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Risking life and limb for pilgrimage to Shechem

  • PaulaRH7
It’s midnight. The dark hills of Shechem (Nablus), a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank, beckon in the moonlight. Escorted by the Israeli army, our armoured convoy of 10 buses slowly begins its descent into the narrow valley that for 4 000 years has nestled between two mountains.
by PAULA SLIER | Sep 26, 2019

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Romans changed Shechem’s name to “Neapolis” (meaning “new city”). This then became “Nablus”. While Israelis today still call the city Shechem, Palestinians refer to it as Nablus.

Lying in an ancient junction between two important commercial routes, the city links the central coast of Israel to the Jordan Valley and biblical Judea to the south through the mountains.

The first time I heard the name Shechem was 15 years ago. I was reporting in Israel, and there’d been a terror attack in the city. As we headed there, the Israeli-Russian cameraman I worked with started to shake visibly as the road signs changed from Hebrew to Arabic. For almost 20 years, it has been off-limits for Jews and Israelis.

But its deep historical and religious significance hasn’t waned. It’s here that the remains of the Jewish forefather, Joseph, lie buried. The Bible tells the story that when Abraham entered the land in 1737 BCE his first stop was the “place of Shechem”, where G-d appeared to him and promised him that “to your descendants I will give this land”.

Years later Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, purchased a plot on the perimeter of Shechem that he promised to his favourite son, Joseph. Rising through the ranks to become viceroy of Egypt, Joseph in turn made the children of Israel promise that when they eventually left Egypt, they’d take his remains along with them. Generations later, the book of Exodus reveals how Moses carried the bones of Joseph, eventually burying them in the land that Jacob had bought.

Since then, according to the late Dr Zvi Ilan, one of Israel’s foremost archaeologists, Joseph’s Tomb has been “one of the tombs whose location is known with the utmost degree of certainty, and is based on continuous documentation since biblical times”.

It’s a focus of Jewish pilgrimage and prayer. And this week, for the first time, I visited it.

The bulletproof bus slowly winds its way through the dark and unpaved streets of Shechem. It’s 02:53, and the city is eerily quiet. A few lights shimmer from inside the buildings we pass, but aside from the light thrown from the bus behind us, it’s mostly dark. Somewhere, a dog barks. The population of 126 000 are nowhere to be seen – or heard.

I can make out the occasional Israeli soldier in the fog. The army has blocked off all the side roads, and is waving us on through the main street. The religious young men sitting alongside me in the bus who until now were singing and clapping their hands in excited anticipation, have quietened into a deep sense of awe. Everyone is deeply moved by the significance of this journey. Like tens of thousands of Jews who have been visiting the Western Wall all week in preparation for the high holidays, this too is a pilgrimage to pray and ask for forgiveness.

Tradition dictates that ever since Moses went up Mount Sinai on the first day of the month of Elul in order to ask G-d for forgiveness, Jews believe that one’s fate for the coming year is sealed during this period of high holidays. Hence, Jews pray for forgiveness – selichot in Hebrew – for the year that has passed, and for blessings for the one that is to come.

Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem is considered one of the five holiest places in Judaism after the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and Rachel’s Tomb. It’s also holy to Muslims and Christians although the Quran doesn’t mention its exact location, and few Christians pilgrims visit the site.

For nearly twenty years since October 2000, when the Israeli army withdrew from the area, its isolated and dangerous geographic location has meant that few Jews have prayed here either. Jews are allowed to visit the tomb only under heavy-armed guard and through prior authorisation with the Israeli army. Located in Area A of the West Bank, it’s officially under complete Palestinian Authority security and civilian control. But the Israeli military still conducts activities here, and allows Jews occasional access to the tomb in the wee hours of the night because that’s when it says it’s easier for it to secure the area.

However, often during these visits, Palestinians throw rocks and sometimes Molotov cocktails at the soldiers and convoy.

I wipe away the mist from the bus window. It is now 03:04, and I can see people disembarking from buses ahead in the road. A body lies on the ground to my left covered in a silver sheet. I look again, unsure of what I’m witnessing, but the Israeli soldier waves us on. Later, I learn that two Palestinians were killed that night trying to disrupt the gathering.

It was back in 1967 following the Six-Day War that Israel first gained control of Joseph’s Tomb. A small settlement grew inside the site’s compound. In 1995, the area was transferred to Palestinian Authority jurisdiction but Israeli soldiers continued to control the site, as per the Oslo Accords, to ensure free access to pilgrims.

During the Western Wall Tunnel riots a year later, the tomb was attacked, and six Israeli soldiers were killed. Since then, it has become the site of continuous rioting and ongoing frustration between the sides.

Finally, we arrive. Most of the worshippers are men and alongside less than 100 women, I’m directed to a separate entrance where a large courtyard is lit up with candles burning on the floor against one wall. I walk through an entrance into a small room made from local stones. The loud praying and singing of women as I slowly make my way forward and touch part of the cloth that covers the grave, is deeply moving. No less is the heavy army presence and the soldiers who come up to me to ask if I’d like some bottled water.

A day later, I’m at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where postal workers are collecting the notes in the cracks. They bury them twice a year (before Passover and Rosh Hashanah) in the geniza (cemetery storage area) along with remnants of holy books. Nothing is thrown away.

I’m struck by the poignancy of the two experiences. Both are places where Jews come to pray during this special time of year, and where their tears are mingled with the wish for a better year in spite of the ongoing violence and terrible conflict.

On Sunday night, Jewish families across Israel will be sitting down with loved ones to recount the exodus from Egypt. On Monday, they’ll share in the traditional family braai. Tens of thousands are on their way to the grave of Rabbi Nachman in Uman, Ukraine, for the traditional Rosh Hashanah prayers that overwhelm the little town. Shoppers weighted down with bulging bags are scurrying through the Jerusalem market that, like shops everywhere, closes down for the holiday. Pomegranates dangle from trees – their rosy red colour and numerous seeds a symbol of fruitfulness and hope.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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