I have been spending some of my free time engaged in reading reading Aaron Klein’s book Schmoozing with Terrorists. With all of the conversations going on about dividing Jerusalem and giving up the Temple Mount, this particular chapter seemed particularly relevant. It talks about the destruction of Joseph’s Tomb–but it is also a forbearer of what will happen to Jewish Holy sights if we allow Prime Minister Olmert to divide Jerusalem.
And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straightly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you. Exodus 13:19And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought from sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for an hundred pieces of silver: and it became the inheritance of the children of Joseph.Joshua 24:32 In one of the most flagrant, vile desecrations of holy sites in the history of humankind, on October 7, 2000, after Israeli troops retreated from a post just outside the northern West Bank city of Nablus, or Biblical Shechem, following coordinated, deadly attacks against Jews there, scores of Palestinians stormed Joseph’s Tomb and nearly destroyed the site believed to be the burial place of the biblical patriarch Joseph – the son of Jacob who was sold by his brothers into slavery and later became the viceroy of Egypt. Joseph’s tomb is the third holiest site in Judaism after the Temple Mount and the Tomb of the Patriarchs.Within hours of the Israeli evacuation, smoke was seen billowing from the hollowed tomb as a crowd of Palestinians burned Jewish prayer books and other holy objects. Rioters used pickaxes, hammers, and later bulldozers to tear apart large swaths of the tomb structure and a beautiful yeshiva erected at the site. The dome of the Jewish tomb was painted green, and a mosque was subsequently erected in its place.Seven years later, I caught up with the terrorist directors of the tomb desecration. The leader of the main group responsible told me the Israeli retreat from Joseph’s Tomb “proves that when we are determined and when we apply military pressure against the enemy our attacks will work and bring about the defeat of [Israel].”More from him shortly.***Joseph’s Tomb is located outside the modern day city of Nablus. The vicinity of the tomb is widely acknowledged by historians and archaeologists to be the important biblical city of Shechem, where Abraham built an altar to God upon his migration to Canaan and Jacob purchased a plot of land at which his son Joseph was later buried.The Torah describes how Jacob purchased the land plot in Shechem, which was given as inheritance to his sons and was used to re-inter Joseph, whose bones were taken out of Egypt during the Jewish exodus. Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, are also said to be buried at the site. Joseph’s life story is one of the most complete and instructive narratives of any personality in the Torah. The eleventh son of Jacob and son of matriarch Rachel, Joseph was thrown into a pit and then sold into slavery by his brothers, who were jealous that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son.After he was falsely accused of trying to commit adultery with his master’s wife, Joseph found himself in an Egyptian prison, where he made a name for himself as a talented interpreter of dreams. Among his fans was a temporarily imprisoned cupbearer for the Egyptian Pharaoh. The Torah relates the story of how Pharaoh once had a strange dream he needed help understanding and the cupbearer remembered Joseph, recommending the prisoner’s services to the Egyptian ruler.Joseph correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dream about seven fat cows and seven gaunt cows as meaning Egypt would have seven years of plenty and seven years of famine; he advised Pharaoh to immediately appoint someone to oversee the storage of vast quantities of food to survive the famine.Pleased with Joseph’s interpretation, Pharaoh made Joseph viceroy over the land of Egypt. Seven years of bounty were indeed followed by the famine Joseph had predicted and which Egypt overcame due to Joseph’s rule. Joseph was eventually reunited with his brothers and father and maintained his Egyptian leadership position until he died an old man.Shortly before his death, Joseph asked the Israelites to vow they would resettle his bones in the land of Canaan – biblical Israel. As detailed in the Torah, that oath was fulfilled when Joseph’s remains were taken by the Jews from Egypt and reburied at the plot of land Jacob had earlier purchased in Shechem, which is believed to be the site of the tomb. Yehuda Leibman, who until the Israeli retreat from Joseph’s tomb in 2000 was director of a yeshiva constructed at tomb, explained, “The sages tell