Israel’s decision to include the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb on the list of National Heritage Sites would, at first glance, appear to be one about which every Jew should be pleased. And, in fact, many Israelis believe that historical sites identified with the Jewish past should be under Jewish-Israeli control. They tend to ignore the fact that the past uncovered by the archaeologist comprises dozens of strata which recount the histories of a variety of nations and cultures that lived in the country. Instead, they focus on a particular layer, identified as Jewish, and use it as proof of, and justification for, ownership.
This phenomenon is especially evident in the case of religious holy sites, where belief trumps archaeology. So, for example, almost no one refers to the Cave of the Patriarchs as a structure dating from the first century BCE, as demonstrated by archaeological analysis. The site is referred to as one of the Jews’ most holy places, and most holy to other religions as well. The sanctity of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb prevents us from seeing the whole, complex story. Instead, we’re bogged down with the biblical accounts of events that, according to tradition, occurred there.
The Cave of the Patriarchs is one of the few structures in the country which have stood for more than 2,000 years. Rachel’s Tomb was built in the 19th century, a focus of sacred traditions of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The site’s identification as the location of Rachel’s tomb is attributed to Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, who came to Palestine after the Byzantine Empire accepted Christianity and “discovered” the sites where events recounted in the Bible had occurred. Whether or not she identified the correct site is irrelevant today, because millions of the faithful believe it to be a holy place, and no amount of research will convince believers to abandon their faith. But the two principal religious sites in the occupied territories testify to the country’s complexity and cultural richness.
A site such as the Cave of the Patriarchs has remained standing for more than 2,000 years only because all the nations, religions, cultures, and rulers who came to the country recognized its importance, and sometimes its holiness, which had to be preserved on behalf of the believers, Muslims as well as Jews. Had not the Romans, the Byzantines, the Persians, the Muslims, the Crusaders, the Mamluks, and others recognized the site’s importance, and desired its preservation, it is possible that it would have been less central to the Jewish religion today, and perhaps even less important.
The state is still obligated today to preserve Byzantine and Crusader sites identified with Christianity, as well as Muslim sites and those of pagan religions and other nations, no less than they protect sites associated with Jewish history. Moreover, the idea that Jewish sites must be owned by Jews is misplaced. Hebron’s Jewish past is part of the totality of Hebron’s history. The Muslim residents of Hebron have the right to be responsible for preserving their past, the history of their lands, in Hebron and elsewhere. The ancient synagogue in Jericho (Na’aran), the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and other religious structures in the occupied territories should be the responsibility of the local residents, just as the city of Nazareth, which is sacred to Christians, is Israel’s responsibility, and Muslim structures in Spain dating from the eighth to the 14th centuries are the responsibility of the Spanish government.
The Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb are undoubtedly Jewish holy sites, but their power transcends any narrow view of their Jewish past. Their uniqueness is based on the multicultural story of this country over the course of thousands of years. A society which is capable of accepting and respecting the culture and beliefs of another will have immeasurably greater success in maintaining its position in the country than one focused only on its own past, ignoring its complexity, blind to the fact that its own past is also that of others as well.
When believers of all faiths worship at their holy places, these sites are strengthened, as are the worshippers themselves. Rather than focusing on its national heritage, it would be better for Israel to focus on the country’s broader cultural heritage and strengthen the unique multicultural nature of this land.