As the IDF withdraws from Jericho, Jews from the region and former students of the Jericho yeshiva want Jewish religious rights at ancient sites in the Biblical city to be restored.
“If they insist on giving away Jericho to the PA yet again and want to see some level of sincerity exhibited by them,” says says David HaLevi, who lives in Mevo’ot Yericho, on the outskirts of Jericho, “can’t they at least restore Jewish rights to access our holy sites?”
The right to a Jewish presence at Jericho’s synagogues was enshrined since the Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue was discovered beneath an Arab house after Israel conquered Jericho in the 1967 Six Day War and even preserved under the ill-fated Oslo Accords, which transferred control over the Jericho area to the Palestinian Authority in 1993. The synagogue, dating from the Byzantine period, boasted an intricate mosaic floor depicting a menorah and a shofar (ram’s horn), with the Hebrew inscription: “Peace unto Israel.”
Initially, the Arab living in the house above the synagogue charged admission to Jews wishing to pray at the site, but in 1986 Israel turned the site into a National Park. In the early 90s, the house above the synagogue became the study hall of the Shalom Al Yisrael yeshiva, a Torah study academy. Bi-weekly Shabbat celebrations were organized in order to reconnect with Jericho’s ancient synagogues and Jewish communities. Visiting Jews stayed in a local Arab hotel and spent the day praying and touring the city. In 1993, then-Prime Minister Yitchak Rabin agreed to give the Shalom Al Yisrael yeshiva special status, similar to that with regard to Joseph’s Tomb, in Shechem, where there was also a yeshiva. Shortly after Israel handed over control to the Palestinian Authority, the Sabbath visits were outlawed due to PA fears that a large-scale Jewish presence would weaken their hold on the ancient city.
Though Jewish students were barred from taking up residence at the site, they traveled to the synagogue daily. For the next seven years, groups dedicated to Jewish Jericho spent every other week sleeping in makeshift tents, making Shabbat without the luxuries of refrigeration, permanent toilets or the air conditioning despite Jericho’s one hundred and twenty degree summer days.
The Oslo process eventually culminated in a terror offensive that resulted in Israel’s complete abandonment of all Jewish sites in Jericho and Shechem and their subsequent destruction by Arab vandals given a free hand by the Palestinian Authority. The ancient “Shalom Al Yisrael” (Peace on Israel) synagogue was one of the first casualties of the terror offensive.
“Fortunately, the Torah scrolls were saved because they were in a safe. But all the sacred books were destroyed,” said Mordechai Rabinowitz who headed the yeshiva at the Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue. “As far as I know the mosaic is still intact and last Chanukah a Jewish group tried to enter Jericho to visit.”
Groups from nearby Mevo’ot Yericho, where the Torah scroll from the Shalom al Yisrael now rests, regularly embark on clandestine visits during the night to pray in another ancient synagogue on the outskirts of Jericho. The Na’aran synagogue, which is believed to have been built in the 5th or 6th century, was also discovered by accident. The Synagogue was found after the Ottoman Turks shelled a British army unit camped nearby. It also has a mosaic floor, this one with the symbols of the Jewish months, a depiction of the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den and pictures of vessels from the Temple.
“It is now surrounded by Bedouin,” says HaLevi. “The mosaic is intact, but certainly not upkept, and it is outrageous to see this precious ancient place of worship so abandoned and abused.”
Rabinowitz said that it is unconscionable that Israel hand over Jericho to foreign rule after the destruction that was wrought as a result of such a move last time. “When I hear Vice Premier Shimon Peres say things like ‘What do we want with Jericho, it is a cursed place’ it gives me the shivers,” he said. “Suddenly he quotes the Bible to bolster his argument for withdrawal. According to the Bible, Jericho was cursed to remain unbuilt specifically because of the importance of the place, which was conquered in such a miraculous manner.”
Jericho was conquered during the time of Joshua by the Jewish people marching around the city seven times and blowing rams’ horns, at which point the walls sank into the ground.
“Rebuilding Jericho obscures that miracle and the testimony to the fact that the Land of Israel is in our hands due to the Holy One blessed be He,” said Rabinowitz.