The power of appropriating history: thoughts on the settlers in Al-Khalil

The settlers in Al-Khalil/Hebron are famously the most ideological, the most extreme in the West Bank. Hebron was the centre of the Kach party, the site of the Cave of the Patriachs massacre, and generally where you can expect to find the most extreme Zionists in Palestine today.

But was it always like this? There was a Jewish community in Hebron before the arrival of the Zionists, an Old Yishuv. I don’t know as much as I should about the history of Zionism, but I’m certainly under the impression that there are striking differences between new and old Yishuv on political questions, especially with respect to the idea of creating a Jewish national home, and on the question of expelling the local population to make room for Jewish immigration. 

Settlers today will say that Jews have lived in Hebron for a long time, and the 1929 Hebron Massacre proved that co-existence between Jews and Arabs was impossible, so the only solution is military. But is this a fair assessment? Was not the ’29 massacre an expression of anti-colonial sentiment, of fear that the new Yishuv, Zionism, was expelling Arabs from their land, and would eventually take political control over Arab lands?

Modern settlers in Hebron live fully within the most extreme kind of Zionist ideology. But it would be unfair to retroactively ascribe this to Jews living there in the 19th century. The Palestinian nationalist movement has always said that prior to Zionism, Jews and Muslims and Christians lived in Peace in Palestine, and I have no reason to doubt this.

If this is true, then there is an alternative history to the Jewish presence in Hebron, a story which Palestinians and activists should tell – a story in which the Jews of Hebron in the 19th century would despise what happens there today, a story in which it would not even be clear that the current Jews in Hebron’s claimed forefathers were not Zionists, and were perhaps anti-Zionists.

This is potentially a compelling story, a story which challenges the Zionist narrative at its extremist core, and a narrative which refuses to submit to the “moderate” racism of Zionism by denying the essentiality of anti-semitism, and reading racist sentiments in the region as products of colonial intervention and to some extent objective conflicts between groups, produced in their reality by political leaders who were themselves racist.

And this would be a story against the story which is told today, a story which preaches continuinty of the contemporary Jewish presence in Hebron with the earlier presence. It would therefore take part in the academic conflict, a conflict which due to the work of the New Historians in Israel, is a site where Israelis and Palestinians can stand side by side in assaulting the Zionists lies that are told about the history of the state of Israel.

And it connects to a larger project, a project that Palestinians claimed to be dedicated to in 1970, but have unfortunately neglected: the project of reaching out to Jews, of showing that they are committed to protecting Jewish communities around the world and in Palestine who are subject to discrimination. Reclaiming the history of Jews in Hebron as a history of Jewish Palestinians, rather than Zionist Jews, could strike a blow at the heart of Israeli Zionist conscience much more powerfully than any bomb or rocket attack. Because at the end of things, what needs to be attacked is not the Zionist settlements or military positions, but the ideas inside their minds that enslave them.


The story seems even more complicated than I imagined. In the 1930s new European orthodox community-schools were relocating to Palestine, challenging the authority of the old-yishuv communities, producing alliances with the Zionist movement whereas the old-yishuv had been straunchly anti-Zionist:

…by the 1930s, three major European yeshivot partially relocated in the Land of Israel: Slobodka moved in part to Hebron, the Novardok yeshiva (Beit Yoseph) moved to Tel Aviv and its sister city B’nai Brak, and the Lumzah yeshiva went to Peter Tiqwa. It was no coincidence that the institutions did not go to Jerusalem, the capital of the Old Yishuv. The institutions were in effect riding in on the same tide that accounted for rising Zionism. Zionism in a sense had prepared the ground on which the new institutions were planted. Tel Aviv and Peteh Tiqwa were after all creations of Zionism

The yeshiva students who came at this time eschewed the strict seperatism of the Eda Haredis. On the contrary, the Lithuanian eshivot in the Land of Israel encouraged cooperative relations between its students and the new Zionists. Many of these students hoped to be absorbed into the economic framework of the  new Yishuv after marriage, an inevittable departure from the closed world of the yeshiva. The students from the Lithuanian yeshivot could not follow the path of increasing seperatism forged by the Old Yishuv extremists after the Balfour Declaration and the British Occupation. Instead they saw the secular Zionist “yishuv” as an integral part of their future.

