shabbat.
This was the situation when the settlers came to Hebron. Soon after I came to the Memshal, I strongly felt that something must be done to rectify this discrimination and it needed to be done immediately. I therefore decided to establish a “Movement for the Restoration of Rights to the Jews in the Cave of Machpelah.” I opened a bank account, with Gershon Elinson being the second signatory, opened a post office box number 65 at the Hebron Post Office and had a rubber stamp made.
Let me use this opportunity to say something about the postal situation in Hebron at that period. In the centre of the town was the only Post Office in the city. The settlers opened a Post Office Box, which had the number 25. Each day someone would have to go this post office to collect our post and take any outgoing letters. To my recollection, the staff of this post office did not read Hebrew and so, were one to send a letter to someone else in Hebron addressed in Hebrew, it would go to Jerusalem and then return to Hebron! To the Arabs, and possibly leftist Jews as well, there was the touchy point of how to address a letter sent from abroad. To write “Hebron Israel” would be heretical! To write “Hebron Jordan,” it might end up in Amman. The wise men solved this problem by writing “Hebron via Israel.”
Our movement also made considerable use of this Post Office in our extensive publicity. My first aim was to publicise the situation then existing with the Cave of Machpelah. It was obvious that very few Jews were aware of the discrimination practiced against Jews in this Holy Place. I thus wrote out a one page sheet headed “The Rights of Jews and Arabs in the Cave of Machpelah.”
After an introductory historical paragraph, I went on to detail the differences appertaining to both Arabs and Jews there. The Arabs had unlimited access of days, times and also freedom of movement over the entire place. They had the sole manager, the sole keys and could do what they liked there - even the funerals of terrorists. The Jews were limited in time, days and place, had no keys nor manager and could perform no ceremonies there - not even a Brit Milah.
I concluded by asking, “What are we able to do about this?” and then answered that all this occurs because the general public is unaware of what is happening. We therefore need to campaign and pressure the authorities for the return of Jewish rights to this Holy Place. I concluded by asking for donations to finance such a fight.
At the time I was still going once a week to Bar Ilan University to give a course of lectures. I utilised my presence there to ask them to run off 1,500 copies of this sheet. I then sent a copy off to all the newspapers, various Members of the Knesset and other personalities.
Almost all the Hebrew papers in Israel (including the left wing “Davar”) published my letter. I also translated it into English to send to the “Jerusalem Post.” Here I had a slight technical problem. The only typist in the Memshal who could type Latin characters was French, and not knowing any English could not understand what she was typing. I therefore, to “ease the pain,” wrote it out in capital letters. Even so, she still made a few typing errors and I added a note “Please excuse the typing since my typist does not know English.” This paper published my letter, after they had restyled it.
Since we did not receive all the Israeli newspapers in the Memshal, I asked Dr. Meir Levinger whether he could help by looking through the papers in the Bar-Ilan library and letting me know where and when my letter had been published. This he gladly obliged.
Often the filing cabinet for sheets of this sort is the waste paper basket. However here I was gratified to see that a number of the personalities to whom I sent this sheet, replied to me with a personal letter. One of them was Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, the Rosh Yeshivah of Mercaz Harav, in which he wrote of the disgrace and shame of our situation in the Cave of Machpelah. Rabbi Waldman informed me that Rabbi Kook had asked him whether he knew me. It seemed that he was a bit puzzled by the fact that the settlers’ post box number was 25, whereas the Movement’s was 65 and he therefore thought that there may be no connection between the two. Rabbi Waldman informed him that of course he knew me and that I was one of the settlers.
I also received a handwritten letter from David Ben-Gurion in which he wrote, “I am glad that there are Jews who want the return of Jewish rights in the Cave of Machpelah but we should remember that also the Arabs are sons of Avraham Avinu.”
One of the Members of Knesset, Mordechai Stern, even invited me to the Knesset and over dinner, we discussed this question. Another Knesset member, Shlomo Cohen-Tzidon, using the material I had provided him with, raised this matter in a Knesset debate.
As to be expected, I was not exempt from my share of abusive letters - I received two, both of them in English. The writer of one of them did not even have the courage to sign his or her name. The letter read, “... It seems that you want troubles with the Arabs in Hebron. You can serve best our state and our people by keeping quiet. We have enough trouble even without your kind help.” The second letter, at least gave a name but no address beyond writing Tel-Aviv. She wrote, “I am from the debth [sic] of my sole [sic] ashamed that crazy fanatic people like you came to live again to ‘liberated’ Hebron. ... Will a boy be a better man, if his Brit Milah is in front of the Grave of Abraham? ....”
