What’s behind the new trend of Muslim worship at Rachel’s Tomb? Not what you think

Is the wave of Muslim tourism that has recently been sweeping over Rachel’s Tomb an act of innocent faith or of deliberate provocation?

By Nadav Shragani, JNS

The tourist bus that parked opposite Rachel’s Tomb two weeks ago, on one of the days of the Hanukkah holiday, did not attract any special attention—until the moment its doors opened.

Dozens of Muslims then poured out of it like toothpaste from a tube, for a short time altering the familiar human landscape at the holy site.

The (Sufi) Muslim believers, in this case from India, adorned in traditional dress, hurriedly made their way to the two entrances: The men ran to the main entrance while the women entered the women’s section.

They took off their shoes, as is customary at a mosque, placed them carefully, pair by pair, at the entrance halls adjacent to the location of the site of the tomb, and pushed their way alongside the Jewish worshipers to the stone covering the tomb adorned with a parochet or ritual curtain, clinging to it, caressing it and mumbling their own prayers.

At first glance, there was still some doubt as to their identity. For a moment, the white and multicolored robes confused the Jewish worshipers and the students of the yeshiva that operates at the site. But within only a few minutes—when alongside the verses from Psalms they began to utter verses from the Quran along with sections of prayer, singing in a foreign language—it became patently clear that something new and less familiar was beginning to occur at Rachel’s Tomb.

Some of the Jewish worshipers moved aside to create room for the Muslims too. Others got up and left. There were those too who tried to raise their voice and chant their own prayers louder in order to drown out the sound of the Muslims’ prayers. The Muslims finished their prayers after a short time, returned to the bus and then went on their way.

This seemingly irregular sight has been repeated on several occasions at Rachel’s Tomb recently until it finally erupted on the religious and ultra-orthodox news websites.

The ensuing media buzz in religious and ultra-orthodox circles not only generated great interest, but also gave rise to considerable dispute: Is this the dawning of a new era in which “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb” or possibly a contrarian approach the Palestinians are initiating and it is they who are behind it as part of their campaign to Islamize Jewish holy sites.

Miriam Adani, a frequent visitor to the site, describes the “phenomenon” as having been going on for two years already, “but it is now, only in recent months, that large groups, rather than individuals or smaller groups, have begun to turn up.” Adani, the Chair of the Rachel’s Tomb Heritage Fund, recounts, “The women in the women’s section were taken aback. We really were not prepared for this. When I saw the pictures of the piles of shoes placed next to the giant Hanukkah candelabrum that we had placed there, this was even more disturbing. This is a form of desecration. First and foremost, Rachel’s Tomb is a holy site for the Jews.”

“I have no problem with a Muslim who wants to come and visit on a personal basis, as a visitor who respects and honors the location, but these group visits appear to be an act of defiance,” she says. “There is also a serious security issue here that needs to be addressed. Groups of Muslims, both men and women, coming to Rachel’s Tomb without undergoing any real security check?

In today’s reality, when terrorists are on the lookout for any breach in the fence to climb through and hurt us, this is tantamount to recklessness. When I, as a Jew, go to the Western Wall, I have to go through a security check; so, all the more so, Muslims, whether they tourists or locals, should have to undergo a security check when coming here too.”

Adani, who two decades ago founded the Yesh Sachar L’Peulateich (“There is a reward for your labor”) campaign, during the second intifada headed a group of women who made sure that somebody would visit Rachel’s Tomb on a regular basis, even at times when the site was deep in the heart of raging Palestinian violence. This week, she called on the ministers of the newly sworn-in government to conduct a thorough check of this phenomenon, and to safeguard the shrine, both due to its sanctity and also its sensitive security situation.

