Who firebombs a grave?

It’s an amazing concept. Why would someone firebomb a grave…and an ancient one at that?

I just read a news article that Arabs have thrown 290 firebombs (and or planted explosive devices) at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem in the last six months alone (that doesn’t count hundreds, perhaps thousands, before that).

I actually know the answer as to why – it comes back to that concept of hating all that is different from them and worse, an attempt to erase any one else’s past. Okay, I got that…sick…but I got it.

But seeing that headlines also reminded me of an article I wrote a decade ago. Only, it wasn’t about Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, but her son, Joseph’s tomb in Nablus (Shechem).

In February, 2003, Arabs rioted and burned the grave/tomb of Joseph, son of our patriarch, Jacob and his beloved wife, Rachel. Joseph was buried in Shechem after his bones were exhumed by the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt – a promise fulfilled not to leave his bones in a foreign land. His bones were carried through the desert, until they were brought home to rest in the land of his fathers. Only today, his tomb is found inside a Palestinian city. To get there is nearly impossible and only accomplished with an army escort, under strict protection.

Rachel was buried, according to tradition handed down over the centuries, in Bethlehem. You can get to her grave site, but you need to leave your car in Jerusalem and take armored buses – silly…it’s only a few hundred yards. The area around the tomb has been fortified, cement barriers erected to protect those wishing to pray beside her grave.

Back then – in 2003, I wrote an article, “Rachel is Crying”. I thought of that article as I read the news about the firebombs. Then it was Ariel Sharon as prime minister when they attacked and burned Joseph’s tomb and now, as they attack Rachel’s tomb it is Bibi Netanyahu.

Back in 2003, I asked that Sharon either defend the tomb of Joseph, or go in and remove the body and rebury him near his mother’s grave in Bethlehem. Nothing was done to defend the tomb, to bring his body to Bethlehem. Jews sneak in to visit Joseph’s tomb under heavy guard, usually at night. It’s ironic that some 10 years later, it is Rachel’s grave that has come under attack.

Rachel is Crying (February, 2003)

There is a pain felt deep in a mother’s heart. The anguish only another mother can imagine. It transcends all, even death. It is a bond created and nurtured that never, ever weakens. She’s crying for her son yet she is too far to offer comfort. She lies as isolated as he was but the desecration of his burial place is even worse to her than if they had desecrated her own grave. I can hear Rachel crying.

She is bewildered by her people, the children of the children of her children. It doesn’t matter how many generations separate her from the current generation. We are all her children, but we have betrayed Joseph, her son, our brother. It isn’t the first time that he was betrayed by his brothers, but it is the final time, the final desecration, the breaking of a vow.

Out of the ashes of the concentration camps, many argue, the foundations of the modern Jewish State of Israel was born. Certainly, there was great sadness, overwhelming grief and shock. There was a sense of desperation and a knowledge that we had reached the lowest point in the collective memory of the Jewish people. But even more than all this, there was rage. An anger born in Auschwitz, flamed in Bergen Belsen, and fed in camp after camp throughout Europe. I believe it was the rage that won us a state. Enough was enough and we would have what was rightfully ours back. We had never abandoned Israel. Always there were Jews here, dead and alive.

The graves of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and the matriarchs that rested beside them. And there is the lonely grave of Rachel in Bethlehem, buried beside the road to weep for the Jewish people as they were sent into exile and as they returned. There was the Tomb of Joseph, a monument to the keeping of a vow, the fulfillment of a promise that his bones would not be left in Egypt.

Rocket after rocket is slamming into our country, into Jewish homes and cities. Where is the rage? Tell me another country that would allow this to happen. Yesterday and today,  Jews running for cover, hiding under their beds and in bomb shelters. Where is the rage? Mothers and fathers murdered in front of their children, in their own homes. How is it possible that the rage is failing us?

And now the heartbreaking news, the irreversible pain of desecration. In the last few weeks, the Palestinians have vandalized the grave site of Joseph, son of Jacob. Rachel is crying, her son’s resting place in ruins. Where, where is the rage? The tomb was abandoned for a promise that there would be no desecration and yet within hours the building above the grave was ransacked, burned, smashed. Little consolation, but the grave was untouched. Joseph rested. Rachel watched over her son and her people.

Does Joseph lie beneath the rubble? The Arabs claim it is the tomb of Sheikh Yussif. What better proof is there that this is yet another attempt at denying the Jewishness of this land and the very history that permeates every layer of earth here? Clearly, if it were indeed the revered grave of Sheikh Yussif, what justification would there be in destroying it? By their own actions, they have confirmed what we have believed all along. It is Joseph that lies there.

Joseph’s role in saving the Jewish people from famine is often overshadowed by the roles of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. Yet it is his death that closes the book of Genesis, and his words that remained in the collective Jewish memory of the Israelites. With supreme faith, he foretells the Exodus from Egypt and makes the people swear that when they leave “you must bring my bones up out of here.” And so they did. Centuries later, on the eve of the Exodus, Moses remembers the promise and took Joseph’s bones as they left. For forty years, they carried those bones with them through the desert until they finally were interred in Shechem, in the place from which he was exiled, in Nablus.

When Yusuf Madhat, an IDF soldier, slowly bled to death defending Joseph’s Tomb from Palestinian rioters, I wondered why the simplest of solutions wasn’t followed. Why didn’t the IDF send a tank to ram its way into the city and evacuate him? Why was he left to die? Now I believe the twisted political outrage that began so many years ago has led to this inevitable conclusion. As a realist, I know that we will never return to Nablus. The world and the army won’t allow it and I can accept that because there are some mistakes that cannot be fixed, errors that are too costly to repair.

But before we surrender our last right to the city of Joseph, there is one thing that Ariel Sharon must do. He must send in the tanks and some troops and with the respect and dignity due to Joseph, they must take his bones and bury him in a safe place, beside one of his parents. Bring him to his mother. Bury him in Bethlehem beside Rachel. Bury him beside his father and grandfather in Hebron. Bury him on Mt. Herzl as a warrior of his people, one of the first Zionists who longed for his homeland. Just don’t abandon his bones.

The Jews are commanded to believe that collectively as a people, we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Collectively, we left Egypt and so collectively we carried Joseph through the desert. We have given up too much already, but if the world would force us to give up Shechem, they must not be allowed to force us to break the vow we made to Joseph.

As a mother, I beg you to bring Joseph home. Don’t abandon him as you abandoned his tomb. His grave is destroyed. Desecrated. Ruined. Rachel is crying.

There is an understanding in Jewish tradition that a grave should not be left in danger. Bodies have been exhumed and relocated to protect the grave. Joseph’s grave is in danger – if we do not have the courage and the strength to protect his resting place; if our government lacks the nerve, it is time to go in and remove the grave. I said this in 2003 and I repeat it now. I am not in favor of surrender but a young man was killed today, babies left fatherless because our army is crippled by a government that allows rioting mobs and enemy security forces to be victorious in our land.

Defend Joseph’s tomb, Ariel Sharon – so that all Jews have free access to it; or move him to rest beside his mother. Listen to Rachel’s tears as she cries for her son, all her sons.

Defend Rachel’s tomb, Bibi Netanyahu – so that all Jews have free access to it – we cannot move her grave; we cannot abandon our heritage, our history, the places that are holy to us.

Listen to Rachel’s tears as she cries for her son, all her sons, for all of us.

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