Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gush Etzion, Holy Land Heartland

Shalom Pollack
A7 News

It’s hard to choose the one place that can win the title of the most dramatic site in the Land of Israel over the last two thousands years. One strong candidate could be Gush Etzion, located between Jerusalem and Hevron. The heartland of the Holy Land, Gush Etzion is a hilly area in the middle of Judea, scattered between colorful fertile valleys and gorges. Today the greater Gush Etzion area is home to a growing populace of over 60,000 Jews. This area has not seen this number of its sons and daughters since the great revolts against Rome when they were expelled.

Gush Etzion was the birthplace of the Biblical Binyamin (Benjamin), the son of Yaakov (Jacob) and Rachel and King David. After Ezra and Nehemiah led the Jews back from Babylonian exile 2,400 years ago, they rebuilt their homes in the heartland.

Goats and sheep frolic in the Judean hills

Courtesy, Ministry of Tourism

Crucial to Jerusalem’s Defense

It was here that the great showdown with the Greek empire took place. The rulers of ancient Greece declared that its Jewish residents must adopt Greek practices. The Greeks wouldn’t tolerate “anti-social and dangerous ideas” like the belief in one G-d, the Sabbath day of rest – even for slaves and cattle. Judaism’s stance on preserving life for sickly infants or the elderly was looked at as obsolete and dangerous. However, loyal Jews felt otherwise.

And so the family of the Maccabees raised the banner of revolt. “Those who are for G-d, come with me!” was the battle cry of an irregular band of farmers and patriots set off to defeat Greece. They did. That is the story of Chanukah.

During one of the more crucial battles in the heart of what is today Gush Etzion, Elazar the Maccabee noted that the enemy’s lead elephant was carrying the general. Breaking ranks, he rushed the elephant and speared him from his soft underbelly. The general was killed along with our hero - and blunted the Greek attack.

Jerusalem was saved.

Yes, it was all about Jerusalem. Gush Etzion lies on the “Road of the Patriarchs” between Jerusalem and Hevron. Jerusalem cannot be taken from the south as long as the Gush Etzion area holds.

Herodian, Herod's man-made mountain refuge

Courtesy, Ministry of Tourism

Which brings us to the modern era.

As the ingathering of the exiles began to trickle from the four corners of the world as the Prophets promised, the ancient, craggy soil began to respond to the love and care of her long lost sons and daughters. The land once again blossomed.

In 1922, the village of Migdal Eder was established by Yemenite Jews who made the three-month journey home by foot from the end of the southern Arabian peninsula. The holy soil responded - but the Arabs were not happy about the return of the rightful heirs and forced them out during the bloody 1929 country-wide riots.

The Jews were not discouraged. They returned in 1935. Shmuel Yosef Holtzman, a citrus grower, bought land in the area and rebuilt. In Yiddish, holtz means wood, which is eitz in Hebrew, the namesake of the area’s modern towns.

The area was flourishing until the next wave of Arab pogroms once again forced out the Jews. However, the Jews did not despair.

In 1942 as their Jewish brothers in Europe were being butchered, other young Jews were preparing for a Jewish future in the Jewish homeland. Kibbutz Kfar Etzion was established by a group of Jewish youth on land purchased by the Jewish National Fund. In 1945, Masuot Yitzchak was established. In 1946, Ein Tzurim and in 1947 young socialist-Zionist pioneers joined their religious brothers and sisters in the nearby Kibbutz Revadim. The hills were coming alive again. Nothing could stop these young starry eyed idealists now. They were building a country for the Holocaust survivors and for the returning exiles the world over.

In 1947, the ruling British decided to call it quits and leave pre-state Palestine. They could not quell the resolute revolt of the Irgun and Lechi Jewish underground groups that waged war against the 100,000 British occupation army. Finally the British buckled and announced the end of their occupation of Palestine (the Land of Israel).

