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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

Remembering the History of the Jews of Hebron on the Eve of Expulsion

By Shelomo Alfassa / November 19, 2008

Over the many centuries, while the Jewish people were exiled from Eres Yisrael (the land of Israel), Hebron, like Jerusalem, retained a sparse Jewish population, fed by a small but constant stream of pilgrims. In 1166, at the young age of 31, Maimonides wrote:

And on the first day of the week, the ninth day of the month of Marheshvan, I left Jerusalem for Hebron to kiss the graves of my forefathers in the Cave of Makhpela. And on that very day, I stood in the cave and I prayed, praised be God for everything.

Jews born in the Diaspora desired to live in the holy cities for generations. From 1333 we have an account from Hakham Yishak Hilo of Larissa (Greece), who arrived in Hebron and observed Jews working in the cotton trade and glassworks. He noted that in Hebron there was an, "Ancient synagogue in which they prayed day and night." The most notable influx of Jews into Hebron and Jerusalem came in 1517, after the Ottoman Turks had taken control of Eres Yisrael. With this change in administration, came an influx of Spanish Jews from Salonika to Jerusalem and the surrounding cities. These were the Jews that had been forced out of Spain in 1492, only 25 years earlier. For those Jews-who, when in Spain, could only dream of living in the Holy Land-this was a life changing opportunity. In fact, those Spanish refugees who had been dwelling in Ottoman Salonika could now legally travel to Ottoman Palestine, where they could start a new life in Jerusalem, Hebron, or other ancient Jewish city. This would be the commencement of the influx and rebuilding of serious Jewish community life in Eres Yisrael.

During this period of great change, a certain Menahem ben Moshe Bavli, author of the book Ta'amei Ha-Misvot (The Reasons For The Misvot) migrated from Ottoman Baghdad and became one of the pioneers that settled in Hebron after 1492. With the large resettlement of Jews into Hebron in 1540, led by Hakham Malkiel Ashkenazi, the Avraham Avinu Synagogue was built. This location became a center of study for Kabalah. The synagogue was restored in 1738 and enlarged in 1864. The influx of Iberian Jews in the 16th century raised the Jewish population of Hebron to a point higher than it had been during the Roman occupation nearly 1500 years prior.

Upon making aliyah from the Italian city of Bartenura, the great 15th century Sephardic rabbi, Ovadia, wrote:

Over the Cave of Makhpela is a large building of the Ishmaelites, who regard the sacred site with fear and awe. No person, Jew or Ishmaelite, is allowed to descend to the cave; and there is a small window in the outer wall of the building, which is above the grave of Avraham, and there the Jews are allowed to pray. And in Hebron live 20 Jewish families, all of them scholars, some of them descendants of the Marranos, who came to find refuge under the wings of the Divine Presence ... I lived in Hebron for many months.

A famous scholar who migrated to Hebron was Moroccan born Hakham Avraham Mordekhai Azoulay, author of Hessed le-Avraham (1685). He also authored the Kiryat Arba' as well as an important source on genealogy and life in Fes and Eres Yisrael. Jews not only migrated to Hebron, but Hebron's Jews ventured away to other communities for the purpose of raising funds and teaching. This was the job of the Rav Ha-Kolel, the rabbi responsible for raising funds for the poor people in the community. From Casablanca to Halab (Aleppo) and from Alexandria to Mosul, they traversed the dangerous highways and treacherous seas, as emissaries of their communities.

More than two centuries ago, Avraham Ruvio went abroad to raise funds for printing a book his father Mordekhai had written. Avraham's father was the head of the rabbinical court of Hebron in the 18th century. Mordekhai had written a religious manuscript that was eventually published at Livorno in 1793, and another printed in Salonika over 40 years later. Avraham Hayyim of Hebron was born in Fes, Morocco. As a rabbi of Hebron, he traveled from community to community seeking sedaka (charity) for the Talmud-Torá (Jewish children's school) in Hebron. Sadly, while traveling on this most honorable mission in the Turkish city of Monastir (modern Greece), Avraham died.

