“So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Jacob set up a pillar over her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day.” (Genesis 35:19-20)
Thousands of Jews flooded Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem on Friday morning, the day before her Yahrtzeit (the anniversary of her death), in a clear and poignant reaction to the Palestinian resolution passed by UNESCO on Wednesday, declaring it a Muslim religious site. The actual anniversary is on the Sabbath, the 11th day of the Hebrew month Cheshvan. It is customary for worshippers to visit the site at this time, though Arab violence makes this dangerous and in extreme cases, notably during the 2000 intifada, Israeli security closes the site to Jews.
The multitude arriving today were not permitted to enter the city, but were instructed to park at Gilo Junction at the south end of Jerusalem, and shuttle busses transported them 500 meters to the holy site.
Yesterday, in preparation for the event, the IDF placed massive concrete barriers to separate the compound from the city that surrounds it. Hundreds of policemen are deployed for the duration. Thousands of visitors are also expected Saturday night and Sunday.
The UNESCO resolution established Rachel’s Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron as Muslim religious sites. The resolution also attempted to make the Western Wall a Muslim holy site as part of the Temple Mount, putting it under the auspices of the Waqf, but this part of the resolution was rejected by the UNESCO General Director, Irina Bokova.
The recent violence in Israel originally focused on the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem, but has spread to the other holy sites, including Hebron, and the Tomb of Joseph, which Arab rioters have burned to the ground twice in recent weeks.
Rachel’s Tomb has special spiritual significance in the conflict that has recently exploded in Israel. According to Jewish tradition, Rachel, unlike the other matriarchs was not buried in Hebron because Jacob foresaw that following the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews would be exiled to Babylon. They would cry out as they passed her grave, and be comforted by her. She would intercede on their behalf, asking for mercy from God who would hear her prayer. According to the Zohar, when the Messiah arrives, he will lead the dispersed Jews back to the Land of Israel, along the road which passes Rachel’s grave.
The Palestinian claim that led to the UNESCO resolution is that it is the burial site of Bilal bin Rabah, a close companion of Mohammed. The Muslims have been claiming this only since the early 1990’s, and there is another site, Bab al-Saghir in Damascus, Syria, that claims to be his burial place. According to Muslim tradition, Bilal bib Rabah was never in Israel.