On November 29, 1947 the U.N. voted to partition western Israel into two states: One Jewish, another Arab (the British had already established what became Jordan in 1922) Although an earlier proposal offered more land to the Jews, the Children of Israel nevertheless accepted the offer.

However, the Arabs weren’t interested in borders. There could not be a Jewish state, no matter how tiny. Period. The four fledgling Gush Etzion towns found themselves cut-off and threatened by both the local Arab mobs and the Jordanian army. The residents took a vote. It was decided that despite the slim chances of survival they would stay and fight. The children and mothers were evacuated, while the men remained. They felt that their fight was crucial to the struggle for Jerusalem.

The Arabs cut off all the roads. Convoys were attacked and casualties mounted. In one famous battle, a convoy of 51 vehicles made it to the Gush with supplies but was delayed in its departure due to a stubborn prize-breeding bull that refused to get onto the truck. The Arabs were waiting on the road just outside Bethlehem along the way to Jerusalem. The lead truck was stopped by a road block and the men and women took refuge in a small stone building off the road. For 30 hours the Arabs kept up their attack. As the number of Jewish wounded and dead mounted, the “neutral” British refused to intervene. The Jews eventually agreed to hand over all their vehicles and weapons to the Arabs in exchange for a British safe escort.

For years I have traveled along that road and stopped to explain to visitors about the famous stone house with the memorial plaque outside. That was before the Oslo Accords of 1993, before this area was given to the Palestinian Authority. After the Oslo agreement, I noticed that the sign disappeared. Then the building was gone. What battle? What history? Were the Jews ever there at all? I eventually noticed near the former battle site a 30 foot-high granite stone map of the Land of Israel from the river to the sea draped in the flag colors of the Palestine Liberation Organization. So much for the two-state solution....

In a desperate attempt to supply the beleaguered, valiant villages, 35 students volunteered to carry supplies. They walked the entire night through the Judean hills. Towards morning, within site of Gush Etzion, they were observed by an Arab shepherd but took no action against him. There fateful inaction was a fatal mistake.

The Arab shepherd subsequently alerted the villages in the area and hundreds of shrieking armed Arabs descended on the tiny band. They fought to the last man atop a small hill. When the battle ended, the Jews’ bodies were beyond recognition.

Out of ammunition and short on supplies, the Arabs swarmed the settlements. The Jordanian army joined the attack, assuring an Arab victory.

A very well-armed force ten times the size of its 530 defenders defeated them, killing 157 Jews. Another 128 of them were massacred after surrendering. Gush Etzion fell for the third time. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister said, “If there is a Jewish Jerusalem today, we owe it to the defenders of Gush Etzion.” Its defenders bought the valuable time needed.

In the ensuing years, the orphans and survivors would look longingly at the lone oak tree seen from far. A symbol of what was. Who dreamed that it could be again?

Kfar Etzion's "loan oak"

Wikimedia Commons

But it was not over yet. “Many are my thoughts, but G-d’s Will shall prevail.”(Proverbs)

In 1967, the Arabs launched attacks on Israel and in the miraculous Six Day War. Her sons returned to Gush Etzion for a fourth time.

David Bogner/Wikipedia

Today the “Gush” has expanded its original size by 20 times. From four tiny settlements hugging the land for dear life, there are 15 towns and villages – 60,000 strong and growing. Gush Etzion offers its visitors history, archeology, wine tasting, nature hikes, and fruit picking. A “must see” is the dramatic audio-visual presentation of the Jewish struggle to hold onto the Gush between 1947 and 1948 at Kfar Etzion. To tour the show, you must make reservations at 02-993-5160.

The residents of Gush Etzion hope that they are here to stay.

Shalom Pollack is a veteran Israel tour guide, who guides and plans tours for families and groups. He also writes and lectures on Israel and will be on a lecture tour in the US this coming October-November. Pollack recently produced a DVD, "Israel - Ancient Roots, Modern Miracle.” Clips can be seen on his website,

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