The Cave of the Jewish Matriarch and Arab Cultural Appropriation

This weekend, Jews around the world will read the weekly portion of Chayai Sarah, the Lives of Sarah.

The story is told in Genesis chapter 23 of Abraham buying a plot of land in Kiryat Arba (Hebron) to bury his wife Sarah. Verses 10 through 20 relay the story of Abraham’s negotiation to buy the land from Ephron the Hittite. The transaction represents the first purchase of land recorded in the Bible, cementing God’s earlier promise of the holy land to Abraham in hard fact.

Sarah is a particular and divisive character in the Bible. In her attempt to protect her only son Isaac, Sarah demanded that Abraham send away his first son Ishmael whom he had with another woman. God tells Abraham that the familial divide is a good idea, to follow Sarah’s suggestion and send Ishmael away, and that each son will grow to become a great nation. Sarah’s son Isaac would have progeny who would become the Jews, and Ishmael’s children would become the Arab nation.

Abraham would ultimately be buried next to his wife Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah which he bought for her, as would Isaac and his wife, and Abraham’s grandson Jacob and three of his four wives/ maidens. The family burial chamber became one of the holiest locations for Jews (second only to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem).

Medallion of Cave of Machpelah on the roof of the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem
(photo: First.One.Through)

Roughly 1,700 years after the Jewish matriarchs and patriarchs were buried, King Herod built a large building on top of the cave (around 2,000 years ago). The building remains very similar to the structure he built at that time.

But Jews would ultimately lose control of their holy site. When the Arabs invaded the holy land in the 7th and 8th century in their wave of bringing Islam to the world, they took over Herod’s edifice. While all of the people buried in the location were Jews, the Arabs claimed the entirety of the site due to their connection to Abraham. The Arabs barred any Jew from entering the building for over 1,000 years.

That changed in 1967.

After Jordan illegally annexed the city of Hebron/Kiryat Arba in 1950, they attacked Israel and lost the city in 1967. With the Jewish State assuming control of the city, it allowed Jews – and all faiths – to return to the building to visit and worship.


The Cave of the Jewish Matriarchs and Patriarchs is the site of the very first Jewish burial. It contains the remains of six of the seven original Jews (the seventh is located in the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem). It has been a pilgrimage site for Jews for thousands of years.

But the Arab and Muslim invasion stole that legacy. Over their thousand plus-years of control, the Muslim Arabs attempted to strip the site of its Jewish heritage and turned the building into a mosque. The capstone of their cultural appropriation was banning all Jews from the site.

That is now in the past.

The Torah portion of Chayei Sarah will be read by thousands of Jews in Kiryat Arba this weekend, in a celebration reclaiming history, land, holy site and Jewish rights which had been robbed from Jews for generations.


Related First.One.Through articles:

It is Time to Insert “Jewish” into the Names of the Holy Sites

Joint Prayer: The Cave of the Patriarchs and the Temple Mount

The Journeys of Abraham and Ownership of the Holy Land

The United Nations and Holy Sites in the Holy Land

Shabbat Hagadol at the Third Hurva Synagogue, 2010

The Cancer in the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Squeezing Zionism

The Long History of Dictating Where Jews Can Live Continues

The New York Times will Keep on Telling You: Jews are not Native to Israel

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Joint Prayer: The Cave of the Patriarchs and the Temple Mount

This weekend, thousands of Jews from around Israel and other parts of the world came to the Cave of the Patriarchs in the city of Hebron. The annual tradition of visiting the city on this weekend goes back many years, as it coincides with the reading in the Torah of Abraham buying land to bury his wife Sarah, the “first mother” of the Jewish people.

The Cave of the Patriarchs is considered the burial place of almost all of the “founding fathers and mothers” of Judaism 3700 years ago: Abraham; Isaac; Jacob; Sarah; Rebecca and Leah. As such, it is considered the second most holy site in Judaism (on par with Medina for Muslims).

Roughly 2,000 years ago, a monumental structure was built on top of the cave, attributed to the Jewish King Herod. Over the following centuries, many people conquered the city of Hebron. About 800 years ago, the Muslim Mamlukes took over the city and declared the Tomb of the Patriarchs to be a mosque and forbade Jews from coming beyond the seventh step of the structure.

caveofpatriarchs
The Cave of Jewish Patriarchs in Hebron

When the Ottomans ruled Hebron from 1517 to 1917, there was relative peace between the Arabs and Jews in the city (even though the Jews were forbidden from entering their holy site). However, in 1929, Arabs rioted against their Jewish neighbors after incitement from the Grand Mufti in Jerusalem. During those few days in August, 67 Jews were killed, hundreds were injured, and the British (who then controlled the mandate of Palestine) forced all of the Jews to leave their city.

In 1967, in response to the Jordanian (and Palestinian) attack on Israel, Israel captured Judea and Samaria, including the city of Hebron. When Israel took control of their holy site, it opened the shrine for prayer for both Jews and Muslims. Today, there are discreet times set aside for each religion to use the site for prayer.


In 2014, the discussion about opening the Temple Mount in Jerusalem – Judaism’s holiest site – to non-Muslim prayer has again been raised due to the shooting of Jewish activist Yehuda Glick who fought for that basic right. The acting-President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas was outraged at the suggestion and described such approach as amounting to a “religious war“, as the al-Aqsa Mosque, which sits on the Temple Mount, is Islam’s third holiest site. While Glick and many other activists never suggested praying at or near the mosque, but on other parts of the 35 acre platform, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nevertheless agreed to keep the status quo ban on Jewish prayer on the mount.

On the tenth anniversary of Yaser Arafat’s (fungus be upon him) death, Abbas stated: “The leaders of Israel are making a grave mistake by thinking that history can move backward and that they could impose facts on the ground by dividing the Aksa Mosque in time and space, as they did with the Ibrahimi Mosque [Cave of the Patriarchs] in Hebron.

In Hebron, Israeli action at the Cave of the Patriarchs opened the way for both Muslims and Jews to share holy sites in the holy land. The Temple Mount could similarly become a place of tolerance and prayer.

 


Sources:

Pilgrimage to Hebron: http://unitedwithisrael.org/thousands-flocked-to-hebron/

Cave of Patriarchs: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/machpelah.html

1929 Hebron massacre: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/hebron29.html

Jordanian and Palestinian 1967 attack on Israel (from King of Jordan’s site): http://www.kinghussein.gov.jo/his_periods3.html

Abbas claim of religious war: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/11/abbas-israel-jerusalem-holy-site

Palestinian Authority TV on call to “purify” Jerusalem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1gIetnpxH0

Abbas against any change in allowing Jews on Temple Mount: http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Jailed-Barghouti-to-Palestinians-Continue-armed-resistance-against-Israel-381454

FirstOneThrough article on tolerance at the Temple: https://firstonethrough.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/tolerance-at-the-temple/