The Rabbi Who Recaptured Hebron (Special for Hayyei Sarah)

The Torah reading this Shabbat, Parashat Hayyei Sarah, details Abraham’s purchase of Ma’arat HaMachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron. In light of the political climate regarding jurisdiction over Hebron, it is worthwhile to read Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s firsthand account of the battle to reclaim Hebron and the Arabs’ surrender to the Israel Defense Forces. At the time, Rabbi Goren served as a general and the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli army. In his autobiography, With Might and Strength, Rav Goren recalls the excitement and hurdles of being the first Jew to open the gates of the Maarah in more than a thousand years.

***

I decided to be there when the IDF liberated Hebron. I thought there would be a big battle, like there had been everywhere else, because if the legion had fought for Bethlehem, they would fight even harder for Hebron, which was a large city. I reached Gush Etzion at 1:30 a.m. There were armored corps units, a company of jeeps, infantry, and all the otherforces that we would need, except for the air force.

Lt. Col. Tzvika Ofer and the forces with him were planning to set out toward Hebron at six o’clock in the morning.

As part of the preparations for going into battle, I asked the commander if I could speak with the soldiers. He answered in the affirmative and said he would assemble his entire brigade at three o’clock in the morning. At the appointed hour, the soldiers assembled on a small hill near the vehicles and the commander handed me a megaphone. This is what I said to the soldiers:

Dear soldiers, today we liberated our nation’s Holy of Holies   in Jerusalem – the Temple Mount and the Kotel.  Tomorrow, we are going to liberate the second-holiest city in Eretz Yisrael. You are going to liberate the Jewish people’s city of the patriarchs, which is the foundation of the Kingdom of David. King David ruled for seven years in Hebron before he ruled in Jerusalem. You are going to fight against the worst and wildest murderers. They carried out the pogroms all over the country and killed 164 fighters right here, where we are now, after they surrendered and laid down their arms. There is no absolution for that! Know how to behave with them and in the name of the Lord, take action and succeed, and go from victory to victory! From the victory in Jerusalem and Judea to the victory in Hebron!

As dawn approached, the soldiers started organizing for their departure. At 6:00 a.m. I went out onto the road to look for Tzvika Ofer’s battalion, but I didn’t see anyone there. I thought they might already have left, but the line of tanks was still there. I thought that perhaps he had taken the first tank and gone toward Hebron to get there first. I told my driver that we should advance toward Hebron, regardless of what the battalion was doing. There was my vehicle and the Military Rabbinate jeep that escorted us. On the way we met the battalion’s reconnaissance company and passed it. We turned on our vehicle’s siren and everyone let me pass.

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Rabbi Shlomo Goren and IDF soldiers affixing a homemade Israeli flag to one of the entrances of the Tomb of Machpela, June 8, 1967. (www.hebron.org.il)

Suddenly my driver said, “Rabbi, we’re the first ones here. There are no soldiers ahead of us. The entire brigade is behind us. We could get stuck in Hebron alone, and who knows what they’ll do to us.”

“Drive on,” I told him.

When we drew closer to Hebron, I saw white flags waving over all the houses along the way. I realized that there was no war here. There wasn’t a single Jordanian flag, so there was nothing to fear and no reason to be afraid – we were entering Hebron as victors, without a war and without having fired a single shot.

“There’s a Jordanian flag flying from the third floor of one of the houses,” my driver said as we drove past Ĥalĥul. “They might fire on us.” “Take the Uzi and cover me,” I said. “I’m going up there to take down the flag.”

My driver said they might kill me, so he would go.

“You’re still young,” I told him. “You still have to build a home and a family. I’ve already lived my life. I’ll go up, and whatever happens, happens.”

One of the drivers accompanied me to the second floor, and from there I went up to the third floor. I reached the flag and took it down.

Salaam Alaikum,” I said to the tenants. I took the flag and they didn’t say a word.

We advanced toward Hebron, and when we entered the city we saw that all the houses along the main road were festooned with white sheets, hung from all the balconies. The Hebron municipality and the military forces in Hebron had decided on a self-imposed curfew and ordered that no one leave their homes. I wanted to inform them that the IDF had already conquered Hebron, even though at this stage the IDF force was only me and the jeep.

