This is a photograph of Hebron from 1857 taken by Francis Firth, an English photographer who took many photographs in the Middle East. In the photograph we can see a rocky terrain with an olive grove on the left. The rocks in the foreground indicate some archaeological remains. There is also a low structure reminiscent of a sheikh’s tomb or watchman’s hut. In the centre of the picture between the mountains is the seemingly picturesque city of Hebron, with the minaret of one of the mosques particularly prominent. The photograph gives us a glimpse into the situation of Hebron during Ottoman rule.
Hebron is located in the Judean Hills. According to Jewish tradition, this is where Abraham purchased a cave for the burial of his wife Sarah. This cave became known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and is believed to be the burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah. The Bible further details the connection of the Jews to Hebron: it was conquered by Joshua and given to Calab; King David was anointed king in Hebron and reigned there for seven years before reigning from Jerusalem; it was one of the principle cities of the tribe of Judah; and it was classified as one of the six cities of refuge. Due to its connection to Abraham, Hebron became a holy city to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
Jews returned to Hebron after the Babylonian exile and lived there during the Maccabean period under King Herod. The city was later destroyed during the first Jewish revolt against the Romans. During the Byzantine era, Jews were not permitted to live in Hebron, but they returned at the beginning of the Muslim era when they were permitted to build a synagogue in the city. Documents from the ensuing years reveal that there was an organised Jewish community in the city living close to the Cave of the Patriarchs through the different conquerors of the land. Many prominent Jews visited and lived in the city, such as Ramban (Nachmanides), Ishtori Haparchi, Obadiah Bartenura, and Benjamin of Tudela. In 1929, Arab rioters murdered more than 60 Jewish men, women, and children in Hebron, thus ending Jewish life there until after the Six-Day War.
Today, Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank with a population of more than 200,000. Following the Hebron Treaty of 1997, the city was divided into two sectors: around 80% of the city is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and the rest by Israel. A small community of Jews live around the old quarter and in the town of Kiryat Arba on the outskirts of the city. The settlement of Jews in the city is controversial: some believe that Jews should be allowed to return to the city with its rich Jewish history, while others think that this is a threat to peace and ignites the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Connection to Parashat Masei
Towards the end of Parashat Masei, the Torah details the laws for those who have committed murder unintentionally. These murderers must exile themselves to a city of refuge until the death of the current High Priest. En route to this city, the murderer remains at the mercy of the relatives of the murdered person, who are permitted to kill him. Once there, however, he is safe, and should he be subsequently killed, his murderer is to be treated like any other murderer. Six cities were dedicated as cities of refuge, three on each side of the Jordan River. The three in the Land of Israel were Kedesh, Shechem, and Hebron. They were at a roughly equal distance from each other, ensuring that the murderers did not have far to travel in order to secure their safety.
This photograph can be used in Geography lessons to discuss the location of Hebron and the wider topography of the Judean region.
Jewish History teachers can use this photograph to discuss the Jews who lived in the Land of Israel before the establishment of the State of Israel.
Jewish Studies teacher can use this photograph when referring to the different mentions of Hebron in the Bible and the various stories that took place there.
Politics or Civics teachers can use this photograph in a lesson about the Israeli-Arab conflict and the complex status of Hebron.
Describe the photograph:
What is the building in the foreground?
What buildings can be seen in the background?
What is the size of the city?
Describe the landscape in the photograph.
When was the photograph taken?
Reading Between the Lines
The photograph is of Hebron.
Where is this city?
Which religions consider Hebron to be a holy city?
What is the Jewish history of Hebron?
Do Jews live there today?
Why is Hebron the site of such conflict?
Which other cities in Israel are considered holy cities?
Which religions consider these places holy?
Have you ever visited Hebron?
If not, search for photographs and information online.
What are your impressions of the city?
What is your opinion on the controversy of whether Jews should
be allowed to live in Hebron?
Is this a threat to peace?
Create an information leaflet explaining why Hebron is holy to the different religions.