It is doubtful whether any other place between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River illustrates the concept of self-defense that has trickled into Israel’s security mindset as well as Rachel’s Tomb. The formerly picturesque site is engraved in the memory of many people as a stone building with a dome on top and an ancient olive tree in front of it, on the road between Jerusalem and Hebron.
Although Rachel’s Tomb has been depicted that way in countless art works, stamps and holy books, not a shred of that nostalgic image remains today. Israel’s defense establishment wiped it out, wrapping the ancient site in a robe of concrete and cement.
This tiny Israeli enclave, on the seamline between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, is one of the “fruits” of the Oslo Accords. Visited by hundreds of thousands of Jews every year, it is surrounded by a series of fortifications, guard towers, military posts, firing positions built into the wall and barbed wire that would do an IDF outpost on the Hermon mountain range proud. The road to Rachel’s Tomb winds between two armed concrete walls. The anniversary of the matriarch Rachel’s death occurred last Saturday, and the traditional pilgrimage to her tomb took place the following Sunday.
Anyone visiting Rachel’s Tomb after not being there for many years is in for a shock. That was what happened to MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich, who recalled the picturesque Rachel’s Tomb of long ago and choked up with tears of humiliation and grief when she saw the way it is today. Eli Mohar, a poet from Tel Aviv, also called to “liberate Rachel from captivity” several years before his death, and even Haim Hanegbi, a dedicated leftist, lamented that the tomb seemed “uprooted from the landscape and stolen from the country.”
But now it seems that the Palestinians who threatened and attacked Rachel’s Tomb and those who visited it, and worked for its disappearance from the landscape and its transformation into a military compound, are not satisfied with that. Now they want to uproot the site, which Jews have been visiting for 1700 years, not only from the landscape but also from history.
During the second Intifada, they fired on Rachel’s Tomb, threw stones and firebombs at it and succeeded in disrupting Jewish traffic bound for it. IDF soldiers were killed in battles that took place around the tomb. From time to time — for example, two weeks ago — there have been incidents of stone-throwing from the roofs of homes and the higher floors of buildings in Bethlehem that overlook the armed compound. Now the focus of the battle has shifted: to people’s awareness.
The Palestinians no longer call Rachel’s Tomb “the dome of Rachel,” as they did for centuries. Now they call it the mosque of Bilal ibn Rabah. UNESCO’s decision to define Rachel’s Tomb as a mosque is one of the results of this battle for awareness. The Palestinian Authority’s textbooks, which referred to Rachel’s Tomb by its historical name 10 to 15 years ago, have changed. The Muslim connection to the tomb, which stemmed from its association with the biblical Rachel, has been replaced by a vague, unclear connection to Bilal ibn Rabah, Mohammed’s first muezzin.
Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi, of Ethiopian origin, is mentioned in Islam’s history as a black slave who served in the Prophet Mohammed’s household as his first muezzin. It was his job to call the Muslims to prayer five times a day. When Mohammed died, ibn Rabah went out to fight for Islam in Syria. He was killed in the twentieth year of the Hejira (642 CE).
Palestinian Authority officials are now inventing a new claim that according to Muslim tradition, the Muslim conquerors of the Land of Israel were the ones who named the mosque built at Rachel’s Tomb for ibn Rabah — and because of that, the Palestinians have the right to enter the compound and worship there whenever they wish.
Full disclosure: Seven years ago, I published a book about Rachel and her tomb ("At the Crossroads: The Story of Rachel’s Tomb"). Recently, I compiled and wrote a supplementary study for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs that proves that there never was a mosque at Rachel’s Tomb. The facts are simple: contrary to what is claimed today, the Muslim connection to the site stems from the figure of Rachel and not that of ibn Rabah, who is buried in Damascus according to one account, and in Badr, near Amman, in another.
The ruins of an ancient mosque at the summit of Mount Kabir, near Elon Moreh in Samaria, are also named for ibn Rabah.
Documentation vs. falsehood
Eli Schiller, a researcher whose specialization is the study of the land of Israel, says that the Muslim tradition honoring Rachel makes a connection between her name and the word for “wanderer” (rihlah), since Rachel died on a journey and was buried beside the road to Bethlehem. Rachel’s name is even hinted at in one of the suras of the Koran and also in Muslim sources, just as the legend appears in Jewish sources, that as the caravan bearing the captive Joseph passed by Rachel’s grave, Joseph threw himself upon it and wept.
But that is not the point. It turns out that despite the Muslim connection to the location — which comes from the figure of Rachel in the first place — Rachel’s Tomb has always been a Jewish holy site, held almost exclusively by Jews. The Muslims gained temporary control over it only thanks to their violent attacks upon Jews.
There is abundant evidence of continuous Jewish ownership of Rachel’s Tomb and the violence against Jews throughout history. Among the many examples are Rabbi Moshe Yerushalmi, an Ashkenazi Jew from Eastern Europe (late 18th century), Dr. Ludwig August Frankl (early 19th century) and the British consul, James Fine (mid-19th century). They and many others report paying large sums of money to the Bedouin, members of the al-Taamra tribe, who lived in the area.
The members of the al-Taamra tribe challenged Jewish ownership of the site and even used force to keep the Jews from visiting it. From time to time, Jews were robbed and beaten by Arabs who lived in the area, until even the protection money paid to their Arab neighbors no longer availed.
Then came the turnabout in the site’s history — a turnabout that is quite relevant to us both in terms of the claim that UNESCO accepted and the way the fiction that the Palestinians are attempting to entrench in their public opinion — that the site is a mosque and not the “false tomb of Rachel.” The name of Avraham Bachar Avraham, an official of the Sefardi community in Jerusalem from the mid-19th century, means nothing to the population living in Israel today, but at the time, Avraham Bachar Avraham used his connections with the Turkish government to obtain recognition of the Jews’ status and their rights to the site.