There was a podium in the middle of the city, where a policeman usually stood, directing the traffic. I mounted the podium, took the Uzi and fired a whole magazine of bullets into the air, to notify the residents of the city that the Israel Defense Forces was inside the city and that we had captured Hebron.

My declared goal had been to be the first to reach the Cave of the Patriarchs. In my mind’s eye I still saw the incident that I told you about – regarding my visit to Hebron back when I was engaged to Tzfia, how we reached this place and the Arabs’ reactions to our arrival, and about the British policeman who suddenly appeared, like the prophet Elijah, and saved our lives.

I saw an Arab boy of about sixteen or seventeen, standing at one of the windows. I called out to him to come down to me.

“Where is the grave of our Avraham Avinu (that’s what the Arabs called the Cave of the Patriarchs)?” I shouted up to him, but he replied that he was afraid to come down because of the curfew; he wouldn’t be able to get back home. I promised him that my driver would bring him back, and the boy agreed to show us.

We reached the site and began to climb the stairs toward the gates on both sides of the building, at the top of the two staircases. I climbed to the top of the staircase on the north side, where everyone prayed, and saw that the gate was locked.

Ifta el-bab!” I shouted in Arabic. “Open the gates!” I heard voices inside.

Mefish maftuah,” they said. “We don’t have a key.”

If they don’t have a key, I thought to myself, how did they get inside? I knew there were people in there, and that the gates were closed from the inside with bolts. They had thirty-six keys, and they were holding onto them. I began firing hundreds of bullets at the gates, but they didn’t budge. To this day you can see the holes I made in the gates, which the Arabs call “Rabbi Goren’s holes.” (Years later, the Arabs tried to fill in the holes so that there would be no trace of our liberation of the Cave of the Patriarchs. I phoned the governor of Hebron and he sent an officer to stop the holes from being filled in.)

For three hours, we tried to break down and open the gates, but without success, until I heard the sound of a tank approaching the site. That was the first tank that entered Hebron, and it was adorned with an improvised flag – a sheet on which the soldiers had drawn a blue Star of David. The soldiers had taken the flag from David’s Citadel. Here’s what had happened:

During the liberation of Jerusalem there was no flag to hang  on David’s Citadel. A Jewish family from England lived nearby, and the wife gave a white sheet to the soldiers and told them they could draw a Star of David on it. At first, this improvised flag was hung on David’s Citadel, and after several hours it was taken down and hung on the tank that would be the first to enter Hebron and reach the Cave of the Patriarchs.

There was a small flagpole on the main gate in front of the Cave of the Patriarchs. We drove the tank up against the wall beside the gate, and from there I climbed up onto the tank’s turret and hung the flag at the entrance to the compound. Many pictures of me hanging that flag were later published in Israel and around the world.

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“We drove the tank up against the wall beside the gate, and from there I climbed up onto the tank’s turret and hung the flag at the entrance to the compound.”

We wanted to break through the gate to the Cave of the Patriarchs. Despite the hundreds of bullets I had fired, we had not managed to dislodge the gate. When the tank arrived, I saw the soldiers had a crow bar. My driver and I put the bar into the gate and worked it off its hinges until the gate fell to the ground and we could enter the Cave of the Patriarchs. We saw two Arabs inside, so scared they were trembling like a lulav, and one of them was holding the dozens of keys to the gate – even though they had shouted to me from inside that they didn’t have any keys. My driver went over to him, took the keys, and we went into the Cave of the Patriarchs, where I blew the shofar.

I took the sefer Torah that I had brought with me and read the weekly portion of Ĥayei Sara, which relates how Abraham bought the Cave of the Patriarchs from the sons of Ĥet. It was still early in the morning and we were able to daven Shaharit there. That was the first time, after more than a thousand years, that Jews were inside the Cave of the Patriarchs.

