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Herzog Hanukah visit to Hebron draws Hamas fury

The Islamist leaders of Gaza threatened to retaliate after Israeli President Isaac Herzog lighted the first candle for the Jewish holiday at the Cave of the Patriarchs in the city.

By Erin Viner

“The Israeli occupation must bear full responsibility for the consequences of this attack,” senior Hamas official Ismail Radwan declared on Friday, after announcement of the Israeli President’s itinerary.

Considered the second holiest site in Judaism after the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Cave, also known as the tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, is believed to have been purchased by Abraham as a burial plot. According to the Bible, it is the final resting spot for Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 23:1–20; Genesis 49:31), Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 35:29; Genesis 49:31) and Jacob and Leah (Genesis 49:28–33; Genesis 50:4–5; Genesis 50:12–13).

Under Israeli control of Hebron, the Cave of the Patriarchs is open to worshipers of all faiths.

A synagogue was added to the hall after Israel captured Hebron from Jordan during the 1967 Six Day War. It had long contained what Muslims call the Ibrahimi Mosque built during the Islamic conquest of the Levant on top of a basilica constructed during Byzantine era on a foundation dating back to King Herod.

Adding that the candle-lighting is “a provocation of the feelings of the Palestinians and a blatant desecration of the sanctity of the mosque,” Radwan relayed the Hamas “call on the masses of our people in the West Bank and our people in the city of Hebron to confront this provocative step and to confront the attack on the Ibrahimi Mosque.”

The terror group also called for a violent response to the candle-lighting service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on the first night of the holiday by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Before the lighting, Prime Minister Bennett toured the ancient Great Bridge Route once used by pilgrims to enter the Second Temple.

Hanukah, also known as Chanukah or the Festival of Lights, commemorates the miracle performed by God in the recovery of Jerusalem and subsequent rededication of the Second Temple at the beginning of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century BC.

Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank, home to over 200,000 Palestinians and predominantly under control by the Palestinian Authority (PA). The holy site and adjacent areas inhabited to about 1,000 Jews are under Israeli control, who worship on the Sabbath and other holidays at the Cave often under military protection.

The area has long been a flashpoint of violence and frequent attempted attacks against Israelis. It was also where far-right gunman Baruch Goldstein opened fire at Muslims during prayers, killing 29 people and wounding more than 100.

President Herzog is not the first senior Israeli leader to visit Hebron. His predecessor in office Reuven Rivlin did so, as did current Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu during his tenure as premier.

The full text of President Herzog’s address:

I am glad to light the first Chanukah candle with you here, in this holy place, the tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. My connection and my family’s connection to this place stretches back many generations. Forty-five years ago to the month, Israel’s ambassador at the United Nations, my late father Chaim Herzog, later the Sixth President of the State of Israel, recited the verses from the “Chayyei Sarah” Torah portion that we read in synagogues just a few weeks ago on Shabbat. The verses in which the Torah presents, quite atypically, the story of the purchase of the field of Machpelah in intricate detail. And thus, United Nations ambassadors sat there and heard the whole story.

They heard how our Patriarch Abraham purchased the field from Ephron the Hittite at full price. In a break from common practice, it was agreed that these verses would be circulated as an official document of the United Nations—a document that proves and exemplifies our connection to the Cave of the Patriarchs. And thus, the title deed for this holy site became an official document of the United Nations Security Council.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, one of the great men of his generation, the fortieth anniversary of whose passing we will mark this year, congratulated my late father on his remarks in a special, warm, and appreciative letter.

But that was not, of course, the beginning of my family’s connection to this place, to Hebron. Rabbanit Faya Hillman, the mother of my great-grandfather Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhak Hillman (who was a dayan at the London Beth Din and had an especially brave relationship with the old yeshiva in Hebron), was here in 1929, during the terrible massacre of the Jews of Hebron.

She had made aliyah just a few years earlier after being widowed, and she had settled down alone in Hebron. She had made the whole journey from Lithuania, just to live in the holy city of Hebron. A photograph of her, covered from head to toe after being seriously injured in the 1929 riots, appeared under the headline: “Mother of the rabbi from London.” She was saved from certain death by pretending to be dead after her serious injury.

I have no doubt that she would have been very moved by the fact that one of her descendants is lighting Chanukah candles in the Cave of the Patriarchs as the President of the State of Israel.

Ladies and gentlemen, our Sages wondered how the first man knew where this cave was. Their answer was that he kept walking until he saw a slender light rising out of the earth. On Chanukah, lighting the candles and publicizing the miracle, here in the Cave of the Patriarchs, we connect the Chanukah candles to the light of Adam, the light of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

In the Olat Reiyah Siddur, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook raises the question of why we recite a blessing “to light the Chanukah candle” and not in the plural, “to light Chanukah candles.” His answer is that although the many lights seem completely separate to us, we will eventually understand that they are all one single candle, a symbol of peace and fraternity within the nation.

“I am looking for my brothers” (Genesis 37:16). So said Joseph when he was sent from Hebron to check on his brothers, and today, here in Hebron, we must renew this call. My brothers and sisters, today too, with all the complexities—and I am not ignoring these complexities for a moment—the historical affinity of the Jewish People to Hebron, to the Cave of the Patriarchs, to the heritage of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs, is not in doubt. Recognition of this attachment must be beyond all controversy.

When we assemble around the wonderful light of the Chanukah candles, it is important that we respect the Israeli principle of mamlakhtiyut and its tenets, listen more to the other, respect difference, and build one bridge after another in order to protect our togetherness, of course without prejudice to any individual or community, their opinions and faiths. We will not agree on everything, but we will always remember that “we are all sons of one man” (Genesis 42:11). That we all share deep roots branching out of this tomb.

In addition, we must remember that we are not the only ones whose roots branch out from this tomb. Today, of all days; here, of all places, in this site sacred to all Children of Abraham—we must continue to dream about peace between all religions and faiths in his land, and to denounce all forms of hatred and violence. Because the Torah portion that I mentioned earlier, Chayyei Sarah, is also the one that describes the cooperation between Isaac and Ishmael, when they buried here in the Cave of the Patriarchs, together, their father—our forefather.

I thank you for the hospitality and wish all of you, and the whole House of Israel a Happy Chanukah!