It was on Chol Hamoed Pesach 1969 that the settlers arranged an exhibition in the Memshal. I utilised this opportunity to distribute my original sheet. The Military Governor saw this distribution going on and told me not to do it within the precincts of the Memshal. He saw it as criticism of the Military government and presumably as an army man, regarded criticism as “rebellion.” Rather than have a whole argument with him about democratic rights and freedom of expression, I went just outside the main gate and continued the distribution, this time undisturbed.
It is hypocritical to talk about limitations of your rights, if at the same time you don’t utilise your limited rights. Applying this principle to this case, you must put your feet where you mouth is. In others words, despite the long walk, go down every Shabbat morning and organise a service. It was indeed about this time, that Rabbi Levinger said that we needed to strengthen services in the Cave and so each week a group of us would go down there. On one Shabbat morning as we were going in, the soldier at the gate jokingly called after us, “Don’t smoke and don’t take photographs.”
To have a Shabbat morning, or indeed any service, one requires the necessary religious appurtenances. Fortunately and with great foresight, after the liberation of Hebron, Rabbi Goren had placed an Ark and Sefer Torah in the Abraham Hall of the Cave. I don’t think Moshe Dayan liked this but Rabbi Goren insisted that it remain. To read from the Torah, one needs a table, and in the summer of 1968, one of the settlers had gone there with a small table together with a note signed by a “non-existent” person to allow him to take it in. This ruse succeeded.
Yom Ha’atzmaut 1969. Just as Israeli flags were hung everywhere in Israel, I decided they should also be hung in the Cave of Machpelah. That morning when we went down to pray in the Isaac Hall, I took down with me a very large flag and a string of flags. The large flag I draped over the tomb of Isaac and the string of flags I attached to the barrier preventing Jews going to the southern edge of that hall.
The soldiers on duty there must have immediately notified the Military Governor, since soon afterwards he arrived and took down the flags. When he asked who had put them up and I told him that I had done so, he reminded me that he had told me just a few weeks earlier not to distribute leaflets in the grounds of the Memshal. Shalom Goldman had been present at the time with his camera, but whilst the Military Governor was removing the flags, he was saying the Amidah and was thus unable to photograph these actions. Someone did however manage to take a photograph of the string of flags which I had hung up and I hope that someone still has this photograph for posterity.
Rabbi Levinger had not arrived when all this had happened, but when he learned about it, he told us to bring another flag to hang up. The soldiers at the gate must of got wind of this, since they then started checking packets being brought in. However one settler managed to “smuggle” in a flag in his Tallit bag. After the service, the settlers started dancing with the flag. Enter the Border Police. They started hitting the settlers and snatching away the flag. Afterwards the Military Governor returned the flag to Rabbi Levinger. One of the settlers, put the flag in a bag with a label and said it should be kept as an historical object. Who now has it, or even if it exists today, I don’t know.
This incident did not end here. It was reported in the papers. In one of them “Hechazit” there was a cartoon of people fighting over a flag together with a quiz, the answers to which were supplied upside down: Who are the policemen? Which flag is it? Who are the protesters? Where did this occur?
In addition, a question on this incident was asked in the Knesset to Moshe Dayan, the Minister of Defence by Avraham Taier. In his answer, Dayan said “There is an agreement and procedure of visits and prayers at the tombs of the forefathers at certain hours.” As I commented to Rabbi Levinger at the time. Until then Jews were just “visitors.” Now at least, we were being recognised as “worshippers” as well. As a result of this “flag incident” we had advanced!
We were holding services every Shabbat and Yom Tov morning. We then saw a problem looming ahead. That year (1969) Shavuot occurred on a Friday, the day when the Cave was traditionally closed to Jews. Knowing well the Military Government, we were sure that they would exclude us that Shavuot. I thus tried to get in first by writing a letter to Rabbi Goren asking that we be allowed to hold a service on the morning of Shavuot, but I received no answer. The Cave was indeed closed to Jews that Shavuot.
