On Thursday, I visited for the first time Kever Rachel Imeinu, the Tomb of Rachel the Biblical Matriarch. I was taken on a tour by a woman who until very recently ran educational programs and led regular tours of the site, in addition to helping organize Bat Mitzvah programs there. Over the course of our conversation, she related to me a great deal about the history of the site, how its meaning has shifted over time with respect to Israeli national identity, and showed me around the tomb itself.
Located just within the city limits of Palestinian Authority controlled Bethlehem, Kever Rachel is less than a 5 minute drive from the edge of the Jerusalem municipality. It is considered the third holiest site in Judaism after the Temple Mount and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and is also traditionally revered by Christians and Muslims as Rachel’s burial place. The site, which for centuries could be found in an open field along the main road between Jerusalem and Hebron, has since the 1950s been absorbed within the dense urban sprawl of Bethlehem.
The tradition that this is the burial site of Rachel the Matriarch is first ascribed to the story of her death in Genesis 35:19-20 which notes that she was buried on the way to Ephrath/Bethlehem and her husband Ya’aqov set up a pillar on her grave. This story is reiterated in Genesis 48:7 before Ya’aqov’s own death. Her burial site is again mentioned at the anointment of King Saul in Samuel 10:2. More famously is the mention of Rachel weeping at the roadside in Jeremiah 31:14-16 as the Israelites are marched into the Babylonian exile, with the promise that the people will someday be returned to the land. It is this powerful image which has made the tomb so central not only to Jewish religious ideas of redemption but to secular Zionism as well.
The site has undergone numerous structural changes over its some 1600 years of documented history, or more than 3000 if believed that this in fact the burial place of the matriarch. Initially the site was marked by a large pile of 12 stones traditionally believed to be laid by the children of Jacob with a huge capstone atop laid by Jacob himself. By around 1000 CE, the site had been whitewashed and a dome was built over it. By the 1640s, the structure was fully enclosed with a door and lock controlled by Muslim authorities who regularly barred access to Jewish pilgrims.
In 1841, Sir Moses Montefiore, a famous British financier, banker, philanthropist, and Sheriff of London, purchased the site for the Jewish community and added an addition room for Muslim prayer. Under the British Mandate, Arab rioting and political in-fighting among the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish communities about how to maintain the site opened a space for the Waqf to seize control. Following the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, the Jordanians captured the West Bank and assumed control over Kever Rachel. While they banned Jewish access to the site and destroyed many Jewish relics, holy books, and documents there, they took care of the building itself, and adding an elaborate arch at the entryway which is still largely preserved.
None of these changes, however, have been more radical than those which have occurred over the last 15 years in response to the deteriorating security situation. With violence which followed the signing of the Oslo Accords, it was increasingly feared that the Tomb would become a target for terrorist attacks. Enormous fortifications were built around the site beginning in 1996 and completed in 1998 which enclosed the whole of the tomb, seen in the picture above. Today, no part of the original tomb is still visible from the road with the exception of the domed roof. With the construction of the Israeli Security Barrier, the enclave was included on the Israeli side. Now it can only be accessed through a “finger” with walls on either side which reaches around and into the outskirts of Bethlehem. The access road is accessible through a security gate near one of the main checkpoints out of the PA controlled municipality.
The property itself, including the compound, a building within the walled area, a paring lot, and an unused back lot are all owned by Jews. The building next to the tomb compound was purchased from three Arab Christian brothers in the last decade. Each of the three brothers, after the purchase, told a different story. Recall that it is a capital crime under Palestinian authority law to sell property to Jews. One took the money and relocated himself and his family abroad while another claimed that because the property was sold through an intermediary, he did not know it would be transferred to Jewish hands. The third claims that he never sold the property at all and “his” portion of the building remains unused and locked in a continuing property dispute in the Israeli courts.
Returning to the national significance of the site, Kever Rachel and Rachel Imeinu (Rachel the Matriarch) figured prominently not only in religious texts, but also in secular Zionist narrative in poetry, speeches, and published imagery. Mentions of the imagery of Rachel weeping at the roadside figured prominently in the works of many major Zionists including Moshe Hess in Rome and Jerusalem, Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Kalisher, and Max Nordau, while the Tomb itself was patronized and supported by Nathan Strauss and Sir Moses Montefiore. Of the 24 journals kept by the last caretaker of the Tomb prior to the Jordanian conquest in 1948, only 2 remain. However, even these testify to the image of Kever Rachel as a treasured place in the budding Zionist national identity with prominent visitors both secular and religious.
When Israel captured the territory in 1967, Israelis streamed into the area to visit this shrine and others throughout East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Among the famous visitors: David Ben Gurion, Zalman Shazar, and the Gerrer Rebbi. However, my host noted that she believes since the 1970s the site has diminished significantly in significance as a national monument and is now seen much more as a religious site. Why might this be so? Unlike the first generation of Israelis who were secular yet had some religious education, she believes the new generation has no religious background and no Jewish education.
