HEBRON – The morning Gennady Kaufman, a gardener at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in the heart of Hebron, was stabbed, I was showing an Australian journalist around the Jewish part of Hebron – the 3 percent of a majority Arab city where Israelis are allowed to live under heavy protection from the IDF and Israeli police.
Many journalists have been turning to me of late, trying to understand why 60 percent of the jihadist terrorism that Israel has suffered in the latest wave of violence has emanated from greater Hebron, with almost forty knife, car ramming, shooting, and rock attacks directed at Jewish civilians and soldiers in this area over the last three months alone.
Though the Australian journalist tried to portray herself as objective, it was clear from her line of questioning that she sided with the Israel-is-the-occupier-of-someone-else’s-land narrative. Every time I tried to explain that Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel and have every right to live here, she would counter with a question intimating that “settlers” are limiting Palestinian freedom of movement, creating friction, stymieing the peace process, and basically have no right or good reason to be here.
While some of the reporters I speak with have a clear agenda, there is something extra-hypocritical when an Australian claims moral superiority on land rights issues. We Jews are an ancient people with an ancient connection to this land, but this judgmental Australian, whose ancestors recently colonized a continent and subjugated its people, had the audacity to look down on me and call the Jewish presence in Hebron an “occupation.”
What made hearing her intellectual dispossession of the Jews all the more frustrating was the fact that the conversation was taking place literally across from the Machpela Cave – the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron. This 2,000-year-old structure, built atop 3,800-year-old tombs, is stylistically identical to the Second Temple’s Western Wall in Jerusalem because both were built by King Herod. The building was originally designed to pay homage to the people interred there, as recorded in the book of Genesis: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. Today, it is considered the oldest structure in the world that still serves the purpose for which it was originally designed.
The Biblical narrative tied to this location has drawn Jews to Hebron from antiquity to the middle ages, from the Jewish community that flourished here since the 16th century and was destroyed in the 1929 jihadist riots; to the modern Jewish presence, which was established after the 1967 Six Day War. However, today’s jihad, along with some international organizations like UNESCO – and maybe that Australian journalist – completely deny the Jewish claim, and spare no money or effort in undermining the rebuilding of normal Jewish life in Hebron. Their narrative of “occupation” posits that Jews are foreign interlopers in Hebron, and that their “colonial” presence serves only to subjugate the real indigenous population, the Palestinians.
This narrative is fueled by the Palestinian Authority – which controls the majority of the city, per the 1997 Hebron Accords – and by Hamas, which is widely supported by the Arab population here. Both call for the destruction of Israel and a violent jihad against the Jews. And now, the unhampered incitement of the last twenty years is bearing fruit in the form of the latest “knife intifada.”
While the foreign journalist and I were talking and I was feeling slightly disappointed with “the world” for failing to see the justice of our cause, one of the gardeners at the Machpela Tomb, Gennady Kaufman, walked past me. In the short time I had known him, Gennady and I developed a special relationship because we had much in common: He was an immigrant from Russia, and I am the son of Russian immigrants. And we both worked to improve Hebron’s image, me in public diplomacy, he in beautifying the grounds. Upon seeing me with the Australian journalist, Gennady turned to me with a smile and said in Russian: “Do you want me to make you guys a cup of coffee?” I smiled back, and shook my head – but I vividly remember that his simple offer cheered me up, made me feel that the world is a good place after all.
Later that morning, I was back in the office when an emergency bulletin came in: Someone had been attacked across from the Machpela Tomb, steps away from where I had been standing. It was Gennady. An eyewitness would later tell me that he was stabbed three times with a long knife – two wounds in the chest, one in the abdomen. The attacker was quickly identified by soldiers standing nearby and shot dead. Gennady was rushed to a Jerusalem hospital. While the doctors did their best, and people all over the world hoped and prayed, the gashes in Gennady’s heart did not mend. Two weeks later, Gennady succumbed to his wounds and was buried in Hebron’s ancient Jewish cemetery beside renowned rabbis, Kabbalists, and Jewish authors from throughout the ages.
I will never get to have that coffee with Gennady, and the absence of his smiling face has left a gap in the hearts of the Hebron community where he worked, the neighboring town of Kiryat Arba where he lived, and, of course, the wife and two children he left behind. But while the jihad has destroyed individuals, Jewish history in Hebron continues. Today, the 10,000 tenacious Jews who live in the Hebron area, together with a strong Israeli army presence, keep the Machpela Tomb open to Jews and gentiles from around the world. If not for that Jewish presence, the Tomb would suffer the same fate as the Tomb of Joseph in Shechem, which has been perennially burned down since Israel handed over control of the site to the PA in accordance to the Oslo agreement; or the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where Jews and Christians are barred from praying; or even Palmyra in Syria, where ISIS is destroying the ancient remains.
The Jewish people’s “stiff-necked” tenacity in the face of jihad was echoed at Gennady’s funeral by his son David, currently an IDF soldier, who said, “Father, you taught me to give everything to the country and to love Hebron. You gave your all for the land and now you are buried in its soil. I promise, we’ll continue your path. We will remain forever in Hebron.” On that same day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his cabinet meeting with these words: “Gennady was the gardener at the Cave of the Patriarchs. He was stabbed in a murderous attack a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, he was not able to recover. This morning, I say to all those who wish to uproot us from the Cave of the Patriarchs: with the exception of a few years in the previous century, we have been there close to 4,000 years, and there we will stay forever. You cannot defeat us.”
Yishai Fleisher is the International Spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron. Follow him on Twitter.