From the Balkans came Moshe ben Avraham Ferrera of Sarajevo. Ferrera traveled to Eres Yisrael in 1823, and became head of the rabbinical court at Hebron; he died four decades later in 1864. Even though both Smyrna (Izmir) and Hebron were both considered part of the Sultan's empire, Smyrna could not compare to the holiness of Eres Yisrael for the spiritual Jew. For this reason Sephardim migrated from one location of the Ottoman Empire to another.

From the icy mountains of Macedonia to the scorching deserts of Syria, and from the Maghreb to the Fertile Crescent they came. One notable was Hakham Yosef Rafael ben Haim Yosef Hazan who had relocated from coastal Turkey to Hebron, later becoming the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.

In 1831, Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt took Gaza, Hebron, Jerusalem and other cities with 40,000 men from the Turkish Sultan. Pasha had arrived in Egypt in 1799 along with the Ottoman Expedition to drive out the French. Wanting to be an independent ruler, but couldn't, he declared war against the Sultan. Although he marched his troops as far as the Syrian cities, an internal revolt occurred. This stemmed from Pasha's order to collect firearms from the population. These measures, and others alienated, his fellow Muslims but were received with satisfaction from Jews who had always feared the armed Arabs.

In 1858, Hakham Eliahu ben Suliman (Shelomo) Mani, traveled from Ottoman Baghdad to Hebron and was elected chief rabbi of the city. He remained as chief rabbi for 40 years, passing away at the age of 75.

Hebron has been considered such a holy location, that Jews would make the precarious journey there, not just to live, but to die. From across land and sea, on foot and with beasts, Jews would journey to settle in Hebron and live out their remaining years. Historic literature demonstrates Jews emigrating from the Balkans, Thrace, Venice and Anatolia. Hakham Yehuda Havilo, the Chief Rabbi of Alexandria, emigrated north across the desert to Hebron for just this reason. Chief Rabbi and Dayan (rabbinical judge) Hakham Yosef Fintsi of Belgrade emigrated to the sacred soil of Hebron when he was elderly. For centuries, Jews have migrated to the holy land if for no other reason than to fulfill a final misva of burial there.

Hebron was a poor city throughout its time of Turkish occupation. The 1839 Montefiore Census notes that Jews were employed as silversmiths, clerks, bakers, slaughterers, but most of all, professional Torá scholars. The community was administered by the Chief Rabbi and a council of seven members. The following were chief rabbis of Hebron: Israel Sebi (1701-1731); Avraham Castel (1757); Aharon Alfandari (1772); Mordekhai Ruvio (c. 1785); David Melamed (c. 1789); Eliakim (end of 18th centurt); Hayyim ha-Levi Polacco (c. 1840); Hai Cohen (1847-52); Moshe Pereira (1852-64); Elia Suliman (Shelomo) Mani (1864-1878); Rahamim Joseph Franco (1878-1901); Hezekiah Medini (former chief rabbi of Karasu-Bazar in the Crimea, known as the Hakambashi Wakili who was the chief rabbi in 1901). Bension Koenka served as a chief rabbi of Hebron during turn of the 20th century. Prior to this, the respected Spanish sage was the head of the rabbinical court at Jerusalem.

In 1879, Haim Yisrael Romano of Constantinople constructed a large and elaborate home known as Beit Romano. The home functioned as a domicile for visiting Turkish Sephardim. The building included a synagogue, called the Istanbuli Synagogue. Today, Beit Romano houses Yeshivat Shavei Hebron, a school for young men of Hebron. Prior to 1929, Hebron possessed four Sephardic Talmud-Torás. There were three mutual-aid societies and a free dispensary for medications. During the period of British occupation of Palestine, the British expropriated the Beit Romano and used it as a police station; after the 1929 riots, the Jewish survivors were brought there.

Violence and unrest was never distant to the Jews who suffered under continued Arab coercion. On August 23, 1929, Arabs, under direction of their Islamic religious leaders (muftis), attacked the Jews with a most savage zeal wielding axes, knives, and other weapons upon the defenseless community. They not only murdered Jews, but they utilized ghastly methods of torture, including rape, castration and limb amputations. They assailed Jews throughout the holy land, from Safed to Hebron.