This secular ignorance of the significance of the shrine, my host suggested, has been demonstrated on at least four significant occasions. First, when Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, it was decided not to include Kever Rachel inside the Jerusalem municipal boundaries, despite its incredible proximity. This can be attributed to several factors: even at that time Bethlehem had grown to envelope the tomb. Wanting to decrease the number of Palestinians who would fall under direct Israeli control, the shrine was excluded. It was also true that in the decade or so following the 1967 war, relations between Israelis and Palestinians were quite positive on the whole. Palestinians streamed into the Israeli labor market just as Israelis streamed into Palestinian towns and villages to shop, dine, and visit. Where no obvious conflict was present, it was believed that there was no need to take a potentially provocative move of annexing a portion of Bethlehem.
A second significant instance was during the negotiation of the Oslo Accords, when Yitzchak Rabin was trying to formulate a map from where Israel should withdraw its control for Palestinian sovereignty. So the story goes, Gush Emunim founder Hanan Porat was visiting Rabin at his home trying to convince him of the importance of including Kever Rachel in Israel’s final borders. Rabin was unwilling to consider such a move until his father grabbed him by the shirt, shook him with tears in his eyes, and demanded to know why his son was abandoning Mother Rachel. It was then, apparently, that he understood what this place meant to his father and to so many Israelis of his generation. So it was that Kever Rachel remained under complete Israeli control.
In 2000 with the outbreak of the second Intifada, Kever Rachel again became a flashpoint. Unlike Kever Rachel, Kever Yosef, the tomb of Joseph the Patriarch, in Shechem/Nablus was handed over to Palestinian Authority control under the terms of the Oslo Accord in 1995. In 1996, Palestinians attacked that shrine, killed six soldiers, and ransacked the adjacent yeshiva. Security was increased at the shrine but, with the outbreak of the intifada, the site was attacked again. In this attack, one soldier was mortally wounded and the Palestinian Authority refused to intervene to allow him to be evacuated for medical treatment. He died at the tomb and the rioting continued. In an effort to appease the mob, then PM Ehud Barak ordered the soldiers to evacuate upon which the mob promptly ransacked the tomb, smashed its dome, and set it on fire. They then painted the dome green and claimed it was the burial site of a Muslim cleric.
The Israeli army now controls the site and limited rehabilitation has taken place. It is all but closed to religious pilgrims and it is regularly vandalized by Palestinians. Unwilling to allow Kever Rachel to face the same fate, supporters of Jewish claims to the site organized daily armored bus tours to take pilgrims to the site. As with what they saw occurring at Kever Yosef, it was believed that if Jews did not visit the site, they would lose it. Despite the security situation and the continued challenges to Israeli claims there, it was originally decided in 2002 that the security barrier which Israel was building would not include the Tomb. After intense lobbying, the decision was reversed leading to the complete encircling of Kever Rachel as it is found today and all the contentious politics which have followed it.
As with Kever Yosef, there has been a significant effort by Palestinians to delegitimize Israeli claims to the site. First, detractors point to debate within the Jewish tradition itself as to the tomb’s location. Some rabbinic sources believe the burial site is actually located northeast of Jerusalem near biblical Ramah, present day ar-Ram. Despite this debate, proponents of the “northern theory” have not agreed upon a single location or even general site in which such a tomb might be found, while the “southern theory” enjoys some 2000 years of tradition. Additionally, Palestinians have recently claimed, in contravention of their own recorded tradition, that the tomb is actually the burial place of Bilal ibn Rabah, an aid to Muhammad, and that it was built at the time of the Arab conquest. Highly placed sources within the PA have openly stated in the past that they hoped to do to Kever Rachel what they did to Kever Yosef, thereby erasing Jewish claims to the land.
Clearly Kever Rachel sits at an incredibly uncomfortable juncture between Israeli national identity and Israeli security needs. While the status quo at the shrine is sustainable and defensible in the sense that the army has secured the location, and no attacks have occurred, it still lies inside of the Bethlehem municipality. The wall around it, I am told, cuts through Palestinian residential lots and makes life generally unpleasant for those near it to say the least. Certainly too the necessity of securing the site itself has detracted significantly from the spiritual presence of the place. Unlike other major sites in Israel like the Kotel or even Ma’arat Hamachpelah, Kever Rachel is a dark, sealed off place which is a far cry from the idyllic locale where it was once be found.
At the same time, it has not lost its religious and national importance. While it is not nearly as visible to mainstream as it once was, Kever Rachel remains wedded to the national psyche of many in Israel, even if they have not themselves visited it. In this instance, efforts by the Palestinians to delegitimize Israeli claims to the shrine have probably strengthened opposition to concessions. Meanwhile, with the desecration of Kever Yosef still fresh in the national memory, few that care about the site are interested in handing it over to a Palestinian “partner” or a “benevolent” international observer force. In such a context, invasive and visually assaulting security arrangements become a strategic necessity.