Take Back Joseph's Tomb
By Michael Freund, The Jerusalem Post, September 18, 2002
This past weekend marked two years on the Hebrew calendar since a Palestinian mob seized control over Joseph's Tomb in Shechem (Nablus), ransacking the Jewish holy site and setting it ablaze.
Though a great deal has happened in the interim, it is difficult to forget the painful scenes of mayhem and destruction that were broadcast around the world at the time.
There was the smoke billowing from the tomb, as Jewish prayer books and other religious articles left behind by the retreating Israeli army were set alight by the crowd. And then there were the Palestinians with pick-axes and hammers, smashing the stone building which housed the site and tearing it apart, brick by brick, in a frenzy of hate and defilement.
Within two days, as an Associated Press dispatch (October 10, 2000) reported, "the dome of the tomb was painted green and bulldozers were seen clearing the surrounding area", as the Palestinians sought to transform the Biblical Joseph's resting place into a Moslem holy site.
It was a shocking display, both of the Palestinians' lack of respect for Judaism and its sacred places, and of Yasser Arafat's unwillingness to comply with his commitments.
In the early hours of October 7, 2000, after days of relentless attacks by Palestinian policemen and Fatah terrorists, Israel withdrew the small contingent of soldiers who had been guarding the site. In exchange, the PA promised to protect it, in accordance with their obligation under the Oslo Accords. Within hours, Joseph's Tomb was reduced to a smoldering heap of rubble.
Israel's pullout from the site was a grave strategic error, marking the first time that the IDF had withdrawn under fire and surrendered territory to the Palestinians as a direct result of violence.
Coming barely a week after the start of the current intifada, the retreat from Joseph's Tomb only served to whet the PA's appetite still further, sending a dangerous signal to Arafat that in the face of unremitting attacks, Israel would capitulate. Who knows what inspiration and encouragement the Israeli withdrawal gave to the budding young terrorists of Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad?
The pullback was also an affront to Jewish history and tradition, as Joseph's Tomb had long been a focus of Jewish pilgrimage and prayer.
The late Dr. Zvi Ilan, one of Israel's foremost archaeologists, described Joseph's Tomb as "one of the tombs whose location is known with the utmost degree of certainty and is based on continuous documentation since Biblical times" ("Tombs of the Righteous in the Land of Israel", p. 365).
The Book of Joshua (24:32) states explicitly, "The bones of Joseph which the Children of Israel brought up from Egypt were buried in Shechem in the portion of the field that had been purchased by Jacob." Ancient rabbinic texts such as the Midrash mention the site, as did the early Church historian Eusebius of Caesaria, who visited it nearly 1700 years ago. Arab geographers, medieval Jewish pilgrims, Samaritan historians and even 19th century British cartographers all concur regarding the site and its location.
Prior to the Palestinian take-over in October 2000, the tomb's compound was host to a yeshiva, and it was visited by thousands of Jewish worshippers annually.
Indeed, in recent months, with the IDF again operating in Nablus, there have been a number of unauthorized attempts made by Jews to reach the site and pray there, often at immense personal risk. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of such efforts, the fact is that they seem to have worked: this past Saturday night, for the first time in two years, the army officially permitted some 100 Jews to visit the tomb and hold services there.
While that is a step in the right direction, it is hardly enough. The time has come for Israel to take back Joseph's Tomb once and for all.
To leave the site in Palestinian hands would be to reward mob violence. After 24 months of suicide bombings, shootings, stonings and mortar attacks, it is essential that the "original sin" of ditching Joseph's Tomb be corrected forthwith. Such a step would send a clear and unequivocal message to the Palestinians that nothing - absolutely nothing - will be gained from their resort to carnage and bloodshed.
Last week, the cabinet wisely decided to include the Rachel's tomb, outside Bethlehem, within the boundaries of the security zone to be constructed around Jerusalem. There is no reason for Joseph, Rachel's beloved son, to be left behind either.
Twice in Jewish history, Joseph was forsaken by his brothers and handed over to foreigners. The first time was in the Biblical story, when he was tossed into a pit and sold to traveling merchants. The second time was in October 2000, when his tomb was surrendered to a crazed horde of Palestinian rioters.
Now, with Israel's army active in the territories, we have a chance to right that historic wrong. And right it we must, because Joseph should not be abandoned yet again.
The writer served as Deputy Director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Prime Minister's Office from 1996 to 1999.