Scores of Jews were murdered during this gory rampage. In Hebron, the Islamic murderers killed Hakham Hanokh Hasson, the chief rabbi, and his entire family. The prominent Hakham, Yosef Castel, locked himself in his home, but Arab mobs broke in-murdering him and his family-then setting the home ablaze.

The last Sephardic rabbi in Hebron, subsequent to the 1929 pogroms, was Hakham Meir Franco, who had lost his son-in-law in the murderous frenzy. Shortly after the massacre, Hakham Franco, with a number of other rabbis, produced a small brochure in Ladino, the language of the community. It was an appeal to fellow Sephardic Jews throughout the world to assist financially in the rebuilding of the community of Hebron. The brochure detailed the destruction, and contained pictures of the synagogues and holy places before the Arab destruction. It educated the reader about the holy city where their forefathers were buried and about the ancient Jewish community. The Spanish language volume expressed urgency for help, communicating that the community desperately needed funds for rebuilding.

Partially because the British had no great love for Jews, as well as the fact the British did not want to provoke the Arab world, the British government was unwilling to subsidize the costs for a large police force in Palestine to control the Arabs. In addition, the British adamantly did not allow any independent legal Jewish self-defense force. Thus, the Jews were disarmed and had virtually no protection against rioting Arabs.

Later, in a bizarre twist of fate, the British helped the Arabs become the undeserving masters over the Jews. The British essentially sided with the Arabs and issued a set of discriminatory regulations. One restricted Jewish rights to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The riots of 1929 were investigated internationally and reported in the Hope Report. According to the report, the riots were instigated by none other than Mufti Amin al-Husseini, the same man who, one decade later, would be working hand-in-hand with Adolph Hitler to murder the Jews in Arab countries and the Balkans, during the Holocaust.

Hebron was liberated in 1967, and today has more than 600 Jews, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The city is bordered to the east by the large settlement of Kiryat Arba, whose population now reaches 6,000. Even today, attacks and murders are again the norm, not the exception. Not only are these courageous Jews constantly on the defense from the Arabs, but they continually have to defend themselves from the international media, which attempts to make them look like criminals. Hebron and all of the holy land was stolen from the Jews by the savage Romans, occupied by murderous medieval Christian armies, and more than once occupied by various power-hungry Islamic regimes.

Today, the Jews of Hebron face not only gunfire and stabbings, but also political attacks aimed at removing the city from the sovereignty of the State of Israel. The United States, Britain, and all of the European Union have officially decided that Hebron, as well as other communities in Judea and Samaria, should be turned over to the Arabs and made part of a new country, Palestine. Anyone who believes in the Torá must also believe that Hebron is, and must always be, Jewish. To find the deed to the land and to the Cave of the Makhpela, one needs to look no further than Genesis 23.

Personal Note:

At the time of this writing, the Beit HaShalom, (Peace House) of Hebron, a four-story 35,000 sq. ft. structure where Jewish families and students reside, is about to be taken by the Israeli government.

The building is owned by my friend, Morris Abraham, who lives here in the Brooklyn Sephardic community, the largest religious Sephardic community in the world outside of Israel. Morris's great-grandfather was a resident of Hebron during the 1929 pogroms. Morris had purchased the building from the previous (Arab) owner transferred all his legal rights of the building to the Hebron Jewish community. He legitimately purchased the property, has the evidence, and can demonstrate the transfer of money. The Hebron house case erupted in May of 2007, when a Palestinian resident filed a petition against 20 Jewish families he claimed had seized the house illegally. The families claimed the property had been paid for, but the court ruled they were to be evicted. According to Ynet News, the case is currently being examined by the High Court of Justice, which stated recently that even if the house had been purchased legally, the residents could still be evicted until the matter was resolved. The decision prompted Hebron Jewish residents to begin preparing for a forced evacuation.

It is my hope that the Israeli government comes to understand that the Abraham family legally purchased the property. My heart remains with the Jewish residents of Hebron and the Abraham family during this dark period.

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© Shelomo Alfassa