When Rachel’s tomb, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, was declared a mosque by UNESCO last year, it became a symbol of disputed historical memory, heightening tensions in the region.
By Shalva Weil for ISN Insights
“And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.” (Genesis 35:19-20).
The Biblical matriarch’s tomb, purportedly containing the bones of Rachel, has for many years now been a bone of contention. Last month, Palestinian youth hurled Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers guarding the tomb situated on the outskirts of Jerusalem on the road to Bethlehem. In February 2010, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had drawn up a list of Israeli holy sites to be included in the National Heritage list by the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The tomb, which has been one of the holiest sites to Jews over the generations, was included in the list, but instead, in October 2010, it was declared a mosque by UNESCO. Out of 58 member states, only the United States voted against the decision; 12 European and African countries abstained.
The Tomb of Rachel marks the spot where the Biblical matriarch Rachel died in childbirth on the road to Bethlehem. Muhammad al-Idrisi, the 12th century Muslim geographer wrote: “On the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is the Tomb of Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin.” The tomb has been the site of pilgrimage and prayer for Jews in the Diaspora for more than 3,000 years. Throughout the centuries, Jews from all over the world visited the tomb, and sent funds to help renovate and maintain it. It was such a revered site that even Jews in far-flung countries, as far away as India, longed to pray there and felt connected to the place.
The tomb is of special significance to women, who used to pray there for a suitable marriage partner or the ability to give birth. Rachel’s birthday, which falls on the 11th day of the lunar month of Heshvan, has become a day of pilgrimage for thousands of Jewish women, who come from all over the country to pray for fertility for their loved ones or themselves. By an irony of history, this Hebrew date has also become a source of conflict. Rachel’s birthday coincides with the day on which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. In recent years, in an attempt to avoid commemorating the assassination of a left-wing political leader, many right-wing religious Jews have offered Rachel’s birthday as a “religious” alternative. It has thus come to pass that large sectors of Israeli society do not know when Rabin was assassinated but are reminded of Rachel’s death annually.
Varieties of religious significance
As with many Jewish religious sites in Israel and elsewhere, and particularly with respect to tombs of patriarchs, prophets and Rabbis, the site also had religious significance for members of other faiths. This was particularly well documented in the 15th century with descriptions of Jews, Muslims and Christians frequenting the place. In 1615, Muhammad, Pasha of Jerusalem, gave the Jews exclusive rights to the tomb. In 1830, the Ottomans recognized the legal rights of the Jews to the site. When Sir Moses Montefiore purchased the site in 1841, he restored the tomb and added a small prayer hall for Muslims. Christians wanted to take this over and build a church there. However, until 2000, the site remained predominantly Jewish.
One of the lesser known historical facts is the connection between the Jews of Bombay (today Mumbai), India, and Rachel’s tomb. Inscribed on the wall was the following plaque: “This well was made possible through a donation from our esteemed brothers, the Bene Israel, who dwell in the city of Bombay, may the Lord bless that place. In honor of the whole congregation of Israel who come to worship at the gravestone for the tomb of our matriarch Rachel, may her memory rest in peace, amen! In the year 5625.” This lunar year is the equivalent of 1864.
In 1859 the emissary Rabbi Eben Sapir from Jerusalem had stayed six months in Bombay in order to find out more about the “lost” tribes of Israel who are called “Bene Israel”. Sapir wrote: “And they knew that there are other Jews and the land of Israel, and Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple, and that when the Messiah comes they will be redeemed and gathered together in Jerusalem…and they also give charity and donations to the poor of Israel and to messengers who come from Palestine for this purpose”.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the site began to be contested by Muslims, with the Wakf demanding control of the place on the grounds that the tomb was part of a neighboring Muslim cemetery. After the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, the tomb was allocated to Jordan, and Jews could no longer visit. During the Six Day War in 1967, after Israel occupied some Jordanian territory, the tomb once again became part of Israel. During the 1970s, the keeper of the small tomb was a Bene Israel Indian Jew from Bombay, who felt an historical affinity with the site because of his forefathers.
In 1995, after the Oslo agreement, Bethlehem, with the exception of Rachel’s tomb, became part of the Palestinian Authority. The following year, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), fearing a terrorist attack at the site, built a huge fortification around the previously modest tomb. In retaliation, the Palestinian Authority declared the place to be on Palestinian land and built on an Islamic mosque. During the second Intifada in 2000, there were intermittent attacks on the tomb with altercations between the IDF and Palestinian gunmen.
Since then, there has been growing support for the idea launched by Al-Hayat al-Jadida, a Palestinian daily, that the site was a thousand year-old mosque by the name of the “Bilal ibn Rabah mosque”. Last year, UNESCO endorsed this idea. A petition to UNESCO initiated on the internet pointed out that the site was called Al-mawsu’ah al-filastiniyah – “Rachel’s Tomb” – in the Palestinian encyclopedia published after 1996, and also in Palestine, The Holy Land, a publication with an introduction by Yasser Arafat. The petitioner’s wrote: “In attempting to sever the Jewish cultural, religious and natural heritage bond with the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb, UNESCO denies the history it is mandated to preserve, engages in a political maneuver designed to weaken a member UN nation, and undermines its own principles…We demand that UNESCO, whose purpose it is to protect heritage, also protect Jewish heritage, rather than deny it.”
It has thus come to pass that Rachel’s Tomb, which today is situated in Israel just in front of the checkpoint to Bethlehem, has become a symbol not just of fertility, but of disputed historical memory.
Dr Shalva Weil is a Senior Researcher at the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. She is a specialist in Indian Jewry and is the Founding Chairperson of the Israel-India Friendship Association. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)