Shachar Fireman, the manager of the Rachel’s Tomb site on behalf of Israel’s official National Center for the Development of Holy Sites, refuses to get worked up about the visits of Muslims to Rachel’s Tomb, for a simple reason. “This is nothing new,” Fireman says. “These are groups of Muslims from India. I have spoken with them once or twice. They come here to pray, just as some of us come here to pray, with the belief that the matriarch Rachel will save them. Some of them come to pray for fertility. They have been here for years but until now nobody has really talked about them. Now, all of a sudden, people have begun to take notice of them.”

“These groups come here 12-13 times a year, they do not come to provoke or harm anyone,” he says. “As far as I know, they have no pro-Palestinian orientation or defiant agenda. Yes, it’s true, they are Muslims, but they do not incite or cause any harm.”

Between two women

Another figure who seeks to calm things down is Prof. Yitzhak Reiter (from Reichman University and Al-Qasemi Academic College), an expert on the holy places in Israel. He does not believe that this involves an effort aimed at Islamization of Rachel’s Tomb nor is it an attempt to engage in provocation. “At least, according to the dress of the members of the group visiting the site during Hanukkah, these are Asian Muslims,” he says. “There are numerous biblical figures whom the Muslims honor and respect, attributing to them the status of prophets, even if they were not actually prophets. Rachel’s Tomb is not the only tomb of a biblical figure visited by the Muslims. They also come to David’s Tomb, Samuel’s Tomb (Nebi Samuel), Reuven’s Tomb (Nabi Rubin) near Palmachim (not far from the coast to the south of Tel Aviv) and to the Cave of Elijah, which is a holy site to four religions.”

Reiter thus proposes that we regard the visits of Muslims to Rachel’s Tomb as part of this overall framework. “We need to wait a bit and see in what direction this all develops,” he says, “but ostensibly, it does not appear to be an act designed with the intention of taking over the site or igniting a conflict.”

Pinhas Inbari, a veteran researcher of the Arab world, paints a slightly more complex picture. Inbari reminds us that for many years Rachel’s Tomb has been identified by part of the Muslim world with the figure of Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya, a medieval female Sufi saint, after whom hundreds of pilgrim sites and tombs have been named and are attributed to her throughout the Sufi world.

The Muslims who recently visited Rachel’s Tomb are Sufis, and it is certainly possible that this relates to their identification of the location as the burial site of Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya. Inbari also points out the link between the two female figures associated with the site: Rachel on the Jewish side and Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya on the Sufi side. He also mentions the fact that the site has been identified with Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ (see below), and states that only last week the Palestinian Authority decided to expand its popular struggle also onto the religious playing field and that this issue was discussed between the head of the P.A., Mahmoud Abbas, and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

“The king seeks to protect the status quo on the Temple Mount while Mahmoud Abbas is indicating a desire to expand the conflict to the Western Wall too. Though this has not yet begun to occur, it does seem to be the intended direction. The common denominator between Rachel’s Tomb and the Western Wall is that both are recognized by UNESCO as belonging to Islam so that the battles over them will be part of their international legitimacy,” he says.

If so, are we dealing here with much ado about nothing, or does Israel simply need to learn how to distinguish between nationalist and contrarian Islam, espoused by the Palestinians, and Islam of another kind, from Indonesia, India and other places, with which figures such as Rabbi Yakov Nagen are nurturing a dialogue?

In the case of Rachel’s Tomb, the answer is quite complex: Since the second intifada, the Palestinians have ceased to identify the site with the biblical figure of the matriarch Rachel, as they used to do for many years beforehand. They no longer refer to it as “Kubat Rahil” (Rachel’s Dome), and as we have mentioned, they prefer to refer to the names of two Muslim saints that are less familiar to the Israeli ear.

One is that of Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ, originally of Ethiopian descent, who is known in Islamic history to have been a servant in the house of the prophet Muhammad who served as the first-ever mu’azzin. The second one, mentioned by Inbari, is Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya, an important eighth-century Sufi figure, one of the first mystics in Islam who spoke about the love of God and his service in human terms of romantic love.