We tried to figure out a way of closing the Cave of the Patriarchs so that soldiers would not come and plunder everything that was there – expensive carpets and other valuable items. It was impossible to reinstall the gates after we had forced them off their hinges, because the gates were very heavy. In order to safeguard the site, even temporarily, I called over one of the two Arabs who had been inside and had not allowed us to enter, and gave him a piece of paper on which I had written the following order:“I hereby order any soldier visiting the Cave of the Patriarchs that he not enter without instructions from an officer.”

Furthermore, the officer had to sign that if he entered with a group of soldiers, he was responsible for the property in the Cave of the Patriarchs; nothing could be removed and the soldiers must not damage the carpets or any of the valuables.

While we were inside the Cave of the Patriarchs, a messenger arrived from the mayor’s secretary and told us that the mayor wanted to come to the compound to surrender and hand Hebron over to me. I told him that I could not accept his surrender inside such a holy place; he should wait at City Hall and I would come to him. I told him that it was sufficient for a lieutenant colonel to accept the surrender, and that a brigadier general such as myself was not necessary.

goren-with-might-and-strength

By the time we had davened and I had blown the shofar, it was about eleven o’clock in the morning. I decided to go to City Hall to see Mayor Ali Jabari. When we arrived there, the mayor and the qadi of the Cave of the Patriarchs were already there – as were the municipal secre­taries and our interpreters and the IDF interpreter who accompanied battalion commander Tzvika Ofer – and they had prepared a statement of surrender in Arabic. I said that until I understood what was written there, we would not sign.

The municipal secretary translated the statement of surrender into English for me, and it did not include anything about unconditional sur­render. I tore up the statement and told the secretary, “You write what I tell you, word for word.”

This is what I dictated:

I, Mayor Ali Jabari, on my own behalf and on behalf of the members of the municipality and on behalf of all the residents of Hebron, surrender unconditionally to the commander of the Israel Defense Forces who is in charge of the city, and commit to accepting all the directives I receive from authorized IDF personnel, without objection and without hesitation, and to fulfill them.

After he read this in Arabic, I asked the mayor and the qadi to sign the draft and to make a copy of it. I took the first one and signed it. Ali Jabari asked me for a gift, as a memento, and I gave him a copy of the Prayer Before Going into Battle, which I had had printed up in thousands of copies. I signed the back and wrote, “So let all Your enemies perish, O Lord” (Judges 5:31).

***

After we completed the surrender ceremony, we discovered that our car had been left unlocked and someone had stolen all the rolls of film of all the photographs we had taken throughout the war.

We decided to return to Jerusalem. By then, it was Thursday afternoon. On the way out of Hebron we returned to the Cave of the Patriarchs and I reminded the Arab in charge of the site that until he received different orders from the IDF, any Jew who wanted to enter the Cave of the Patriarchs should be allowed in, but on the condition that an officer accept responsibility for the property – that nothing would be removed or damaged.

On the return trip to Jerusalem, we met Moshe Dayan, who was on his way to Hebron. We flagged down his car and I told him about what we had done at the Cave of the Patriarchs, about the statement of surrender and the order I had given to the Arab who was in charge of the compound. Dayan said that I had done well and agreed with everything. He did not object to the fact that we had hung up a flag…

As soon as the battles died down on all the fronts, the war was declared over, and we began sending soldiers back home, my thoughts turned to the fate of the Cave of the Patriarchs. I was afraid that Moshe Dayan was planning to return this site to the Muslims. The previous Thursday night, in the middle of the night, I had already decided to take the aron kodesh and the sefer Torah that were in my office at General Staff headquarters and move them into the Cave of the Patriarchs, in order to create a fait accompli. I went there in the middle of the night with my assistants. We opened the gate and installed the aron kodesh and the sefer Torah inside the Cave of the Patriarchs. The qadi must have had a few spies who notified him of our arrival, because at 2:00 a.m. he suddenly turned up at the compound, but he didn’t say a word. He knew very well that I had taken command of the site and there would be no point in challenging me. I told him that I was closing the Cave of the Patriarchs to Arab worshippers for a month, because I was going to bring in the engineering corps to repair and renovate the site. We put all the carpets away in a storeroom in the Cave of the Patriarchs and replaced them with plastic sheeting. I told the Arabs that they could pray in the outer hall, where the Arab women used to pray.

