Excerpted from: The Palestinian Authority and the Jewish Holy Sites in the
West Bank: Rachel's Tomb as a Test Case
by Nadav Shragai No. 559 22 Kislev 5768 / 2 December 2007
The Jerusalem Viewpoints series is published by the Institute for
Contemporary Affairs, founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation.
The Palestinians Invent a Religious Claim
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
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
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
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
* * *
20. Nadav Shragai, At the Crossroads, the Story of the Tomb of Rachel,
Jerusalem Studies, 2005,(Al em ha-derekh, sipuro shel kever rachel, shaarim
le-heker yerushalaim, 2005 pp. 230-1.
21. Danny Rubinstein, "The Slave and the Mother," Ha'aretz, October 9, 1996,
and a private conversation with Orientalist Yoni Dehoah-Halevi.
23. Shragai, At the Crossroads, pp. 48-52; Miginzei Kedem, Documents and
Sources from the Writings of Pinhas Name, ed. Yitzhak Beck (Yad Yitzhak
Ben-Tzvi, 1977), pp. 30-32 (Teudot u-mekorot tokh kitvei Pinhas, Miginzei
Kedem, Yad Yitzkah Ben-Tzvi, 1977, pp. 30-32).
24. Eli Schiller, The Tomb of Rachel (Ariel, 1977) (Kever Rachel, 1977), p.
27. Yehoshua Porat, "Two Graves, Two Worlds," Ma'ariv, around the same time.
28. Islam adopted the same tactic regarding the Western Wall. Further
information can be found in Dr. Berkowitz' book. He found that until the
eleventh century Muslim scholars disagreed as to where the prophet Muhammad
had tied al-Buraq, his winged horse, after his night ride. Some identified
the place as the southern wall of the Temple Mount, others as the eastern
wall, but none of them suggested any connection to the western wall, sacred
to Judaism, called the Wailing Wall in the diaspora and the Western Wall in
Hebrew. The claim was only made after the "Wall conflict" broke out between
Jews and Muslims before the 1929 riots.
During the riots of 1929, violence broke out in Jerusalem and on the
Temple Mount. From there it spread to neighboring areas and hampered regular
visits to Rachel's Tomb. In 1929 the Wakf demanded control over the tomb,
claiming it was part of the neighboring Muslim cemetery. It also demanded to
renew the old Muslim custom of purifying corpses in the tomb's antechamber
(the structure added by Montefiori in 1841).
29. Shragai, At the Crossroads, p. 233.
30. Al-Hayat al-Jadida, October 8, 2000.
31. Christian sources identified the site as such almost two thousand years
ago. For example, see the New Testament, Matthew 2:18.
* * *
Nadav Shragai is the author of At the Crossroads, the Story of the Tomb of
Rachel (Jerusalem Studies, 2005); The Mount of Contention, the Struggle for
the Temple Mount, Jews and Muslims, Religion and Politics since 1967 (Keter,
1995); and "Jerusalem is Not the Problem, It is the Solution," in Mister
Prime Minister: Jerusalem, ed. Moshe Amirav (Carmel and the Florsheimer
Institute, 2005). He has been writing for the Israeli daily newspaper
Ha'aretz since 1983.
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