us that there are three places which the world cannot claim were stolen by the Jewish people: the Temple Mount, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Joseph’s Tomb.”Israel first gained control of Nablus and the neighboring site of Joseph’s Tomb in the 1967 Six Day War. The 1993 Oslo Accords signed by Arafat and Prime Minister Yizhack Rabin called for the area surrounding the tomb site to be placed under Palestinian jurisdiction but allowed for continued Jewish visits to the tomb and the construction of an Israeli military outpost alongside the holy site to ensure secure access to the tomb for yeshiva students and for Jewish and Christian worshipers.Leibman’s yeshiva, the Od Yosef Chai School was built at the tomb in the mid-1980s and housed volumes of holy books and a Torah scroll. Yeshiva students would arrive at the tomb as early as six in the morning and would study there most days until midnight. They continued learning at the school daily even after the tomb area was transferred to Palestinian control. The tomb’s Israeli military outpost protected the students.There is data suggesting for more than a thousand years Jews of various origins worshipped at Joseph’s Tomb. The Samaritans, a local tribe that follows a religion based on the Torah, say they trace their lineage back to Joseph himself and that they worshipped at the tomb site for more than seventeen hundred years.But as they do with many important sites of other religions, the Palestinians claim Joseph’s Tomb is not a Jewish holy site at all but a Muslim one. Muslims say an important Islamic cleric who died about 250 years ago named Joseph Al-Dwaik is buried there and that the tomb is named after him. They claim biblical Joseph, who they say was not a Jew but a prophet for Islam, is buried at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the ancient West Bank city of Hebron. (Muslims also call the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Judaism‘s second holiest site, a Muslim holy site that has no connection to the Jewish people.)Following the transfer of control of Nablus and the general area encompassing the tomb to the Palestinians in the early 1990s, there were a series of orchestrated outbreaks of violence in which Arab rioters and gunmen attempted to force Israel to retreat entirely by removing its lone military outpost from the tomb, thus forcing an end to Jewish worship at the site.Six Israeli soldiers were killed and many others, including yeshiva students, were wounded in September 1996, when Palestinian rioters and gunmen attempted to overtake the tomb, reportedly with the help of Palestinian police.Eyewitness Hillel Lieberman, who studied at the Tomb’s yeshiva, recounted:”After a large demonstration in the central square of Nablus, Arabs began to march on Joseph’s Tomb. Within minutes, the tomb was surrounded on all sides by thousands of Arabs, who began to pelt the compound with rocks and firebombs. In addition, the same Arab policemen who regularly served on the joint patrol with the Israelis now began firing at the Israeli soldiers with their Kalashnikov machine guns. “Israeli soldiers [who were called as reinforcements] retreated into the thick-walled building which encompasses Joseph’s tomb, and the Arabs advanced into the yeshiva [which neighbors the tomb], after setting fire to an army post and caravan which housed the Israeli soldiers. At this point, the Israeli soldiers again radioed for help.”The Arabs, upon entering the yeshiva, engaged in a pogrom reminiscent of scenes from Kristallnacht, when synagogues in Germany were ransacked by Nazis prior to the Holocaust. Sacred texts [in the yeshiva] were burned by Palestinians or torn to shreds, talises (Jewish prayer shawls) and sacred tefillin (phylacteries) were thrown to the ground, and anything of value was pillaged. The yeshiva’s office equipment, refrigerators and freezers, beds, tables, and chairs, and all the food, were stolen.”The library was set afire, the structure of the yeshiva building was extensively damaged, and everything in it was in ruins. The only exception was the building of Joseph’s Tomb itself, where the Israeli soldiers had taken cover, and the yeshiva’s Torah scrolls, which the Israeli soldiers miraculously managed to save in the course of the riots.”Eventually, the Israeli soldiers gained control of the tomb. But the 1996 riots whetted the Palestinian appetite and served as prelude for what would come next. Israel failed to arrest or take any action against the perpetrators of the deadly riots, even though the leadership of the unrest, many of whom I later interviewed, was well known to the Jewish state.Then-Palestinian leader Arafat painted the Joseph’s Tomb riots as a victory for his