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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rachel's Tomb and the making of an Arab lie

Today was the traditional anniversary of the death of the matriarch Rachel, and thousands of Jews went to Rachel's Tomb to pray. Ma'an reported it this way:
Thousands of Israelis, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, descended on the tomb of the Biblical matriarch Rachel in a militarized compound in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Thursday.

Right-wing religious groups petitioned Israel’s highest court in 2004 to re-route the wall to include the tomb on the western side. To this day the site, formerly known as the location of the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque, is accessible only from the Israeli side.
Was Rachel's Tomb ever really known as the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque?

The answer is, of course, no. That name was created relatively recently - believe it or not, in the 1990s!

As Nadav Shragai revealed in a 2007 article:
In 2000, after hundreds of years of recognizing the site as Rachel's Tomb, Muslims began calling it the "Bilal ibn Rabah mosque."20 Members of the Wakf used the name first in 1996, but it has since entered the national Palestinian discourse. Bilal ibn Rabah was an Ethiopian known in Islamic history as a slave who served in the house of the prophet Muhammad as the first muezzin (the individual who calls the faithful to prayer five times a day).21 When Muhammad died, ibn Rabah went to fight the Muslim wars in Syria, was killed in 642 CE, and buried in either Aleppo or Damascus.22 The Palestinian Authority claimed that according to Islamic tradition, it was Muslim conquerors who named the mosque erected at Rachel's Tomb after Bilal ibn Rabah.

The Palestinian claim ignored the fact that Ottoman firmans (mandates or decrees) gave Jews in the Land of Israel the right of access to the site at the beginning of the nineteenth century.23 The Palestinian claim even ignored accepted Muslim tradition, which admires Rachel and recognizes the site as her burial place. According to tradition, the name "Rachel" comes from the word "wander," because she died during one of her wanderings and was buried on the Bethlehem road.24 Her name is referred to in the Koran,25 and in other Muslim sources, Joseph is said to fall upon his mother Rachel's grave and cry bitterly as the caravan of his captors passes by.26 For hundreds of years, Muslim holy men (walis) were buried in tombs whose form was the same as Rachel's.

Then, out of the blue, the connection between Rachel, admired even by the Muslims, and her tomb is erased and the place becomes "the Bilal ibn Rabah mosque." Well-known Orientalist Professor Yehoshua Porat has called the "tradition" the Muslims referred to as "false." He said the Arabic name of the site was "the Dome of Rachel, a place where the Jews prayed."27

Only a few years ago, official Palestinian publications contained not a single reference to such a mosque. The same was true for the Palestinian Lexicon issued by the Arab League and the PLO in 1984, and for Al-mawsu'ah al-filastiniyah, the Palestinian encyclopedia published in Italy after 1996. Palestine, the Holy Land, published by the Palestinian Council for Development and Rehabilitation, with an introduction written by Yasser Arafat, simply says that "at the northwest entrance to the city [Bethlehem] lies the tomb of the matriarch Rachel, who died while giving life to Benjamin." The West Bank and Gaza - Palestine also mentions the site as the Tomb of Rachel and not as the Mosque of Bilal ibn Rabah.28 However, the Palestinian deputy minister for endowments and religious affairs has now defined Rachel's Tomb as a Muslim site.29

On Yom Kippur in 2000, six days after the IDF withdrew from Joseph's Tomb, the Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida published an article marking the next target as Rachel's Tomb. It read in part, "Bethlehem - ‘the Tomb of Rachel,' or the Bilal ibn Rabah mosque, is one of the nails the occupation government and the Zionist movement hammered into many Palestinian cities....The tomb is false and was originally a Muslim mosque."30
Indeed, the earliest reference I can find to such a name is from the BBC in 1997, and for the rest of the 90s that is the only news outlet I can find that ever used that terminology.

Looking at some old books, I see it was called "Kubbet Rahil" by Muslims in 1901. This travelogue from around 1880 says:
...We came to Rachel's tomb, a small square whitewashed domed building, part of which dates back to the twelfth century. It stands by the side of the road, a mile short of Bethlehem. It is in possession of the Jews, and is only opened on Thursdays; but we looked in through a small aperture on the south side.


Many other 1800's-era books do describe Rachel's Tomb as a mosque or as a place of worship for both Jews and Muslims. But none of them give any Arabic name that doesn't include the word "Rachel" in some form. And certainly none of them describe the spot as being exclusively Muslim.

Similarly, in 1949 the UN listed major holy sites according to religion. Here is what they said about Rachel's Tomb as being claimed by both Muslims and Jews:
Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, when Jacob was travelling from Bethel to Hebron. A pillar was set up over her grave, and the spot was a familiar landmark in the time of Samuel. Several medieval writers refer to it as a Jewish Holy Place. The Arab writer Mugeir-al-Din described it as built of "eleven stones and covered with a cupola which rests on four pillars, and every Jew passing writes his name on the monument."

The tomb lies on the Jerusalem-Hebron road just before it enters Bethlehem. It consists of an open antechamber and a two-roomed shrine under a cupola containing a sarcophagus. The building lies within a Moslem cemetery, for which it serves as a place of prayer. The tomb is a place of Jewish pilgrimage. The Jews claim possession of Rachel's Tomb by virtue firstly of the fact that in 1615 Mohammad, Pasha of Jerusalem, rebuilt the Tomb on their behalf and by a Firman granted them the exclusive use of it; and secondly, that the building, which had fallen into decay, was entirely rebuilt by Sir M. Montefiore in 1845. The keys were obtained by the Jews from the last Moslem guardian at this time.

The Moslem claim to own the building rests on its being a place of prayer for the Moslems of the neighbourhood and an integral part of the Moslem cemetery within which it lies. The Moslems state that the Ottoman Government recognized it as such and further that it is included among the Tombs of the Prophets for which identity signboards were issued by the Ministry of Waqfs in 1328 A.H. They also assert that the antechamber was specially built, at the time of the restoration by Sir M. Montefiore, as a place of prayer for the Moslems. The Moslems object in principle to any repair of the building by the Jews although (up to the recent war) free access to it was allowed at all times.

In 1912 the Ottoman Government permitted the Jews to repair the shrine itself, but not the antechamber. Three months after the British occupation of Palestine the whole place was cleaned and whitewashed by the Jews without protest from the Moslems. In 1921 the Chief Rabbinate applied to the Municipality of Bethlehem for permission to repair the shrine. This gave rise to a Moslem protest, whereupon the High Commissioner ruled that, pending appointment of the Holy Places Commission provided for under the Mandate, all repairs should be undertaken by the Government. However, so much indignation was caused in Jewish circles by this decision that the matter was dropped, the repairs not being considered urgent. In 1925 the Sephardic Community requested permission to repair the Tomb. The building was then made structurally sound and exterior repairs were effected by the Government, but permission was refused by the Jews (who had the keys) for the Government to repair the interior of the shrine. As the interior repairs were unimportant, the Government dropped the matter, in order to avoid controversy.
The claim that Moses Montefiore built a mosque at Rachel's Tomb is laughable. Montefiore was a religious Jew, and he and his wife, who could not have children, identified so strongly with the biblical Rachel that they now lie in a replica of Rachel's Tomb that he built in England.

As far as the Muslim cemetery surrounding Rachel's Tomb is concerned, it is also relatively recent. Photographs of the area from the early 1900s show no such cemetery.


Once again, we have a case of where Muslims claim shrines of other religions as being their own. In this case, they added a completely new reason to venerate the site - specifically to take away the obvious fact that Rachel herself is associated exclusively with Jews.