Honestly, it would be hard to choose the one place or area that can be win the title of the most dramatic site in the Land of Israel over the thousands of years. Not an easy choice. However one strong candidate has to be Gush Etzion.
Between Jerusalem and Hevron in the middle of of Judea, is a hilly area crisscrossed by colorful fertile valleys and gorges. This is the heart land of the Holy Land .
Today the greater Gush Etzion area is home to about 60,000 Jews and growing. This area has not seen this number of its sons and daughters since the great revolts against Rome when they were expelled. But they are back and making up for lost time!
In this area David and before him Benjamin, son of Rachel were born. Yes, its been a Jewish neighborhood for some time.
After Ezra and Nehemiah led the Jews back from Babylonian exile 2,4000 years ago, they rebuilt their homes in the heart land.
It was here that the great show down with the Greek empire occurred. The rulers of ancient Greece declared that it was going to be their way or no way. They would not tolerate anti social , dangerous ideas like the belief in just one god, a day of rest – even for slaves and cattle! Not putting old parents out to die.. Judaism was dangerous!. It must end in favor of modernity. Loyal Jews felt otherwise.
And so the family of the Maccabees raised the banner of revolt.
“Those who are for God – come to me!” And 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 lead enemy elephant was carrying the general. Breaking ranks, he rushed the elephant and speared him from his soft under belly. 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 Patriachs” between Jerusalem and Hevron. Jerusalem can not be taken from the south as long as the Gush Etzion area holds.
Which brings us to the modern era.
As the in gathering of the exiles began to trickle in 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 blossomed once again.
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. Mr Holtzman bought land in the area and rebuilt. In Yiddish Holtz means wood which is Etz in Hebrew. Thus the word Etzion (wood) for the modern settlements
Things were going great – until the next wave of Arab pogroms and the Jews were forced out – again
They 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 home land. Kibutz Kfar Etzion ws established by a group of Jewish youth on land purchased by the Jewish Ntional fund. Then in 1945, Mauot Yitzchok was established. In 1946, Ein Tzurim and in 1947 young Zionist / socialist pioneers joined their religious brothers and sisters in near by Kibbutz Ravadim The hills were coming alive again. Nothing could stop these young starry eyed idealist now. They were building a country for the holocaust survivors. and for the returning exiles the world over.
The British had just called it quits. 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 ( Eretz Yisroel)
On November 29, 1947 the UN voted to partition western Eretz Yisroel into two states. Another Arab one (The Britissh had already established what became Jordan in 1922 ) The Jews accepted the offer .
The Arabs were not interested in borders. There could not be a Jewish state .Period.
And so the four fledgling Gush Etzion settlements found themselves cut off and threatened by both the local Arab mobs and the British led Jordanian army.
They took a vote. It was decided that despite the slim chances of survival they would stay and fight. The children and mothers were evacuated and they dug in.
It was about Jrusalem
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 were delayed leaving due to a stubborn prize breeding bull who would not get onto the truck.
The Arabs were waiting on the road just out side Bethlehem in 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. The “neuteral” British would not intervene as the number of Jewish dead and wounded mounted. Finally the Jews had to agree to hand over all their vehicles and weapons to the Arabs in return for a British safe escort.
For years I have traveled that road and stopped to explain to visitors about the famous stone house with the memorial plaque out side.
That was before the Oslo “peace “ accords, before this area was given to our “peace partners”. After that I noticed that he sign disappeared . Then the building was gone. What battle? What history ? Were the Jews ever there at all..?
Finally I 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 PLO flag colors. So much for the two state solution…)
In a desperate attempt to supply the beleaguered, valiant villages. Thirty five students volunteered to carry supplies walking all 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.
A fatal mistake.
He 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 it was over their bodies were beyond any recognition.
Out of ammunition and short on supplies the Arabs swarmed the settlements. The British led, Jordan army joined the attack assuring an Arab victory
Five hundred and thirty five men and women held off a very well armed force ten times their size. One hundred and fifty seven were killed . 128 of them massacred after surrender.
Gush Etzion fell for the third time.
Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister said,If there is Jewish Jerusalem today we owe it to the defenders of Gush Etzion” They 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?
But it was not over yet. Many are the thoughts of me but God’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.
Today the “Gush “ has expanded twenty times and from four tiny settlement hugging the land for dear life, there are fifteen towns and villages – 60,000 strong and growing.
Today there is tons to do and see there. From history, archeology, wine tasting nature hikes, fruit picking and
Do not miss the dramatic audio visual presentation of the 1947 –48 events.
Will these “west bank settlements” today withstand the multiple onslaughts of Arab terror threats, Israeli “land for peace” fanatics , Obama’s diktats..? The prophets promised that we would return for good. And that is as good as it gets.