people and a first step toward the eventual destruction of Israel. Arafat escalated tension on the Palestinian street as a way of pressuring the Israelis to retreat from more territory. Official Palestinian media and West Bank mosques ramped-up rhetoric concerning the “liberation” of Islamic holy sites and regular land. Sites like Joseph’s Tomb, which previously held no great value in Islam whatsoever, were suddenly positioned by the Palestinian propaganda machine as stepping stones along the greater path toward the “liberation” of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the rest of the “Muslim lands of Palestine.”The Palestinians continued to attack Joseph’s Tomb with regular orchestrated shootings and the lobbing of firebombs and Molotov cocktails. Security for Jews at the site increasingly became more difficult to maintain. Rumors circulated in 2000 that Prime Minister Ehud Barak would evacuate the Israeli military outpost and give the tomb to Arafat as a “peacemaking gesture.” The Israeli army started denying Jewish visits to the tomb on certain days due to prospects of Arab violence.Arafat returned from U.S.-mediated peace negotiations at Camp David in September 2000 and started his terror intifada .Then the Palestinians went for the kill regarding Joseph’s Tomb during the period of one bloody week in October and the cowardly Israeli prime minister caved in:On October 1, 2000, Palestinian gunmen from Arafat’s military wing, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror organization, attacked Israeli border police at Joseph’s Tomb. An Israeli policeman was shot by a Brigades gunman and bled to death after Palestinian forces refused to allow for his emergency medical evacuation.Heavy fighting at the Tomb continued on October 2.The next day, clashes led by the Al Aqsa Brigades injured an Israeli policeman and ten Palestinian rioters.On October 4, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz sent troop reinforcements to the Tomb but noted he was empowered to withdraw the troops if the danger to them became “too high.” Barak met with Arafat and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Paris to reach an agreement to end the Joseph’s Tomb violence. A deal was concluded in which the Palestinians stated they will stop attacks and refrain from entering the Tomb; Israelis would pull back forces to pre-violence positions .Rioting again erupted on October 5 after Palestinian clerics used the funeral of a Palestinian rioter who died of wounds sustained two days earlier to incite the masses. Gun battles raged at Joseph’s Tomb between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli forces.On October 6, Barak gave in to the Palestinian terror campaign and decided to completely evacuate the resting place of Joseph and give to the Palestinians sacred grounds promised in the Torah as an inheritance to the Jews.An Israeli evacuation was undertaken the next day, beginning at 3:00 a.m., as soldiers clandestinely remove holy materials and a Torah scroll from the site of Joseph’s Tomb. But Palestinian gunmen led by Arafat’s Brigades terror squad fire at an Israeli convoy as it departed the Tomb, injuring one border policeman. The Israelis retreated completely.Within less than an hour Palestinian rioters overtook Joseph’s Tomb and began to ransack the site despite Muslim claims the Tomb is the burial place of an important Muslim cleric.Palestinians hoisted a Muslim flag over the tomb. Amin Maqbul, an official from Arafat’s office, visited the tomb to deliver a speech declaring, “Today was the first step to liberate Al Aqsa.”Palestinian mobs continued to ransack the Tomb, tearing apart books, destroying prayer stands, and grinding out stone carvings in the Tomb’s interior.One reporter described the scene: “The site was reduced to smoldering rubble – festooned with Palestinian and Islamic flags – by a cheering Arab crowd.”On October 8 the bullet-riddled body of yeshiva student Lieberman, who penned the earlier eyewitness account, was found in a cave near the tomb. Lieberman, whose father was a professor at my alma mater, Yeshiva University in New York, had disappeared a few days earlier after he went to investigate reports of violence at Joseph’s Tomb.Palestinians on October 10 began construction of a mosque on the rubble of the Tomb and yeshiva compound. Workers painted the dome of the compound green, the color of Islam and thus became of Judaism’s third holiest site.