Both firmans, issued in 1830 and 1831, were signed by the Sublime Porte at Kushta (Istanbul). It is doubtful whether Prime Minister Erdogan, who also refers to Rachel’s Tomb as a mosque and sees himself as the successor of the Ottoman Empire’s dynasty, knows that. But his so-called “ancestors” recognized the Jews’ rights over Rachel’s Tomb and made no mention of any mosque in the firmans that they issued to the Jews.
The two Turkish firmans were kept in the archives of the board of the Sefardi community in Jerusalem. In 1910, they were given to Pinhas Grayevsky, an important twentieth-century historian of Jerusalem. They were photographed, documented, translated and saved from the fire that destroyed many valuable documents in the archive. One of them is kept there to this day (see photograph).
The firmans that were granted to the Jews about 180 years ago read, in part: “This is our order to you ... that the tomb of esteemed Rachel, the mother of our Lord Joseph ... they (the Jews) are accustomed to visit it from ancient days; and no one is permitted to prevent them or oppose them (from doing) this ... In accordance with the respected judgment, I order that our commandment be issued to you so you will treat them accordingly without addition or without subtraction, without hindrance and without opposition to them by anyone in any way whatsoever ...”
But almost 200 years later, the Muslims are adding and subtracting. They are adding from their own imagination by connecting ibn Rabah to the site, and they are subtracting from the truth, minimizing and sometimes even erasing the figure of Rachel from it.
Extortion and threats
The first signs of this became evident when the second Intifada broke out. Even then, Sheikh Yusef Salameh, the former minister of religious affairs of the Palestinian Authority, mentioned four sites sacred to the Jews — the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb and Joseph’s Tomb — and defined them all as Islamic sites.
Salameh claimed that Rachel’s Tomb was not in Bethlehem at all and that the Jews had named the area after the dome of Rachel, which was none other than the mosque named for Bilal ibn Rabah. On Yom Kippur 2001, six days after IDF troops withdrew from Joseph’s Tomb, the Palestinian organ Al-Hayat al-Jadidah published an article marking Rachel’s Tomb as a clear target:
Bethlehem — "Rachel’s Tomb,” or the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque, is one of the stakes that the occupation government and the Zionist movement drove into most of the Palestinian cities ... This grave is spurious and was originally a Muslim mosque where believers worshipped centuries ago until the occupation forces conquered the Palestinian territories and ascribed importance to the site as Rachel’s Tomb. The question that must now be decided is whether, after the evacuation of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, the Palestinians will also succeed in evacuating Rachel’s Tomb as well.
And the Palestinians tried. Shots were fired at Rachel’s Tomb from every direction almost from the first day of the rioting. Gun battles with terrorist cells took place in the adjacent square. On the Palestinian side, Tanzim operatives and Palestinian Authority personnel took part in the battles.
The Turkish firmans recognizing Jewish rights at Rachel’s Tomb were not part of Palestinian discourse during or after the second Intifada. The Palestinians ignored another document that was just as important that Moses Montefiore obtained 11 years after the firmans were issued: a permit from the Turks to renovate Rachel’s Tomb and build an additional room there.
The permit for constructing the additional room, adjacent to the original building, was also signed by the Sublime Porte in Kushta. It was kept for many years in the Wolfson Museum in Hechal Shlomo in Jerusalem. Many people saw it, but about ten years ago it vanished. It may have been stolen.
Montefiore reached an unofficial agreement with the Turks that allowed for some sharing of the new room. A mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca, for prayer) was constructed there. At the beginning of the 20th century, Muslim dead were purified there. Jews used the room as well, either as a waiting room or a prayer room, and the Muslims stopped purifying their dead there in exchange for a large payment.
Evidence of this may be found in the writings of Yehuda Burla, the son of Yehoshua Burla, the Sefardi caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb, and his wife Miriam. It is also present in the journal of Rabbi Shlomo Freiman, the last Ashkenazi caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb before the War of Independence.
Historical research shows that the Muslims acquired status at Rachel’s Tomb for a brief time by using brute force, extortion and threats. Their temporary presence in the new room that was added to the building — until they were paid large sums of money to stop using it — and the construction of the mihrab were the results of violence, extortion and the harassment of Jews. Throughout that period, the site was known as “Rachel’s Dome.”
The current attempt to Islamicize the site is politically motivated. As it happens, it is connected to one of the poems written by Prime Minister Erdogan: “The mosques are our bases, their domes our helmets, their minarets our swords and the believers are our soldiers.”
To hell with the facts
Yehoshua Porath, one of Israel’s highest-ranking experts on the Middle East, described the tradition of the “Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque” as false long ago, and determined that Rachel’s Tomb was never sacred to Muslims — neither in the high tradition nor the folk tradition. He noted, “The site was known in Arabic as ‘Rachel’s Dome,’ a site of Jewish worship ...”
But one does not need to go as far as Professor Porath to confirm the facts. It is sufficient to look at the official publications of Palestinian nationalist groups from the recent past. They make no mention of Bilal ibn Rabah. The same is true of the Palestinian lexicon, published by the Arab League and the PLO in 1984; of Al-mawsu’ah al-filastiniyah, the Palestinian encyclopedia published in Italy sometime after 1996; of the book Palestine, the Holy Land (published by PACDAR), which simply relates, “At the northern entrance to the city the Tomb of Rachel appears, the mother of the matriarchs, who died while giving life to Benjamin.” But now, none of this prevents either the Palestinians or UNESCO from defining Rachel’s Tomb as an Islamic mosque.