On Thursday night, Joshua Wander, a resident of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem went to the Cave of the Patriarchs, Judaism’s second holiest site, and was shocked to see that all vestiges of Judaism or Hebrew were removed, leaving him to pray in what he described as “essentially and ostensibly a Mosque.”
Wander was in Kiryat Arba, the modern Jewish city adjacent to the ancient currently mostly-Arab ancient city of Hebron. He was participating in the memorial ceremony for Hallel Ariel who was murdered by a Palestinian in her parents’ home two years ago when she was twelve years old. Wander was accompanied by a friend from overseas who had never visited the Cave of the Patriarchs so, on a whim, they decided to pay a late-night visit to the holy site in order to pray Maariv (the nighttime prayer service). To their horror, there were no vestiges of Judaism at the site. The large arks containing the Torah scrolls were being moved outside and the thousands of Jewish holy books were nowhere in sight. Everything Jewish, anything with Hebrew, had been locked away in preparation for the following day, the last Friday of Ramadan.
“I didn’t only feel like I was in a mosque,” Wander told Breaking Israel News. “I was in a mosque where anything Jewish would be violently destroyed. I didn’t even feel like I was in Israel.”
Noam Arnon, the spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, told Breaking Israel News that the removal of Jews and Judaism from the site is prearranged, taking place at set points throughout the year.
“Ten days are solely Jewish and ten days are solely Muslim,” Arnon said. Arnon explained that each religion is given time alone for specific holidays.”But the situation is far from equitable.”
He explained that the compound is religiously segregated for security reasons.
“Three-quarters of the area is strictly Muslim and one-quarter is for Jewish use,” Arnon said.”Christians are permitted access to both areas.”
The structure was built by King Herod in the first century BCE and is the oldest prayer structure that has been in continuous use. It stands on the piece of land purchased by Biblical Abraham as a burial site for his wife, Sarah.
The Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are buried there, as are the matriarchs Sarah, Rivkah, and Lea. The shrine marking Rachel’s burial site is in Bethlehem. Under the Byzantines, the shrine was shared by Christians and Jews. In 614, the Persians destroyed the Christian structures and the Herodian Jewish structure became a mosque. In 1100 CE under the Crusaders, the structure again became a church and Muslims were not permitted to enter. In 1188, Saldin reconquered Hebron and in 1300, Jews and Christians were forbidden from entering. This ban continued until 1967 when Israel conquered Hebron in the Six Day War and the site became accessible to all religions.
Just like the Temple Mount, the holiest site to Judaism, the Waqf (Muslim religious authority) is the custodian of the site but unlike the Temple Mount, Jewish and Christian prayer is permitted. One year ago, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared it a heritage site, exclusively Muslim, endangered by the “Israeli occupation.”
“For 700 years, the holy site was under Muslim rule Jews and Christians were forbidden from entering the site,” Arnon said. “In 1967, people from every religion were able to pray in the site. But there still is a prejudice against Jews and Jewish worship. Anytime the Muslims have the site to themselves, they cause damage that needs to be fixed. Of course, we have to remove anything Jewish or any reminder that Hebron is part of Israel. Otherwise, it would surely be destroyed or lead to violence. Two years ago, the mezuzot were stolen and presumably destroyed. They were replaced with mezuzot that are nearly impossible to remove.”
“I firmly support the rights of every man to worship as he sees fit but not at the expense of another person’s rights,” Arnon said. “And certainly not if it is used as an excuse to incite terror.”
“The building was built by a Jewish king at the time the Jewish Temple stood but it has been covered with Arabic and Muslims symbols,” Wander said. “It is horrifying that any Jewish presence we have there, at a site that Abraham bought, has to be temporary, easily removed.”
“It is absurd that at our holy sites in Israel we have to hide any signs of Judaism,” Wander said. “If Muslims want us to open the site to them, it shouldn’t be opened to the Muslims who are full of hatred for Jews.”