***Through the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror group, I was put in touch with Abu Mujaheed, leader of the October 2000 attacks against Joseph’s Tomb, and with Jamal Tarawi, who was the chief of a major cell of the Brigades in Nablus during the period of the riots. Tarawi, a nephew of Palestinian intelligence director Tafiq Tarawi, is a Palestinian parliament member who was arrested by Israel in May 2007. The night before I was to meet in Abu Mujaheed near Nablus to discuss the tomb desecrations, I was overcome with some sort of forty-eight-hour stomach bug. The next day, October 11, 2006, I could barely get out of bed and had a high-grade fever. I had to postpone the terror meeting by a week. That same day, incredibly, an American student was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists just outside Nablus in the very area and at about the same time I was to meet Abu Mujaheed. The student was held a few hours and was released unharmed. I couldn’t help but think what could have happened had I showed up in Nablus that day. It was one of several close calls I would have while writing this book.The next week I mustered the necessary courage – or stupidity- to meet with Abu Mujaheed, tomb desecrator. Mujaheed was charged by Arafat’s Fatah militias with directing shooting attacks against the tomb starting in 1998 through the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. He described to me how the cells of his Brigades ambushed and attacked the tomb until the Israeli army ran away:We used to attack the tomb on an almost daily basis. Our fighters were divided into five to six cells. Each cell was composed of ten members and we used to crawl to the tomb and exchange fire with the soldiers. We led attacks in order to take away the Israeli flag. It was part of our resistance against the occupation. The goal was to chase the army of occupation from our land and the result [an Israeli retreat] proves that when we are determined we can defeat the Israeli enemy.I agreed with Abu Mujaheed’s analysis that the Israeli retreat from Joseph’s Tomb absolutely proves Israel can be defeated. What other message can possibly be sent by Israel evacuating one of the holiest sites in Judaism in direct response to repeated Palestinian attacks?I asked the terror leader, who is still active in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, how he can justify attacking Judaism’s third holiest site.With a straight face, he denied all reports, including from major media outlets and actual Israeli Defense Forces video footage, that his group shot at the tomb site, claiming instead his attacks were directed only at the adjacent Israeli military outpost.“The Israelis were the first in the world to turn a holy site into a military base, a very fortified military base. We never attack any holy place. Our religion forbids us to do so. We attacked the military post that the Israelis placed there. It is now a holy site. When the Israelis were here it was a military base,” Abu Mujaheed said.I explained to Abu Mujaheed that Israel stationed troops at the tomb specifically to protect worshipers from his terror group.An official IDF statement put it best:”The military compound set up next to the shrine was to safeguard and protect the site and the safety of worshippers, in accordance with the agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Claims by the Palestinians that the site was a military compound are blatant lies and possibly an attempt to legitimize the criminal and vulgar desecration of a Jewish holy site.”I also scoffed at Abu Mujaheed’s absurd claim Palestinians never attack holy places. “You don’t attack holy sites? Explain to me the video footage of Palestinian rioters and gunmen burning down the Tomb’s yeshiva, bulldozing parts of the holy tomb, and then painting its dome green,” I said. “To me this it the most barbaric behavior imaginable,” I continued. “Even animals don’t behave like this.”That statement got the terrorist tomb desecrator upset and sent him on a verbal rampage in which he accused me of being the animal.“You Jews are the animals who do not respect holy sites. We see how you don’t allow people to pray in the [Temple Mount’s] Al Aqsa mosque.”(I must stop him here and point out his deception. The only people who are restricted from praying on the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, are Jews and Christians. We’ll get into that in a later chapter.)Continued the venting, anti-Jewish desecrater: “You are the animals who not only desecrated holy books and the holy Quran in prisons like many of our heroic prisoners witnessed – I even think that some Jewish settlers and Israeli Army officers are below the evolution of animals, they are insects or even less.”He went on to accuse Jews of falsifying the Torah and Jewish history to claim Biblical Joseph was a Jew when indeed he was a Muslim and that Joseph’s Tomb houses a Jewish patriarch, when, he explained, the site actually entombs a Muslim sheikh.I accused Abu Mujaheed’s group of shooting at unarmed worshipers at the tomb, another well-documented charge, but he denied that, as well.