The guardians of tradition in the Old Yishuv did not welcome the yeshivot. Paradoxically, the existence of the new Lithuanian yeshiva in Hebron threatened them more than the immigration of secular Zionists. The Hebron yeshiva represented an alternative model of traditionalist religious Judaism. The model possessed different standards from those of the Old Yishuv on issues such as deviation from tradition, adaption to modernity and seperatism. For example most of the yeshiva students had shaved faces, longer hair, and no side locks and wore modern dress. And in contrast to accepted Jewish tradition, they remained unmarried to a relatively late age.

from “The Development of Haredi Culture in Israel” Fundamentalism observed, volume 1,Martin E. Marty, p 228

On the mistaken targeting of non-Zionist Jews in the 1929 riots:

Most of their victims were members of the old Yishuv, few of whom sympathized with political ZIonism, though many were close to the ideals of religious ZIonism. What happens to have caused alarm among the Arab populace was the establishment in 1924 of an Orthodox yeshiva that quickly attracted large numbers of students from Europe and the United states (some 265 in 1929), who again were mostly non-ZIonists or even anti-Zionist, but who with their Western clothes and habits looked like Zionists to the local arabs. Shocking as the assaults were, they were not a pogrom (the persecution of Jews carried out under governemnt auspices); the majority of Jews in Hebron were saved by their Arab neighbors.

from “A History of Palestine: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Founding of the State of Israel”, by Gudrun Krämer, Graham Harman, page 232

So it appears that at the same time as the Zionists were colonizing the Palestinian lands, they were also engaged in an intellectual colonization of the Old Yishuv, of the old Jewish ideas in Palestine, by importing new Jewish religious traditions that avoid the conflict between Judaism and Zionism. The Jews who opposed colonization on religious grounds were diluted by Zionist-friendly religious institutions, and the increased apparent presence of Jewish Zionists in Hebron meant the whole Jewish community was attacked by the mob, although many more Jews were protected by Arab families than were killed in the riots. Still, I’m sure these riots weakened the Jewish anti-Zionist presence in Hebron, and made it easier for Zionists to conflate “Jew” with “Zionist” in the land of Palestine.

EDIT: This story is already being told, by this Jew from Hebron who refuses to go home until the Palestinians can return to their homes.



  1. The Palestinian nationalist movement has always said that prior to Zionism, Jews and Muslims and Christians lived in Peace in Palestine, and I have no reason to doubt this.

    There are very good reasons to doubt this. Had this been the case there would have been a thriving Jewish community and migration. Take for example when Queen Isabella takes power in Spain and expels all the moors. The Jews mainly stay, some pretend to convert and some actually convert. The Inquisition is called in to examine these converts because of the high number of pretenders. If Palestine had been a safe haven the fake converts would have gone there, not faced the Inquisition.

    Palestine like most countries would be good for a few centuries and then turn on its Jewish population. Venezuela was wonderful for Jews for several centuries. Than Hugo Chavez came to power, and something like 2/3rds of the Jewish community no longer exists. Germany was wonderful before the holocaust the most pro-Jewish country in Europe. Spain in the 11th century Jews had more rights than Christian peasants.

    Any place Jews could survive they moved to. You can tell how good a country was to Jews by how many were there.


    1. Well, a lot of Jews moved to Hebron between the start of the 18th century and 1920, when the Zionist migration to Hebron started to change the character of the Jewish community there. Is that proof enough that Hebron was a good place for Jews prior to Zionism?


      1. No. I’d want to know policy. For example in Ottoman Syria, which I think Hebron was considered part of, dhimmis taxes were collected. The last major persecution I see is 1518 when the population is ethnically cleansed and driven to Beirut. So like most places it appears it was pretty good for a few hundred years.

        But no, not spectacular.

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