I did not let it rest at that. I brought out a sheet entitled “Shavuot and the Cave of Machpelah” in which after summarising the “decrees” against Jews in this place, informed the public of what occurred on Shavuot and asking why the Israeli government refused to allow Jews to pray there on that Festival. Several newspapers published my sheet as a “Letter to the Editor.”
As I have stated elsewhere, that summer “The Times of Israel” wrote a series of articles on our settlement, the first one being on the Cave of Machpelah. Permit me to quote some extracts from this article:
“In 1969 we, the descendants of Abraham, ought to be digging up the descendants of Ephron and demanding our money back. For it turns out we were swindled. We don’t really own Machpela at all. According to the Israeli government, we are merely ‘visitors’ there, spiritual squatters at the sufferance of our Arab Landlords....
“.... unrestricted Arab use of the premises apparently includes the right to shout curses, issue cat-calls, and create a general disturbance while Jewish services are in progress.
“Israel Government authorities have refused to permit the performance of a Brith Mila at Macpela on grounds that it would disturb Arab sensibilities. Yet, these same authorities have looked the other way when the bodies of suspected Arab terrorists are paraded in solemn ceremony before the Ark at the cave....
“The first Jewish ‘closing-hour’ at Machpela is at 11.30 a.m. The soldiers assigned the job of hustling Jewish worshippers off the premises obviously had little stomach for the task. They told the TIMES OF ISRAEL reporting team that they were confused and pained by an order that violated every moral and religious precept they’d been taught. These are the same young men who were ordered to tear down the flag of their country after it was raised over the Cave of Machpela on Independence day and then turn their rifle butts on fellow Jews. The scars left by this unprecedented act are still fresh among soldiers and Jewish civilians alike.”
A few months later in October 1969, an article appeared in “Yediot Acharonot” headed “The Jews forgot that the Cave of Machpelah is first of all a Mosque - so said Sheikh El-Muchstab, Chairman of the Supreme Moslem Council....” I immediately answered this “profound observation” by the Sheikh with a “Letter to the Editor” which was published a few days later:
“If there were prizes awarded for Chutzpah, Sheikh El-Muchstab would receive the first prize for his comments on the Holy places. He says ‘After the occupation [following the Six Day War] the Jews began to discover all sorts of new holy places.’ Like all Arab propagandists, he forgot to provide further details. Perhaps the Sheikh would like to inform us of which places he is referring to. He also says that ‘But they (the Jews) forgot that the Cave of Machpelah is first of all a Mosque.” It would seem that he received his education on the Cave of Machpelah from the booklet ‘Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi’ which was published by the Supreme Awqaf Council which forgot to mention that the Cave of Machpelah was a Holy place of the Jews and a place of prayer of the Jews more than two thousand years before the birth of Islam and that it was stolen from the Jews when Eretz Israel was conquered by the Moslems.”
I should mention that I found copies of this booklet in the settlers shop as soon as we got possession of it. It was published in Al-Khalil (Hebron) in 1964 and was priced at 250 fils. It is entitled “A Brief Guide” - so “brief” that Jews are never mentioned in it! The booklet is about twelve pages long and includes many photographs (of poor quality) of the inside and outside of the Cave. One of the photographs shows a patterned wall and amongst the shapes is, (obviously by chance) one which resembles a Magen David. Even this was obviously too much for the publishers, since they added a line through it, as if to cross it out!
As if all this discrimination against the Jews in the Cave of Machpelah was not enough, the Arabs did contemptuous things against the Jews there. In the autumn of 1969, I brought out a sheet to publicise these matters:
It was not generally known what went on inside the Cave on Fridays when it was completely “out of bounds” to Jews, including soldiers: I pointed out in my sheet that there were times when I had managed to “break bounds” and enter on that day. What I saw had shocked me. The Arabs had thrown the curtain which hangs in front of the Ark on top of the Ark.
Furniture was also strictly forbidden to Jews (like in front of the Western Wall during the period of the Mandate!). We did manage to take in the tiniest of stools for the person doing Hagba’at HaTorah to sit on. On one Shabbat it was missing; the Arabs had put it in, of all places - the toilet!
The Arab manager would bring in visitors to the same place and at the same time as we were praying. As if Jewish prayers did not deserve respect!
I concluded this sheet “The Knesset has enacted laws to punish those who desecrate Holy Places, but the Government has done nothing against Arabs who disturb Jews in the Cave of Machpelah. Who is the Government afraid of??”