“We never shot prayers. We never shot innocents. It is possible that if a prayer was armed he was shot by us, but we never shot an unarmed prayer.”Mujaheed claimed he didn’t know how yeshiva student Hillel Lieberman, whose shot-up dead body was found in a cave near the tomb, was killed. He absurdly suggested Lieberman was shot by Israel while trying to protect the tomb.Tafiq Tarawi, who led a major cell of the Brigades responsible for many of the tomb attacks, also claimed to me the Palestinians didn’t kill Lieberman.“This is one more Israeli lie that the Palestinians had shot this guy. We respect all religions and we respect all prayers,” said Tarawi. Since he is now a Palestinian lawmaker, Tarawi would not confirm to me whether he was directly involved in the tomb attacks during his tenure with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, during which he led a Brigades cell in the vicinity of the tomb.I asked Tarawi what Joseph’s Tomb means to him. He called it a “holy site where our fathers and grandfathers and all Muslims used to pray at the place of an old Muslim personality. This is part of our holy sites and part of our cult and faith and not the Jews.”Denying history tying Jews to the tomb for thousands of years, Tarawi said, “only after the Israeli occupation (in 1967) we started to hear this version of the tomb being the tomb of Joseph from the Torah. This is one more Israeli lie.”Tarawi and Abu Mujaheed said they would never allow the Jews to again establish a yeshiva at Joseph’s Tomb as long as it is under Palestinian control.“A yeshiva is an institution,” said Abu Mujaheed. “An institution can be the beginning of claiming rights and these claims can bring once again the Israeli army to establish a base in the place and we cannot accept this. If the Jews try to build a yeshiva, we will shoot at them.”As I stood there and stared in the eyes of these terrorist desecraters, these gunmen who led a campaign of violence against one of the most sacred sites in my religion, I found I was actually not angry with them. How can I blame terrorists who do not have an ounce of humanity or decency to them and who so wantonly disregard history and reality? I cannot fault evil for being evil. And I cannot be upset when their society, which preaches suicide terror and extreme anti-Semitic propaganda, desecrates holy Jewish sites the minute Israel evacuates.No, instead I was furious at the Israeli government. How can Barak possibly charge Palestinian society with protecting Joseph’s Tomb as a Jewish site when most Palestinians deny there is any Jewish connection to the structure? Did Israeli officials actually believe Arafat’s Brigades gunmen, who led daily shooting campaigns against the sacred monument, would allow freedom of worship once the Israelis retreated?And I was angered at the hypocrisy of the international community for its failure to hold the Palestinians to any standard of civilized society. Yes, there were some condemnations of the tomb attacks from Washington and European capitals. But those condemnations were followed by world pressure applied against Israel to retreat from still more territory and more holy sites.And I was fuming at my fellow Jews. Where were they when Joseph’s Tomb was desecrated? Can you imagine the Muslim response if Israel bulldozed the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s so-called third holiest site, and converted it into a synagogue? The Muslims would unleash holy hell. They’d launch World War III. And yet when Judaism’s third holiest site was so violently molested you didn’t hear much from world Jewry. Sure, American Jewish organizations issued the traditional press releases expressing “shock” and “outrage” at the Joseph’s tomb desecrations, but where were the mass protests? There were a tiny handful of Jews who acted, including the valiant Susan Roth, chairperson of the Eshet Chayil Foundation, which paid to have the few remaining holy objects from Joseph’s Tomb transferred to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, which is still safe…for now. But where were the calls from world Jewry for Israel to retake the site or at least for the Palestinians to respect it? Why are Jews still ignoring the issue while Joseph’s Tomb is being held hostage?I cannot speak for world Jewry but as a bona fide member of the tribe I can say American Jews are too consumed with maintaining their stock portfolios and vacation homes in Boca Raton to concern themselves with such trivial matters as the desecration and now utter neglect of Judaism’s third holiest site.Joseph, my heart weeps for thee.