Heroes, Hoodlums and Homes in Hebron

Earlier this week, the cabinet passed a welcome decision that was long overdue. For the first time since 2002, the government approved the construction of 31 Jewish housing units in Hebron, thereby allowing the city’s Jewish community to continue to grow.

That it took 16 years to grant permission to Hebron’s Jews to build is remarkable, for it underlines how successive governments have failed to muster the requisite courage needed to fortify and expand the Jewish presence in the City of the Patriarchs. There is simply no reason it should be so difficult for Jews to build in the place where our founding father, Abraham, lived and was buried.

But perhaps more importantly, the cabinet decision underlines the perseverance and determination of Hebron’s Jews, whom the international media and much of Israel’s Left continuously vilify without end. For despite all the challenges they face in living in a city that is largely a hotbed of Palestinian hostility and terrorism, their heroic dedication to resettling one of the holiest cities in the Land of Israel is something that should inspire us all.

Recall that over two decades ago, under the terms of the Hebron Accord signed with the PLO, the city was divided. About 80% of it was turned over to Palestinian control and is known as H1, while the rest, referred to as H2 and home to nearly 1,000 Jews and tens of thousands of Arabs, is governed by the Israeli military.

To get a sense of the belligerence of the local Palestinian population, one need only look as far as the man they chose to elect as their mayor, Tayseer Abu Sneineh. A prominent member of Fatah, Abu Sneineh was one of four Palestinians who took part in a terrorist attack in Hebron on May 2, 1980, in which he and his comrades opened fire and tossed grenades at a group of yeshiva students who had just returned from festive Shabbat evening prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Six young Jews, including two American citizens and a Canadian, were murdered, and 20 others were wounded.

Though Abu Sneineh and his cohorts were captured, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, they were subsequently released in a prisoner exchange.

Last year, 37 years after he spilled innocent blood, Abu Sneineh was rewarded by Hebron’s Palestinian electorate with a resounding victory in the mayoral contest. What does it say about a society that elevates convicted murderers to positions of power?

In contrast to Hebron’s Arabs, who prefer to honor hoodlums, the city’s Jews embrace heroism instead. And in that sense, it is only fitting that the new Jewish homes approved by the government are located in the Hezekiah Quarter of Hebron, which is named after the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Hayyim Hezekiah Medini.

Popularly known by the name of his monumental 18-volume halachic encyclopedia, the Sdei Hemed, Medini was born in 1833 on the seventh of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, almost exactly 185 years to the day before the new neighborhood in his memory was approved this week.

The Sdei Hemed grew up in Jerusalem and earned acclaim at a young age for his scholarly prowess and vast knowledge of Torah. Medini was 20 when his father died, after which he and his family went to Istanbul, where a relative supported him while he devoted himself to teaching.

As his fame spread, he was invited in 1866 to Crimea, where he spent 33 years as a rabbi, building a strong community and opening a yeshiva. But the Sdei Hemed never forgot the Land of Israel, and longed to return to it. When he made known his decision to make aliyah, his followers pleaded with him to stay, but the Sdei Hemed was adamant, telling them simply, “Nothing stands in the way of Eretz Yisrael.”

He moved back to Jerusalem, where he resided for two years before taking up the position of rabbi of Hebron, establishing a yeshiva, serving as a rabbinical judge and even earning fame among the local Arab population, who viewed him as a holy man. Just three years later, Medini died on the eve of Hanukkah in 1904, and was buried in Hebron’s ancient Jewish cemetery, where people still visit his grave.

The story is told that when organizing his encyclopedia in alphabetical order, the Sdei Hemed noticed that the first entry in Hebrew would be the term “avelut,” which means mourning. Nonetheless, even though it should have come later in the volume, he placed the entry for Eretz Yisrael first. Asked about this by a prominent rabbi, the Sdei Hemed replied, with characteristic passion, “Eretz Yisrael comes before everything else.”

That legacy and the love for the land which he embodied, will now live on in the Hebron Jewish neighborhood that will bear his name.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post

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