The figure of ibn Rabāḥ was connected with the site by Yasser Arafat as part of the process of Islamization and Palestinization that have applied in recent decades to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount too. It is a known fact that many Palestinians today deny any Jewish links to these sites. The identification of Rachel’s Tomb with Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya goes back further than this, and at the time Arafat avoided it, according to Inbari, in order not to sour his relations with the Saudi kingdom that had its reservations about the issue.

Why was the “mihrab” filled in?

About a decade ago, UNESCO succumbed to pressure from the Palestinians and the Arab states, and for the first time registered Rachel’s Tomb also as the Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ Mosque, even though the historical truth is completely different. Ibn Rabāḥ was killed in 642 when he went off to fight in the Islamic wars in Syria, and he is buried in Damascus. Rachel’s Tomb, which is located in the northern outskirts of Bethlehem, only 460 meters south of Jerusalem’s municipal boundary, has been identified as a holy Jewish site for more than 1,700 years, the burial site of the matriarch Rachel. The Muslims too have a connection to the site, but this derives directly from the figure of Rachel, not from that of ibn Rabāḥ, which is the result of a fabrication dating from the time of Arafat.

There is no clearer indication of this than the fact that in publications of nationalist Palestinian elements, who now call Rachel’s Tomb the “Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ Mosque,” no reference to this term can be found until only a few years ago. This can also be seen on the Al Jazeera news outlet, which identified the site as “Kubat Rahil” and only wrote “Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ Mosque” in parentheses. This is also the case with regards to “Al-Mawsuea Al-Filistina,” which was published in Italy by the Palestinian Encyclopedia Organization after 1996, and also in the Palestinian Lexicon, published by the Arab League and the PLO in 1984.

Even in the book “The West Bank and Gaza—Palestine,” the site is referred to as Rachel’s Tomb rather than the Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ Mosque. In the book “Palestine the Holy Land,” which was published even before the Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ legend, it is simply written that: “Rachel’s Tomb appears at the northern entrance to Bethlehem, the tomb of the mother of the matriarchs, who died there giving birth to Benjamin.”

The schoolbooks issued by the P.A. indicate the date on which the change occurred: In the period of 1995-2000, the PA presented Rachel’s Tomb to its students with its historical name, but from 2010 onwards it has portrayed the photo of Rachel’s Tomb in its civics textbooks as the Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ Mosque.

In addition, the fact that in the extra room adjacent to the room housing the sacred tomb, until the Six-Day War in 1967, there was a mihrab (a Muslim prayer niche in the wall of a mosque indicating the qibla or direction of the Ka’aba in Mecca which Muslims must face during prayers), and this mihrab was filled in by the Israeli authorities, is being exploited by the Palestinians as part of their propaganda campaign against the Jewish ties with the site. This story too, however, was contorted by them.

The full story (the issues are set out in detail in the book “The Story of Rachel’s Tomb,” written by the author of this article) is that the tomb complex is surrounded on three sides by a Muslim cemetery. Most of this land belongs to the Ta’mira Bedouin tribe that began to bury its dead there in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In previous generations, the proximity of the cemetery to the tomb complex led to considerable friction between Jews and Arabs, who sought to engage in the ritual purification of their dead in the room housing the tomb. Many historical sources testify that in previous centuries, both the Ta’mira and the surrounding Arabs harassed Jews visiting the tomb, and even forced them to pay bribes and protection fees as a precondition for frequenting the site.

As a result of the incessant harassment of Jews coming to Rachel’s Tomb by the Muslims, Moses Montefiore obtained a license and permit from the ruling Turks to build an additional room to Rachel’s Tomb. The room was built in 1841 and a mihrab was also installed in it. The objective was to cause the Muslims to withdraw their presence from the room housing the actual tomb itself and to cease harassing the Jews. Even prior to this, the head of the Sephardic community committee in Jerusalem, Hacham Abraham Bakr Abraham, obtained two firmans (official Islamic decrees) from the Muslim Ottoman authorities, acknowledging the rights of the Jews to the place and prohibiting any disturbance to them from praying there. Despite this, the harassment and provocation continued.