I sent this sheet up to the newspapers and a number, including “Ha’aretz” published it.
Publicity is important, but it needs to supplemented by other actions. It was at the beginning of 1970, that I decided that the time had now come for the next stage in our fight - legal action against the Israeli Government. I chose the lawyer Elyakim Haetzni, who had been associated with the settlers from the outset, to act for us. In February of that year, Haetzni spent a Shabbat at the Memshal and I utilised the opportunity to meet with him after Shabbat. We discussed the matter together and we agreed to invite Gershon Ellinson and Yitzchak Ben-Hevron to join with me as parties in the law suit we were planning to take against the Government. These two then joined us at the meeting and we all gave Haetzni a Power of Attorney to act on the question of bringing in chairs into the Cave of Machpelah.
Haetzni wrote to Moshe Dayan, the Minister of Defence. He began by pointing out that his clients were regular worshippers at the Cave and that Ben-Hevron sometimes brought his elderly father there. Since there were no seats, everyone had to stand - this was not by chance; it was by order of the Military Government. The absence of chairs was degrading, physically uncomfortable and discriminated against the Jews. He demanded that Dayan instruct the Military Governor to permit the taking in of chairs and that it should be done immediately. If not - his clients had already instructed him to take legal action.
Replies Moshe Dayan; this is nothing to do with me - write to the Prime Minister, Golda Meir. Haetzni sends a similar letter to Golda Meir. Replies Golda Meir; this is nothing to do with me - write to Moshe Dayan.
Haetzni then writes to both of them pointing out that there is obviously some mistake! They took Haetzni’s threat seriously, since a few weeks later, we were quietly told that we could take in seats. A few months earlier, Eddy had made benches for the Bet Hamedrash, but they were very heavy and unsuitable for that place. For the Cave of Machpelah they were ideal, their weight and cumbersome nature would make them difficult for the Arabs to move around! We can see that the Heavens above had decided that benches of such a design be made!
On erev Pesach, we took in these benches and placed them in the Abraham Hall. When we next went to the Cave, we tried to move them into the Isaac Hall for our service, but the soldiers stopped us.
Seven weeks later was Shavuot, and we received permission to spend the night studying in the Cave of Machpelah. I decided to use this opportunity to “smuggle in” a shtender. Since it was Yom Tov, there was no problem in carrying outside. By that time, we were in possession of the building near the Cave and so on erev Yom Tov, I took a shtender from the Yeshivah and left it in this building. That Shavuot night, I calmly walked into the Cave carrying the shtender. Had I been challenged, I would have said that it was “just for that night” - but no-one said a word. When we left, the shtender remained in the Cave of Machpelah and no-one in authority ever commented on it.
Some months later was Yom Kippur. I decided to use the Festival to take in more furniture. We loaded on the tender two more heavy benches. We dreaded having to lug this heavy furniture up all the stairs to the Cave, but our worrying was premature. When we arrived at the steps, the soldiers on duty called to some Arabs in the area and told them to carry these heavy benches into the Cave. We also at the same time brought in another Sefer Torah - this we of course did not give an Arab to bring in! There was no reaction to these additions.
Chanukah soon came. Why should we not light Chanukah candles in the Cave of Machpelah? I went down with Menachem Liebman and Meir Peretz and we lit them. I should mention that the Arabs continually light candles at the Cave. About a couple of days later, I was just about to travel, when I received a message that the Military Governor wanted to see me. He had sent a similar message to Menachem and Meir. We all went there and he began telling us off for going against regulations and lighting candles. We pointed out to him that the lighting of Chanukah candles was part of the prayers and also, I think we pointed out, that if candles were forbidden, then they should also be forbidden to Arabs. He concluded the meeting by saying that he would pass our names over to the police. Well over thirty years later, I am still waiting for the police to call me for questioning!
Since we were requesting money from the general public, I felt it right and proper to hold a general meeting of the donors and present them with a financial and general report. They were accordingly notified in writing of a meeting in the Memshal, but no-one turned up. At least we had done our public duty.
There is much to be written on the history of the Cave of Machpelah after the period of the Memshal, but this is outside the scope of this book. On the occasion of the half jubilee of the Six Day War - in 1992 - I brought out a booklet containing thirty pages of documents on the fight for Jewish rights in the Cave of Machpelah during the period of the Memshal. Photocopies of the original documents are thus available for all to peruse.