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August 11, 1995 - Image 120

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1995-08-11

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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Tomb And Gloom

The thought of Rachel's Tomb in Palestinian-
controlled territory angers both secular and
religious Israelis.

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lthough it is ranked third
in importance among the
sites sacred to Jews in the
Holy Land (after the West-
ern Wall and the Cave of the Pa-
triarchs), to the uninitiated
Rachel's Tomb is easy to miss.
Surrounded by high concrete
slabs and guarded by soldiers in-
side and out, the small, domed
structure (built by the British-
Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses
Montefiori a century ago) looks
more like an armed camp than a
shrine.
So far, this forbidding exterior
has not kept Jews (mostly
tourists, the soldiers say) from
flocking there each day. But that
could change once the area is
transferred to the jurisdiction of
the Palestinian Authority, as part
of Israel's withdrawal from Beth-
lehem. As might be expected, the
prospect of having to enter Pales-
tinian-controlled territory to
reach such a popular shrine
spawned anger and consterna-
tion in Israel. The surprise is that
these feelings extend across both
the religious and ideological di-
vide.
The fears about security are all
the more pronounced because so
many of the visitors to. Rachel's
Tomb are women. Not that
there's any feminist tradition as-
sociated with the matriarch. On
the contrary, "Rachel symbolizes
a woman's power to help her
mate realize his potential," ex-
plains Osnat, the leader of a
group of religious and non-ob-
servant women who have come
to express their solidarity with
the hapless Rachel (who was bar-
ren for many years and then died
in childbirth) by chanting
Proverbs 31 ("A woman of valor
who can find?").
Neither, as is widely believed,
do women necessarily visit the
site to seek aid with traditional-
ly "female concerns," such as fer-
tility or finding a suitable mate.
Rachel's Tomb, the sextant in-
sists, is an "all-purpose shrine"
at which worshippers of both sex-
es pray for the matriarch's inter-
cession. Still, women make up the
great majority of the supplicants
there. "I guess they assume
they'll get a better hearing from
one of their kind," quips an ir-
reverent American tourist.
Over the years, the purely re-
ligious draw of Rachel's Tomb has
acquired a nationalist overtone.
Every Israeli schoolchild knows
the passage from Jeremiah
(31:15-17) in which Rachel,

"weeping for her children" after
Nebuchadnezzar exiles the Is-
raelite tribes to Babylonia, is com-
forted by the Lord's words: 'There
is hope for your future ... and your
sons shall return to their land."
The quote has become something
of a motto for the religious set-
tlers in the West Bank, who see
their settlements as the contem-
porary fulfillment of that divine
promise.
Last month, inspired by Knes-
set deputy Hanan Porat of the
National Religious Party, a group
of these settlers founded the
Nechamat Rachel (Consolation
of Rachel) Yeshiva at the back of
the building. It's still an ad hoc
affair, without a faculty or regu-
larly scheduled lessons, and it's
manned by only a dozen or so
young men. But they believe that
their presence will ensure that
the tomb remains under exclu-
sive Israeli control (though a sim-
ilar strategy, adopted last year at

.

"This is the true
land of our
forefathers."

—An Israeli student

the ruins of a synagogue in Jeri-
cho, failed to accomplish its aim).
"This is the true land of our
forefathers," one of the students
declared earnestly when asked
what he hoped to achieve. "When
Rachel was buried here, the place
where Tel Aviv stands was Philis-
tine country. Since then, the idols
may have changed, but the peo-
ple living there are still worship-
ping false gods. They're also
mistaken if they think we'll ever
surrender this place."
When applied to the entire
West Bank, this is precisely the
stand on which the Israeli public
is sorely divided. But in the case
of Rachel's Tomb, the attachment
of even Israeli iconoclasts re-
mains a potent force.
"This site is one of the corner-
stones ofJewish-Israeli identity,"
Meron Benvenisti — a conflict-
resolution expert better known
for pointing out Palestinian sen-
sitivities to Israelis — wrote in
Ha'aretz last week. "Even Shu-
lamit Aloni ... recognizes the im-
portance of the site as a highly
significant national symbol ... of
motherhood, of mercy, of and
hope for the salvation of the Jew-
ish people."

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