Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Terra Incognita: Hebronites at the gate

Seth Frantzman
01/25/2011 22:49

Scholars and writers tend to ignore the fact that most of Arab Jerusalem is not one homogeneous society, is in fact partly composed of people from Hebron.

Hebron, then, produces a favorable impression on the whole. It is green and living, its hills are clad with vines, with plantations of olives, pomegranates, figs, quinces and apricots.”

So Israel Abrahams, a distinguished English Jewish scholar, wrote in 1911. Today’s visitor to Israel would be deviating greatly from the norm if he could tell of a trip to Hebron; it is a city seldom seen by tourists.

Hebron always had a negative reputation in traveler’s accounts. This although it contains the second holiest site in Judaism – the burial place of the patriarchs and their wives (the Cave of Machpela). For a city whose name in Hebrew and Arabic comes from the word for friend, it has been decidedly unfriendly. The Byzantines built a church atop the Jewish tomb, and the Persians destroyed that church in 614. In 637 a mosque was built at the site. The Crusaders threw out the Muslims in 1100 and turned the place into a church. The Mamluk Sultan Baibars forbade Jews and Christians from entering the holy site in 1260.

Up until the 19th century the city enjoyed a reputation as a place full of people ill disposed toward foreigners, especially Christians and to a lesser extent Jews.

Sir Moses Montefiore was confronted by a mob when he attempted to enter Hebron in 1838. Abrahams wrote that “the children throw stones at you, but they take good care not to hit [you].” In 1929 the city was the scene of a massacre of Jews, and in 1936 the last Jewish families were evacuated by the British, not to return until after 1967.

BUT WHAT is interesting is not merely the return of Jewish life to Hebron but the fact that since the 1930s, there has been a rigorous Hebronite Arab immigration to Jerusalem. Some Arab writers see the immigration not as a natural demographic phenomenon but a political one. With the rise of Zionism the Hebronites, according to a writer known as S. Rami at, came to Jerusalem to strengthen it as a Muslim city; “Palestinians started moving to Jerusalem – mainly from Hebron – to protect the city from Zionist designs... [it] was a step in the right direction for enhancing the place of the city as a proud Muslim one.”

The reason that Hebronites should be so good at bringing more Muslim character to Jerusalem is that they have a reputation for being pious. David Roberts, the 19th-century English traveler, characterized them as “among the most violent bigots even of Mahometanism.” The Palestine Post reported that in 1935 they came in great numbers to Jerusalem as part of the Nebi Musa parade (once an annual Muslim pilgrimage to the alleged grave of Moses in the Judean Desert), and that “anti-Jewish cries” were heard. A 1934 article noted that Hebronites in Jerusalem had founded a youth club, and in October 1947 they founded another “club of their own.”

The aim of this Arab Reformation Club was to “educate the Hebronites not to start quarrels with Jerusalemites” for fear of blood feuds. A 1944 article noted that a gang of thieves from Hebron was operating in the city.

During the 1948 War of Independence, several Hebronites were killed in battles in Jerusalem, and many more took refuge in their native city. However, even in this period they had begun to acquire property in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Rami, who lauds their contribution to the demographics of Jerusalem, claims that the majority of the city’s 230,000 Arabs have their origins in Hebron. Danny Rubinstein, the Haaretz writer on Arab affairs, noted in 2001 that “Arab Hebronites who came to Jerusalem after 1948 dominate Jerusalem Arab society.”

There is an apocryphal story, from the last days of the Mandate, of one prominent Jerusalemite saying to the mufti, Haj Amin al- Husseini: “What can I tell you? From the original Jerusalem families there is still your family and mine.”

The claim is not entirely true; there are still a handful of representatives of the old Jerusalemite families.

Immigrants from Hebron dominate most of the middle and bottom part of that society. This is because the immigrants, apart from being very pious, were also industrious. They purchased or rented businesses especially in the Old City and just outside its walls, such as along Rehov Salah a-Din.

When large numbers of Christians left Jerusalem in 1948 and after, due to its transformation into a provincial backwater of Jordan’s mini-empire, Hebronites took over commerce in areas bordering the Christian Quarter. They drifted into government as well, taking over low-level civil service jobs. They even mastered the art of making good imitation Armenian ceramics. Neshan Balian, who comes from a family of Armenian ceramic makers, recalled in 2004: “They already had the kilns and technology... My father told me that Hebron workers before 1967 used to stand by the gate when some workers came out and offer them money to learn how to make the glazes, color, clay.”

THE HEBRONITES now in east Jerusalem are not all pious. Like other successful immigrant groups, they have gone through social transformations, with first generations working long hours, second generations establishing businesses and third generations enjoying the good life. Some even became communists – pretty much the furthest a Muslim Hebronite could go from his heritage. Others became academics and others, reputedly, have excelled in less-legal activities. Today east Jerusalem is partly a Hebronite city with some neighborhoods, such as Wadi Joz, being almost completely composed of people from that holy city.

Scholars and writers on Arab Jerusalem tend to ignore this process of immigration and change. For whatever reason, most foreign writers tend to be oblivious to the fact that most of Arab Jerusalem is not one homogeneous society, and those “in the know” tend to spend a lot of time researching the notable old Muslim families, such as the Dajanis, Khalidis, Alamis and Jarallahs. Those families, and most of the Christian Arabs, have abandoned Jerusalem. The secular Jewish public complains that the city is being taken over by the haredim, but they might be surprised to know the same thing happened in the Arab sector.

The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.

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