At first I wasn’t sure where to set up the aron kodesh. I felt that the largest hall, Ohel Yitzĥak, looked too much like a mosque. There were quotes from the Koran on the walls and a place for the muezzin, and it didn’t feel right to me to hold the regular services at the Cave of the Patriarchs in a place so permeated with symbols from the Koran. I therefore decided to put the aron kodesh in the hall that leads into Ohel Yitzĥak. Even though that hall is smaller, it is more suitable for prayer services. I brought siddurim and Ĥumashim, too, and all the basic fur­nishings for a synagogue, and I set up the aron kodesh such that it would be clear to all that this was the way it would remain. It was a miracle that I managed to get there in the middle of the night and get everything set up, otherwise, this place would not be under Israeli control today and we would not be able to daven there.

A few days later, the Knesset held a festive luncheon that was essentially a victory celebration for all the IDF generals and senior commanders of the Six Day War. In the middle of that event, Moshe Dayan suddenly came over to me and said, “Rabbi Goren, I handed the management of the Cave of the Patriarchs over to the qadi of the Waqf.”

I was outraged and astounded that he would do such a thing.

“Who gave you the right to do that?” I asked him. “Is it your pri­vate property?”

“That’s what I decided!” he replied, and said there were three things I had to do (afterward I also received a letter to this effect from the chief of staff, by order of the defense minister): 1. Take down the flag I had hung there, because the site is an Arab mosque and an inappro­priate place for the flag; 2. Remove the aron kodesh and the sefer Torah, because the site is not a synagogue for Jewish prayer services; 3. Issue an order that any Jew who wants to go to the Cave of the Patriarchs can go only as far as the seventh stair, and pray there, or if he wants to go inside the Cave of the Patriarchs, he must remove his shoes, because he is entering a mosque.

When I heard this, I was so angry that I exploded.

“Do you think you can hand over the Cave of the Patriarchs to the Arabs?!” I shouted. “It’s a holy site for the Jewish people! This is the burial place of the fathers and mothers of our nation; this is where the kingship of the House of David began. This is what our soldiers have been fighting for. Who gave you the right to relinquish all that and give it to the Arabs?”

I left the luncheon in a rage. Later that day, I went to Dayan’s office and told him, “This cannot go on! I held my peace when you gave the Temple Mount to the Muslim Waqf. I should have raised a hue and cry at that point, and I’m sorry that I didn’t. But this time it won’t happen. The entire Jewish People will curse you forever. You will be the most accursed man in Jewish history if you do this thing. You will go down in history as a terrible disgrace.”

I said that to Dayan, and immediately turned around and left his office. He had a habit that when he issued orders that the generals didn’t like and they wanted to meet with him and voice their objections to the orders, he would let them say their piece and not utter a word. After they finished with everything they wanted to say, and were stand­ing by the door, he would tell them, “You will do what I want, and not what you want,” and the generals could not say anything more, because the conversation was over. I did not want him to say that to me, so I just left immediately.

I also told him explicitly: “Regarding the aron kodesh and the sefer Torah, I will disobey the order and will not remove them. As for the flag, I won’t fight with you – the flag is no holier to me than to you, and I believe it should stay, but if you send an officer to remove it, I won’t oppose him. Regarding the aron kodesh and the sefer Torah, however, and the matter of removing shoes – I will fight those with all my might and will make sure that anyone who cares deeply about them will fight you over this decision.”

In addition to everything I said to Dayan, I also wrote an angry letter, lambasting his decision. I did not hold anything back, and the let­ter made a difference. [See With Might and Strength for the full text of the letter.]

The following day, I received a letter from Chief of Staff Rabin, stating that the defense minister had ordered that the first directive regarding the flag remain in effect, but that the implementation of the other two directives – regarding the removal of the sefer Torah and aron kodesh from the Cave of the Patriarchs, and the requirement for any Jew enter­ing the site to remove his shoes – had been postponed until further notice. My letter had had the desired effect and the decree had been rescinded.

 For more from Rabbi Goren’s autobiography, see With Might and Strength, now available online and at your local Jewish bookstore.

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