In a country whose Biblical and modern history are intertwined and covered with dramatic events taking place at locations everywhere, Gush Etzion is among the most significant. Gush Etzion is the Judean mountain region between Jerusalem and Hebron. It sits at elevations between 2500-3000 feet, made extra beautiful by terraced hilltops and a range of crops including vineyards and olive trees, and ancient paths that were the Biblical highways, which pilgrims and traders would transverse in religious pilgrimages and for trade. I like to refer to it as the original Bible Belt.
Today Gush Etzion is home to some 80,000 Israeli Jews, a population that’s steadily increasing both due to natural growth and people moving in to enjoy the scenic views, dry mountainous/desert weather, and proximity to Jerusalem. The communities thrive, but it was not always that way. This week, marking the 74th anniversary of the massacre of 35 Jewish soldiers trying to provide reinforcements and defend four of the pre-State communities, is a good time to highlight the area and its history.
Abraham purchased a cave in the fields of Ephron as the burial site for the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Jacob’s son, Benjamin, was born here, and it’s also where his mother, our matriarch Rachel, died and is buried. Herod built a fortress here. In my neighborhood there’s a wall that remains from an ancient building that carries the (Arabic) name of a structure alleged to be part of the harem of Solomon. David fled to these mountains when hiding from Saul, and Boaz courted Ruth, building the line of David. Jesus was born here.
After Ezra and Nehemiah returned from Babylonian exile 2,400 years ago, they reestablished their homes here, and Amos lived in these mountains as well.
In modern times, when Jewish exiles began returning to the Biblical heartland, farming communities were established that gave life to the prophecy of Ezekiel that the Land would blossom again when its People returned. It was not easy work, but with the return of Israel’s exiled descendants, the Land bloomed once again.
One hundred years ago, in 1922, Migdal Eder was established by Yemenite Jews who returned by foot from the tip of the Arabian peninsula. During the bloody 1929 country wide Arab riots, they were forced out.
Several years later, the Jews returned, again. This lasted until the next wave of Arab riots, and the Jews were forced out once again. Then in the 1940s the Jews returned to Judea, to reestablish a Jewish presence in the Land, their urgency motivated by the slaughter of the Jews of Europe from which many of the young pioneers hailed.
Four communities blossomed. In 1942 Kfar Etzion was established on land purchased by the Jewish National fund. In 1945, Masuot Yitzchak was established. In 1946, Ein Tzurim was born, followed in 1947 by Revadim. The hills were alive, with the sound of Jewish life restored once again.
On November 29, 1947, the UN voted to partition what remained of the British Mandate for “Palestine,” to create two states between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. With it, the British began to dismantle its 30-year occupation of “Palestine” which they assumed in order to fulfill their 1917 commitment to establish a Jewish state. And with the impending British departure, Arab armies and irregular forces backed by the British began to threaten Jewish lives in Judea once again.
This left the four ideologically rooted Gush Etzion communities all but cut off from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem and other parts of the Land. Despite the threats, the communities decided they would stay and fight, however the children and mothers were evacuated to Jerusalem. Gush Etzion’s residents knew that their presence stood in the way of a total Arab attack on Jerusalem from the south. They entrenched to protect their heritage that they restored, and Jerusalem’s southern flank.
As Arabs blocked the roads, they relentlessly attacked convoys of vehicles carrying supplies to reinforce the communities. Jewish residents and those in the convoys were targeted at every opportunity. In one such attack, dozens of vehicles made it to Gush Etzion with supplies which strengthened the communities and their resolve to remain and defend themselves. But the Arabs set up an ambush on the road back to Jerusalem. The trucks were stopped by a roadblock and for some thirty hours the Arabs attacked while the Jews took cover in a nearby building. As Jewish casualties grew, the British refused to intervene. Eventually, the Jews had to agree to hand over all their vehicles and weapons to the Arabs, after which the British escorted the Jewish survivors to Jerusalem.
In January 1948, as the siege on Jewish communities of Gush Etzion continued, a valiant attempt to supply the communities was organized. Thirty-five young men, some of the bravest members of Israel’s pre-state military, volunteered to carry dozens of pounds of supplies to the communities. Rather than attempting to pass Arab-controlled roads, they walked all night from the foothills of the Judean mountains. As morning broke, within sight of Gush Etzion, they were spotted by an Arab shepherd, but avoided detaining him. That act of Jewish mercy became fatal, as the shepherd returned to his village and tipped off neighboring Arab communities. In little time, hundreds of armed hostile Arabs attacked the 35 men who are noted to have fought on a small hill to the last man, with rocks in their hands. When the Arab massacre ended, many of the 35 Jewish men’s bodies were mutilated beyond recognition.
The battle and death of the 35 is a national legend. Teens reenact their heroic final journey with an all-night hike in the same mountains each year on the anniversary of their death. The Jewish communities of Israel were heartbroken, and the communities of Gush Etzion faced increasing attacks as they ran out of supplies and ammunition. As the siege got worse, just over 500 men and women held off a well-armed British-backed Arab force many times their size. Of the 157 Jews killed, 128 were massacred after surrendering. The last battle took place the day before Israel declared independence.
Noting the heroism and sacrifice of the defenders of Gush Etzion, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion noted, “If there is a Jewish Jerusalem today, we owe it to the defenders of Gush Etzion.”
For years after 1948, the orphans, widows, and survivors from Gush Etzion would gather from a distance on the Israeli side of the armistice line (the Green Line) that was demarked in 1949, to look longingly at the surviving ancient lone oak tree that had been the center of their communities.
“Thankfully”, in 1967, despite Israeli warnings to avoid hostility, Jordanian troops then controlling “the West Bank” which encompassed Gush Etzion, attacked Israel resulting in the miraculous reunification of Jerusalem, and restoration of much of the Biblical heartland to Israel during the Six Day War. Gush Etzion was under Jewish sovereignty again.
What used to be four small farming communities have now become more than a dozen towns and villages. The Judean hills are once again painted with the sight of the Land blossoming, and the streets of Gush Etzion’s communities are filled with the sound of children. Tourism abounds including modern and Biblical sites, archeology, hiking and jeeping, fruit picking and wineries, shopping, and even a mall.
There is still a threat of terror with the Gush Etzion the site of a number of Arab attacks, but there’s also the paradox of Arabs and Jews living and coexisting side by side, sharing the roads, shopping and working together.
When you’re in Israel, come by for a visit. It’s also my home.