Jewish descendants of Hebron

Dear friends,

I'm happy to report that the article below appeared today on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Feel free to post it further.

Thank you, Gila Svirsky

Philadelphia Inquirer: Page One


They Are Kin of the Jews Ousted in 1929
By Alan Sipress

RA'ANANA, Israel -- Yona Rochlin pages through the thick Hebrew volume, caressing the history of her beloved Hebron. She pauses at a black-and-white photograph of a man with spectacles and a long white beard, her grandfather's grandfather, the renowned Elijah Mani, posing in the turban and embroidered robe of an honored rabbi.

After generations of peaceful coexistence, Rochlin's family left Hebron in 1929, just before anti-Jewish hatred erupted into Arab riots that left 67 Jews dead. Now she and a growing corps of the city's Jewish descendants are renewing their links with Hebron.

Their aim is not to reclaim the West Bank city. Instead, after years of anonymity, they are reasserting their heritage in the face of militant Israeli settlers who moved into Hebron's ancestral Jewish homes after 1979.

``The settlers were holding the history book of Hebron for 30 years,'' Rochlin, 45, said. ``All of a sudden, we came out of the pages. It must be a nightmare for them.''

These descendants have launched a publicity campaign contesting the right of the 450 current settlers to speak in the name of the former Jewish community. They are demanding instead that the enclave be plucked from the heart of Hebron, a city of 120,000 Palestinians.

The settlers live in a portion of Hebron that remains under Israeli army control after a partial troop redeployment in January. None of the settlers is descended from the earlier community. Some are American, and many others are not native-born Israelis.

``The settlers are a loaded bomb that can blow up peace altogether,'' said Yair Keidan, 46, whose father was born in Hebron. ``We're not talking about Zionists. We're talking about lunatics, radical fanatics.''

After centuries of exile, Jews started returning to this biblical city in the 13th century. By the 15th century, they had begun to flourish under Ottoman rule.

The community reached up to 1,500 by the mid-19th century, when the revered, Baghdad-born Rabbi Elijah Mani arrived. For more than 40 years, he served as chief rabbi, expanding Hebron's Jewish institutions and winning respect among the Arab population as well.

When he died in 1899, hundreds of Jews and Arabs attended his funeral, according to Rochlin, a former employee of the airline El Al who now lives in the comfortable Tel Aviv suburb of Ra'anana. She beamed as she told the story of her ancestors. She said the Muslims so honored Elijah Mani that they tried to declare him a local saint.

Other Jewish descendants were raised on similar tales of harmony between the Arab and Jewish populations.

But as the competing nationalisms of Jews and Arabs gained steam in the 1920s, relations between the groups soured. In 1929, an Arab mob massacred Jewish neighbors and ransacked their homes. Scores of survivors fled the city.

Amnon Birman, 48, a Jerusalem newspaper columnist whose mother was born in Hebron, recalled that his great-grandfather, Jonah Tsarfat, saved the family in 1929. A rabbi and mystic, Tsarfat had a dream on the night before the violence that he should journey to the port of Jaffa and bathe his wife in the sea there to cure her of rheumatism. They set out before the riots began.

These descendants do not deny the horror of the 1929 massacre, but they are enraged at the settlers. They accuse the settlers of exploiting the massacre's memory while fostering anti-Arab violence, most notably the 1994 shooting of 29 Muslim worshipers by settler Baruch Goldstein in the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

But Rochlin's family, as well as those of other descendants, chose not to move back. Their homes subsequently were taken over by the followers of militant Rabbi Moshe Levinger.

In 1979, Levinger's American-born wife, Miriam, led 40 women and children -- in a move unsanctioned by the Israeli government -- in a predawn foray to occupy Hebron's Beit Hadassah building, which has since emerged as the center of the Jewish enclave.

Rochlin thumbed through her thick history book and arrived at a copy of an Ottoman land record showing that part of Beit Hadassah was registered in the name of Rabbi Suleiman Menachem Mani, her great-grandfather.

Moshe and Miriam Levinger later moved into another home in Hebron's Avraham Avinu complex. According to Birman, that home once belonged to his great-grandfather.

``We, the moderate people on the Israeli side, are hostages in the hands of these fanatical people, these trigger-happy people,'' Birman said, warning that the settlers were likely to instigate violence inside Hebron to torpedo the peace process.

While Birman and his colleagues want the settlers out, these descendants are not bent on regaining their family homes. They say claiming Jewish property inside the West Bank could set an awkward precedent, encouraging Arabs to reclaim their ancestral property inside what is now Israel.

Birman, who called that prospect ``very dangerous,'' noted that his house in the Bakaa neighborhood of West Jerusalem belonged to Palestinians until they fled during the 1948 war.

So far, a petition calling for the settlers to be evacuated from the West Bank city has gained the signature of about 40 Hebron children and grandchildren.

Rochlin, a sponsor of the campaign, readily admits that some Hebron descendants sympathize with the settlers. In truth, two generations after the Jewish community was banished from the city, Hebron's offspring have come to reflect the whole range of views in Israeli society.

But the three-month-old publicity drive, including media interviews and advertising, has drawn attention in Israel, creating unexpected opposition against the settlers.

Rochlin, Keidan and several other descendants have garnered even more attention by meeting in recent weeks with Hebron's Palestinian mayor, Mustapha Natshe, and touring the city with PLO Police Commander Jibril Rajoub.

This cooperation has been sharply criticized by the Hebron settlers. Noam Arnon, a settler spokesman, accused the descendants of ``bizarre activity to justify those who killed the Jewish community in 1929.''

Arnon said the settlements had received the support of some Hebron offspring and now were home to several relatives, though no direct descendants, of those who previously lived in the city. He accused those involved in the petition drive with being agents of ``fanatical movements who want to destroy the Jewish existence in Hebron.''

``This is just a small group of leftist activists,'' Arnon said. ``They do not represent anything.''

The petition campaigners hold out little hope that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would heed their call and remove the Jewish settlers.

But if the homes are evacuated, several descendants have urged that they be dedicated as a museum commemorating the old Jewish community and a cultural center for Jewish-Arab understanding.

``I can give my house as a present for peace,'' Rochlin said. ``I don't want my son to be killed over my grandfather in Hebron.''