Fifty years ago, Rabbi Haim Druckman rose to his feet in the Park Hotel in Hebron, greeted more than 60 guests and proceeded to lead the Pesach Seder.
The Arab owners of the hotel were told that their visitors were Swiss tourists. The hotel kitchen was koshered and the mezuzot affixed. Moshe Levinger even brought a refrigerator and a washing machine with him.
The visitors later carried Torah scrolls to the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, the site within the confines of the al-Ibrahimi mosque that is the accredited resting place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives Sarah, Rebecca and Leah.
A telegram was then sent to Yigal Allon, Israel’s Minister of Labour, announcing that the Jews intended to stay.
This Seder, in 1968, celebrated not only the exodus from Egypt but the return to Hebron, 30 years after the last Jew had left in the midst of the Arab Revolt. It was a symbol, a year after the Six-Day War, of the settlement drive in Gaza, Sinai and the West Bank.
Many of the participants in the Seder had originally been members of a faction of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, Gahelet, which had integrated “a more extreme Orthodoxy with a more extreme nationalism”. Gahelet found a home in Merkaz HaRav in Jerusalem, the yeshiva of Zvi Yehuda Kook, later the mentor of the religious settlers.
His disciples viewed the victory of 1967 as divine revelation and messianic expectation. Kook told his charges that any decision by a political leader in Israel to return land for peace would lack legal validity and would contradict a dictate of the Torah.
There were others, too, who believed that the West Bank should be retained. Menachem Begin’s nationalists never accepted partition between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs in 1947. Yitzhak Tabenkin’s Marxist Zionists of Ahdut Ha’avodah argued there would be an ongoing conflict if the feudal system was allowed to continue in Arab society — and therefore a matrix of socialist kibbutzim should be constructed on the West Bank.
Military hawks such as Ariel Sharon believed the West Bank provided strategic depth and that any invading army would be hindered by the planting of settlements at invasion routes. The literary intelligentsia — Natan Alterman, Shai Agnon, Uri Zvi Greenberg — all supported the maximalist Land of Israel movement.
Hebron, where Jews had lived for centuries, was often separated from the West Bank in the minds of many. During the 19th century it had been a centre of the Chabad Chasidim who had vehemently opposed the rise of Zionism.
But, during the Tarpat killings in 1929, there was a wholesale slaughter of families, mutilations and rapes in Hebron by Arab gangs. Sixty-six Jews lost their lives; the British police was slow in responding and many Arab notables stood aside even though some, such as the Kurdiyya family, hid their Jewish neighbours.
By 1968, there was a desire by many Israelis to return to locations where they had once lived and were forced to leave. Even the aged David Ben-Gurion argued just a few days after the end of the Six-Day War that, while Israel should not annex territory, Hebron was “the sister of Jerusalem” and an exception.
After six weeks of indecision, Levi Eshkol’s government granted permission to the Seder participants to establish a yeshiva and they were relocated to a nearby military compound. On Yom Kippur they held a service in the Cave of Machpelah. In 1970, Golda Meir authorised the construction of Kiryat Arba, an urban settlement adjacent to Hebron that is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
The first residents moved in during the following year; today it is a city of 7,000 inhabitants.
Several hundred settlers moved into the Jewish quarter in the heart of Hebron in 1979. Today, they have nearly a quarter-of-a-million Palestinian neighbours.
Many Israelis, like many British Jews, were never enthusiastic about the settlement drive and the religious fervour of its advocates. But Likud-led governments were elected by the voters primarily to protect them in such times of violence as the first Intifada of 1988, the advent of suicide bombers eight years later and the al-Aqsa Intifada in 2001. Security for their families rated above any qualms about the settlements.
The city’s Hebrew and Arabic names, Hevron and al-Khalil respectively, both derive from the same root, meaning “friend” in English. Given the continuing, often violent tensions between the two communities, it remains a name steeped in irony.
Colin Shindler is emeritus professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, University of London. His most recent book, ‘The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History’ was published by Rowman and Littlefield