Realization of Jewish property

Eventually, large sums of money were paid to the Muslims so that they would conduct the purification of their dead outside the two rooms at the tomb site and would thus allow the Jews to visit Rachel’s Tomb and pray there without interruption. This is how the story of the mihrab “the Muslim prayer niche at Rachel’s Tomb” developed—after being completely distorted, and thus helping the Palestinians to turn the place into a “mosque.”

The modern history of Rachel’s Tomb is also full of ups and downs, and they might not be the last ones either. Behind the scenes, members of Knesset and ministers are currently working to bolster the Jewish presence, which has taken root and developed over the last decade adjacent to Rachel’s Tomb. There are 12 Jewish families on site, along with a yeshiva and a midrasha (study center). Currently on the agenda: Construction of a main building for the yeshiva and permanent houses for the families, expanding the Jewish residential presence on site, and also realizing Jewish property that was purchased in the vicinity many years ago. An additional option currently being looked into is to annex the small Israeli enclave of Rachel’s Tomb, which was expanded about two decades ago on land purchased from Christian families, either to Jerusalem or to the Gush Etzion regional council.

It was Moshe Dayan, the then-minister of defense, who decided immediately after the Six-Day War in 1967 not to annex the site to Jerusalem. He was reluctant to do so due to the site’s proximity to the Church of the Nativity, rejecting requests from Jerusalem’s longstanding mayor at the time, Teddy Kollek, to annex the site. It is a well-known fact that Israel’s later prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, almost handed over the complex to the Palestinians, with the ensuing full security and civilian control of the site, but a highly driven lobby of rabbis and politicians (including some from his own political party), and an extremely emotional and tearful meeting with MKs Hanan Porat (National Religious Party) and Menachem Porush (United Torah Judaism) eventually persuaded Rabin to change his decision.

Western Wall and the Holy Places Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch remembers those days and the struggle in which he too played a part, but he does not tie in the visits of Muslims to Rachel’s Tomb, which have suddenly begun to make headlines, with that struggle, or the Palestinian struggle against the Jewish identity of Rachel’s Tomb today.

“Yes, it is true that there are attempts to harm the Jewish visitors and worshipers there. From time to time, a Molotov cocktail or a roadside charge is thrown at the complex. The high walls and the military presence on site tend to thwart almost all these attempts, which are part and parcel of the conflict with the Palestinians but do not single out Rachel’s Tomb as a hot spot of dispute over a holy site. We don’t have a conflict over Rachel’s Tomb as we do over the Temple Mount or the Cave of Machpela,” says Rabbi Rabinovitch, and suggests “not to blow the issue of the Indian Muslims visiting the site out of proportion.”

How does Judaism relate to Muslims visiting Jewish holy sites in general, and Rachel’s Tomb in particular, as a matter of general principle?

“Judaism does not prevent anybody genuinely seeking to visit Jewish holy sites from doing so. We have never closed off the Western Wall to any other religion either. If a Muslim, from anywhere in the world, feels an authentic connection to the figure of the matriarch Rachel and comes to visit Rachel’s Tomb, without disturbing or coming to incite, take over the site or harm the Jews there, or to engage in customs that are contrary to the holy nature of the site—then Judaism as a religion has no problem at all with this,” Rabbi Rabinovitch says.

“This”, he stresses, “is completely in contrast to how the Muslims treat Jews on the Temple Mount (though, as is known, I personally object to Jews going up there) and in contrast to the way in which the Jordanians prevented Jews from visiting the holiest sites in Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967.”

How does the rabbi relate to the pile of shoes placed by the Hanukkah lamp, which generated a commotion among the worshipers there?

“Maybe they should be covered over. I assume that this will be taken care of in the future, but in principle, there is no problem with them taking off their shoes. As far as they are concerned, this is not a sign of disrespect, but actually, it is intended to be a display of respect,” he states.

Nadav Shragai is an author and journalist.