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Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel, by Jerold S. Auerbach.  Lanham: Rowman and Littlefeld, 2009.  223 pp.  $34.95.


Not long ago a video showing a strange occurrence has reached Youtube:  Israeli soldiers, patrolling an empty street in Hebron, suddenly broke into a whimsical dance. It was their way of celebrating their approaching release from the army, and probably a humoristic criticism on the type of service they had to perform, policing the borderline between mutually hating communities of Jews and Palestinians in the ancient city. The deep meaning that Hebron holds for the Jewish people was lost on them, as is the case for many, possibly most Israeli Jews today. For those soldiers, all that was left was the absurdity of the situation, best represented through their clumsy, yet quite charming little dance. In contrast, Jerold Auerbach takes Jewish past and present in Hebron very seriously indeed, and his book supplies a committed history of which the dancing soldiers—if they do not come from the National-Religious camp—know very little about.  

              Auerbach starts his book by noting the criticism of Hebron Jews from within and without the Jewish world. The Jews of Hebron, so he claims, may be the only Jews in the world that one can openly criticize in the harshest of words without being blamed for antisemitism. He goes on to explore the history of Jewish presence in the place, starting from biblical times and leading to the contemporary turbulences. The book is well documented, written with passion and considerable literary talent and keeps the reader intensely occupied, following the convulsed history of changing communities, dedicated to sacred memory, often encountering tough and dangerous conditions. The drama of Hebron Jews deserves no less.

              On the down side, this book is openly biased in favor of the Hebron Jewish settlers. Auerbach accepts their ideological narrative at face value, starting his history with biblical times, moving to the traditional community that perished in the massacre of 1929 (Tarpat), and on to the new settlers, who established their homes there after the Six Day War. This four-millennia continuity, apart from being deeply believed by the Hebron Jews, is also a mythical one, used by the current settlers to legitimate their penetration to the densely populated city. The manipulative aspect of the settlers’ narrative is disregarded and discarded in this book. While Auerbach wonders how Israeli Jews can forget their ancient past and roots in religion, he takes the commitment of Jews to Hebron as given, as a sincere, heroic, expression of Judaism and Zionism, without asking what brings a small group of contemporary Israelis to dedicate their lives to the history and memory of a certain place. Auerbach declares: “The story of Hebron since the Six-Day War is nothing less than the history of Zionism writ small: the astonishing return of a people from exile to its ancient homeland” (p. 6). This is exactly the narrative told by the Hebron Jews, and it is not shared by many, probably most, Israelis, including many religious Zionists. In an academic book this assertion needs to be discussed and contextualized, not hailed as an undeniable truth.

              The one-sidedness of Auerbach’s story is most apparent when he discusses Hebron Arabs. Innumerable NGOs and individuals have brought evidence and testimony of the harsh, often racist, treatment of the Jewish settlers towards their Arab neighbors. While Palestinian violence towards the Jews receives ample attention in the book, the havoc that the settlers have brought on the Palestinians, often described as ethnic cleansing of areas in the town, is hardly mentioned. When one of the crucial moments of Jewish-Palestinian violent relations is discussed—the Goldstein massacre at the Cave of Machpela—the flimsy justification of averting a second Tarpat is brought seriously as if to justify the horror. Hebron Jews live with demons, some of them of their own making; their historians should be careful not to embrace uncritically their worldview.      

              Auerbach gives a passionate account of the Jewish presence in Hebron, and in reading the book the reader can truly comprehend what lures Jews to that dangerous place. Regardless of political orientation, this is a worthwhile achievement. His book is a long-needed contribution of a serious scholar to an ongoing academic debate, in which the Hebron Jews were left without a decisive, unapologetic, systematically argued voice. However, Auerbach dedicates much less space to explain the situation of the others who share the same space, the great role of the state in enabling the Jewish enclave in Hebron to exist, and why so many Israelis see Hebron a symbol of their deepest fears and anxieties. Soldiers breaking ranks to dance in the streets of Hebron should alert us that what for some is taken for granted as sacred memory, can also be seen as total lunacy by others.  

Michael Feige

Ben-Gurion Research Institute

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev