On Obama’s path to Bethlehem, a harshly fortified shrine

Rachel’s Tomb, perhaps the second-holiest place of worship in Judaism, is isolated, enclosed and frequently under siege

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

An ultra-Orthodox man within the heavily fortified space of Rachel's Tomb (Sege Attal/Flash 90)
An ultra-Orthodox man within the heavily fortified space of Rachel's Tomb (Sege Attal/Flash 90)

On Friday, as President Obama heads toward the birthplace of Jesus Christ, he will pass between two towering curtains of cement and emerge in Bethlehem. The drive will take fewer than 10 minutes and, if no one taps him on the shoulder and points out a stout and unremarkable structure dwarfed by the 30-foot-high walls, he will not know that he has driven right past the tomb of Rachel — perhaps Judaism’s second-holiest house of prayer.

The walls are both an aberration and a necessity. They erase what was for hundreds of years a fixture on the old mountain road from Nablus to Hebron — the sight of the enchanting dome resting above a sloping valley of olive trees and before the pale spires of Bethlehem. Today, only the soldiers stationed in the guard towers along the two walls — looking out at al-Aeda refugee camp on one side and a Muslim cemetery on the other — can see the slightest hint of the shrine. All others enter through a security gate, travel in the shade of the walls and scurry into a fortified building.

“I wrote Obama a letter and asked him to look at those walls and see in what a degrading way Jews have to arrive at such a holy place,” said Miriam Adani, the head of the Kever Rachel Fund, an NGO that promotes the site and raises money for its upkeep.

In the letter she wrote that the shrine, “situated 361 meters from Jerusalem” (most put it at 460), comes under “daily Molotov cocktail and stone attacks” and that this reality is a violation of international law.

A senior officer in the IDF’s Etzion Brigade confirmed that the tomb, an Israeli-controlled enclave within the Palestinian territory around Bethlehem, has “become a central point of friction.”

In fact, he characterized the dash from the bus stop — there are eight buses a day from Jerusalem, but more on that later — as “a deathly danger.”

The shrine, where two Israeli soldiers were killed during the Second Intifada, heated up again during Operation Pillar of Defense in November. The first days were characterized by stone throwing, the officer said. Then came slingshots, followed by Molotov cocktails, followed by sling-shot Molotov cocktails, followed by improvised explosive devices and finally sling-shot IEDs.

During one such assault, rioters managed to get on to the roof of the structure and break the glass window over the temple’s ark. “They burned a watch tower, broke windows, threw Molotov cocktails until it reached the point that the Border Police [generally in charge of security at the tomb] no longer had the tools necessary to deal with this scale of rioting,” said the officer, who sent some of his own troops to the area.

Border Police standing guard on a wall above the tomb (Photo credit: Miriam Adani/ Kever Rachel Fund)
Border Police standing guard on a wall above the tomb. (photo credit: Miriam Adani/Kever Rachel Fund)

In early March, after several Palestinians were wounded and one was killed, Mohammed Jafari, the leader of Fatah in the nearby Deheishe Refugee Camp, told Channel 10 News, “We have fresh graves in order to be ready for war for our martyrs.”

But since then, perhaps in advance of the president’s visit to Bethlehem, a tenuous calm has descended on the shrine.

‘Three thousand years of tradition’

Part of the tension surrounding Rachel’s Tomb is spurred on by, as the officer said, the very fact of proximity. The rest relates to history.

Jacob’s beloved, the “beautiful and well favored” Rachel — Genesis describes Jacob’s first seven years of labor in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage as a period that “seemed unto him as but a few days, for the love he had to her” — knew little joy in her life. Long infertile, she had one son, Joseph, and died while giving life to the other one, Benjamin.

Often succinct and rarely sentimental, the Bible takes some pains with her death. We are told that the clan set out from Bethel toward Ephrath; that Rachel went into labor; that it was difficult and that the midwife consoled her, telling her that she would have this son, too; that she named the son as her soul departed; that Jacob promptly changed the name; that she died and “was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem”; and finally that “Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.”

Yet Genesis 35 is not the only mention of Rachel in the Hebrew Bible. Samuel the Prophet, before publicly crowning Saul as king, sends him on a spiritual mission. “When thou art departed from me to-day, then thou shalt find two men by Rachel’s sepulchre in the border of Benjamin at Zelzah,” he says in Chapter 10.

Not on the border of Benjamin, noted Israel Prize-winning botanist and biblical scholar Noga Hareuveni, “but within the border” — meaning north of Jerusalem and quite a ways from Bethlehem.

Hareuveni, who founded the Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve, was further troubled by a verse in Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.”

Ramah, mentioned dozens of times in the Bible, is also situated north of Jerusalem, in the vicinity of the modern-day village of Aram.

After combing through the sources and covering the landscape on foot, Hareuveni, a former Palmachnik, found mention in the Book of Nehemiah of a town of Bethlehem apparently within the borders of Benjamin and, after a fascinating and arduous journey through the Scriptures and the hills of Benjamin, he managed to piece all three verses together and arrive at a spot near Ein Fara, where five enormous grave stones mark a spot known in Arabic as “the graves of the Israelites.”

Later, he learned that Charles Claremont Ganneau, a noted 19th-century French archaeologist, had arrived at the same conclusion — outlined in his memoirs as a theory, but never explained.

Perhaps spurred on by this Israeli questioning of established history — the Pilgrim of Bordeaux noted the tomb of Rachel as situated outside Bethlehem already in 333, as did the Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela in the 12th century — Palestinians have recently voiced the claim that Rachel’s Tomb was not the final resting spot of Rachel the Matriarch but rather of Bilal bin Rabah — the Ethiopian servant who called Mohammad and the faithful of his house to prayer.

During the Second Intifada, the al-Hayat al-Jadida newspaper called Rachel’s Tomb “one of the stakes that the occupation government and the Zionist movement drove into most of the Palestinian cities.” The PLO newspaper asserted that the shrine was in fact a mosque in memory of Rabah. This narrative was partially accepted on October 21, 2010, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which decided in a 44-1 vote that “the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem… are an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law.”

Rachel’s Tomb in the Zionist age

At three pivotal junctions, the tomb was nearly forsaken by Israel’s then-secular leadership. In 1967, then-defense minister Moshe Dayan refused to stretch the border of municipal Jerusalem in order to include the tomb, leaving it under the military rule in the West Bank.

In 1995, under the Oslo Accords, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had agreed in principle to cede security control over Rachel’s Tomb in exchange for a guarantee from the PA that Jews would be allowed to freely worship there. In his book, “The Story of Rachel’s Tomb,” Nadav Shragai describes a pivotal meeting between the prime minister and settler leader Hanan Porat and ultra-Orthodox MK Menachem Porush. While Porat, a former paratrooper, drew lines for Rabin on the aerial photos, Porush sat in silence. When Porat asked Rabin if he would give up Ben-Gurion’s grave, Porush reportedly leaped from his seat, hugged the prime minister and began to cry. “It’s Mama Ruchel,” he wailed. “How could you give away her grave?”

According to Shragai, after failing to calm Porush, who continued to cry in his arms, Rabin called his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, in the presence of the two men. He told him to set up a meeting with Yasser Arafat and instructed him to re-draw the plans.

In the summer of 2002, as Operation Defensive Shield wound down and Israel began to plan a security barrier east of the 1967 borders, prime minister Ariel Sharon placed the tomb on the far side of the concrete barrier. An impassioned campaign from then-mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert brought a change in the plan, and in February 2005 the adjusted route of the barrier in that area, now including the tomb but also encasing it in concrete, passed muster with the High Court of Justice.

And yet, Rachel’s Tomb, as Obama may see on Friday, is both under siege and adored only by certain swaths of the Israeli population.

The No. 163 bus line sets out from Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road. At the first stop on a recent trip, two teenage religious girls in stockings and long, pleated skirts told a fellow traveler that they were going to the tomb to pray for a good match. The young woman they addressed, already married, told them that the advice she always gives to girls is “to get married young and to reach your potential later on, within the framework of marriage.”

The bus wound into Shivtei Israel Street and the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, lurching past state-run medical clinics with separate entrances for men and women and signs that proclaim “In this house we do not chase away the Divine Presence. There are no appliances here that pick up the Internet or show movies.”

Occasionally, as the bus made its way toward Hebron Road, national Orthodox women dressed in lively floral head coverings, paired with a husband’s ratty army fleece, boarded the bus. Since the tomb is primarily a place to pray for marriages and fertility, and because so many of the women were already reciting Psalms on the bus, I shied away from asking them the cause of their visit.

The bus passed Checkpoint 300 near Bethlehem, surged past a gently sloping olive grove and stopped at a yellow gate manned by a single Border Policeman. Here the two walls, providing protection from the east and west, converged and funneled passengers to the entrance of the sanctuary.

Miriam Adani on a rooftop generally reserved only for soldiers and from which 'the nostalgic view' of the tomb is visible (Photo credit: Miriam Adani/ Kever Rachel Fund)
Miriam Adani on a rooftop generally reserved only for soldiers and from which ‘the nostalgic view’ of the tomb is visible (photo credit: Miriam Adani/Kever Rachel Fund)

Nadav Shragai, in an interview, called the view outside the tomb “a disaster.”

Aviva Pinchuk, the deputy director of the Kever Rachel Fund, said she is reminded of the walls of Jericho and added that she hopes that, at some point, “they will come tumbling down.”

My first association, upon gazing at the immaculate concrete and the uniform rise of the watchtowers, was of a US penitentiary.

While walking down the long, fortified corridor that leads to the tomb, I thought of something beautiful that I wanted to see. After Nava Appelbaum was killed, along with her father, on the day before her wedding in a Jerusalem terror attack, her mother, Deborah, had her dress made into a curtain for the Torah Ark. The curtains of my youth were all magenta and gold and tassels. And this seemed such a fitting and dignified way to commemorate one of the most devastating attacks of the Second Intifada.

Inside, the afternoon prayer was being recited. Perhaps 50 ultra-Orthodox men were participating, while a few others rested their heads on the covered tomb in private prayer. On the far side of the partition, a woman began to cry.

Meir Zinger, an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student from Beitar Illit who studies daily at the small yeshiva adjacent to the tomb, surprised me by saying that the presence of women, their cries, improved his prayer.

The pillars and sign that once stood outside the entrance to the tomb and are now safely indoors (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
The pillars and sign that once stood outside the entrance to the tomb and are now safely indoors (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

I lay tefillin at someone’s request and noticed that the curtain of the Torah Ark — above which is a broken window from recent rioting — was teal and gold.

Only later, when speaking to deputy head of the Kever Rachel Fund, Aviva Pinchuk, did I learn that the curtain had drawn too much female attention to the men’s section and therefore had been moved to the women’s section, where it is inlaid in the wall.

Pinchuk and Adani both feel that the shrine is widely loved, but not sufficiently valued, in the halls of power. Adani noted that neither Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar nor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ever made the 10-minute drive from Jerusalem to Rachel’s Tomb.

“If Obama can make the journey,” she said, “then [Netanyahu] can, too.”

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