A Spiritual Night in Hebron

The first thing you discover about the residents of Hebron, whom the world derisively describes as settlers, is their warmth, friendliness and hospitality.
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Israel is a magical country, but to experience one of its greatest wonders you have to travel out to what the world calls the West Bank and the Bible calls Judea and Samaria. There, its crown jewel is the city of Hebron, first capital city of the Jewish people and where its patriarchs and matriarchs are buried.

Many Jewish and Christian tourists to Israel skip Hebron, declaring it too dangerous, and indeed four Israelis, including a pregnant woman, were killed there just two weeks ago with another two shot this week. But terrorists dare not determine whether visitors to the Holy Land make pilgrimages to Judaism's holiest sites, and besides, terrorists incidents have declined dramatically and the city, comparatively speaking, is safe.

The first thing you discover about the residents of Hebron, whom the world derisively describes as settlers -- as if Jews living in their own ancient capital are newcomers -- is their warmth, friendliness and hospitality. I arrived with twenty guests and our host, a wise and dedicated communal activist named Yigal, prepared a feast fit for a king. We ate in his Sukka, surrounded by a tranquility and quiet that I, in my busy life, rarely experience. The night air was cool and energizing.

All around us children were playing, utterly carefree, on pristine playgrounds. So many Jews in Hebron have been killed in terror attacks over the years. Yet the residents in general, and the children in particular, live unafraid. They are also liberated from hatred. When their friends die -- as did the four two weeks ago -- they mourn them, bury them, commemorate them, and get on with their lives. There are no calls for revenge attacks, there are no mass demonstrations braying for Arab blood. Their response, rather, is to demonstrate, in the most peaceful manner, that they are there to stay.

For nearly a thousand years, the Islamic rulers of the Holy Land forbade Jews from entering the tomb of the patriarchs and matriarchs, allowing them to climb only seven steps into the tomb but beating them mercilessly if they rose any higher. When Israel captured the tomb in 1967, Jewish pilgrims came to Hebron, swearing never again to be separated from their origin. As my host explained, even amid the worst terror attacks, property values never decline. There are no fluctuations in the commitment to pray by the graves of those who gave the world monotheism.

Yet these residents have been demonized by the entire world. They face daily character assassination in the media by those who would decry their simple desire to walk in the footsteps of Abraham. World leaders regularly engage in extreme defamation of families whose only wish it is to raise their children in the Judean hills of King David. President Obama rises at the United Nations and calls for a further moratorium on building in the settlements as if it's a crime for peaceful people to have children and add rooms to warm and hospitable homes.

Abraham, at whose tomb I prayed with my children tonight, is the father of all peoples, Jew and Arab alike. The Arabs are my brothers, equal children of G-d in every respect. And Arabs and Jews must learn to live peacefully together in the land. Neither group should be asked to abide by a moratorium that stifles the natural expansion of either population. It is not the spiritual-seeking settlers who threaten the peace, but rather the murderous groups of Hezbollah and Hamas, who wish to make all of Israel judenrein.

I spent time tonight in Hebron talking to the brave Israeli soldiers -- eighteen to twenty years old -- who patrol the streets of Hebron to protect the Jewish population from further slaughter. It is a sad commentary on some of my Arab brothers and sisters who live in Hebron that soldiers should be needed to protect children at playgrounds. Yet the soldiers have no rancor in their heart. Indeed, many of them were telling me how they never wish to make the Arab population feel intimidated by their presence and are given strict orders never to appear overbearing. Their mission is not to enforce an Israeli hegemony but to simply stop Jews from being targets.

Just a few yards from the spot where Shalhevet Pass, a ten-month-old Israeli infant, was famously shot and killed by a Palestinian sniper while sitting in her stroller in March, 2001, I danced with my children to celebrate the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

The streets of Hebron were alive with joyous residents dancing to the music of a Jewish mystical hippie band whose flowing locks and mesmerizing music brought gladness to my heart. I was uplifted and joyous to be dancing in a city that in 1929 saw the massacre of 67 Jews and the destruction of nearly all the synagogues and Jewish buildings. I felt alive and utterly free of fear.

Could it really be that a community who simply wish to live aside the earthly remains of Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, are obstacles to peace? Are 800 Jews in Hebron such a criminal incitement to the 100,000 Palestinians who surround them? And is it fair to characterize religious individuals who have a love for children and large families, and who live without material extravagance or opulence, as irritants?

But don't take my word for it. The next time you're in Israel, come and immerse yourself in the city chosen by Abraham as the eternal resting place for a wife he so loved to forever rest in peace.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of 23 books and was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium. As host of 'Shalom in the Home' on TLC he won the National Fatherhood Award and his syndicated column was awarded the American Jewish Press Association's Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. Newsweek calls him 'the most famous Rabbi in America.' He has just published 'Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.' Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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