By Jonathan Wasserlauf
The oldest Jewish community in the world can be traced back to the Israeli city of Hebron. The Torah alludes to the story of Abraham who purchased land in the Hebron area as a burial place for his wife Sarah, 3,700 years ago. This location became known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs where the Cave of Machpelah exists. The cave is considered to be the second holiest place in Judaism, after the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and is also where the Jewish matriarchs and patriarchs: Leah, Rebecca, Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all buried. King David was a notable figure in Hebron, serving as the King of Israel, and leading the city of Hebron for seven years. Throughout the Jewish revolt over a millennium later, the Byzantine, Arab, Marmeluke, and Ottoman periods, Jews maintained a continuous presence in the area. It was only until 1929 was there a “hold” on Jewish life in Hebron.
Incitement and Mass Havoc
In Hebron, approximately 67 Jewish people were brutally murdered at the hands of Palestinian Arabs, eight of these victims were American. The Palestinians were provoked to riot, kill Jews and destroy their possessions by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni. Husayni incited this violence by claiming that Jews were going to take control of Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa mosque.
Hebron’s surviving Jewish community required assisted evacuation by the British and the hundreds of years of Jewish presence in Hebron was abruptly ended Along with synagogues and homes, the Yeshiva of Hebron was destroyed. Records documenting the massacre mention some of the yeshiva students’ lives.
The American Victims
Among the victims of the massacre were eight American Yeshiva students.
Their stories speak volumes of the suffering Jewish people must continue to endure in Israel, as well as around the world. Both old and young were killed in the massacre.
Student Aaron David Epstein was only 16-years-old at the time he was killed. Aaron was the son of Rav Ephraim Fischel Epstein, from Chicago, and nephew to Rav Moshe Mordecai Epstein, the Rosh Yeshivah of the Hebron Yeshiva. During the time of his son’s death, Rabbi E. Epstein was in New York.
Rabbi Gottesman, who knew Rabbi E. Epstein, describes Rabbi E. Epstein’s reaction to his son’s death:
“The Rabbi did not weep. There was no despair in his voice. He delivered no eulogy over the dead. He spoke of the living. He spoke hopefully, prophetically. Though we cannot help mourning for the dead, he said, it is of living Jewry we must think. We have not suffered a defeat. This is only another repercussion in the explosive history of our people.
We must go on and on. It is the law and the nature of our people. And he called upon the Rabbis assembled there, and upon all Jewry, not to be discouraged, not to be downhearted, but to plan for a greater future, whatever sacrifices may be necessary.”
Haim Zelig Krasner was also only 16 years of age when his life was tragically taken from him.
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1913, Haim moved to Israel with his family in 1922. He studied at the Slobodka – Knesset Yisrael yeshiva in Hebron. During the attack on Hebron’s Jewish community, Palestinian Arabs pierced Haim’s body with daggers and knives, and then left him to suffer for four miserable hours before dying.
Zvi Froman was another Yeshiva student who met his fate that very tragic day. Born in Hamilton, Canada, Zvi’s family moved to Chicago when he was two and a half. From a young age, Zvi was considered a phenomenal student, publishing articles at the age of 15 to criticize his school’s pedagogy. Zvi studied at both the rabbinical school as well as the university. Upon his death, Zvi left behind articles written in both Hebrew and English with commentary related to the Torah and the Word of God.
Evacuation to Jerusalem
The remaining two-thirds of the community survived the brutal attack mostly by hiding. Some hid in the British police station at Beit Romano. Some Jews were provided shelter by Arab families, but many remained alive by fending off their Arab attackers for hours. Eventually, the survivors were rounded up in the British police station and confined there for three days. Prohibited from making any phone calls, the Jews were also left without food or water for the remaining wait time. Later, they were finally evacuated to Jerusalem.
It was only in 1967 did Israelis manage to reclaim a new beginning in Hebron. Labour Prime Minister Levi Eshkol led the build for Kiryat Arba, a Jewish neighborhood to be developed adjacent to Hebron.
The Tensions Continue to Run High
In 1980 four terrorists lobbed grenades and shot at a group of Jews in a Hebron alley killing six and wounding twenty. American citizens, as well as a Canadian, were killed in the attack. Years later, in 2017, Palestinians elected one of those terrorists as mayor of the Arab government in Hebron.
Hebron was divided into H1 and H2 with the Hebron Protocols in the 1990s when the IDF withdrew from approximately 80% of Hebron while maintaining military activity in the area. Although the IDF is generally not permitted from entering into H1, it still controls the area indirectly through its access points.
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Jonathan Wasserlauf is a researcher and publisher for the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, a political science major, graduate student, and founder & editor-in-chief of King David’s Journal.