Religion in Hebron, Palestine: Newcomers to the Palestinian city of Hebron will immediately notice that it is a place that has constantly been concerned with the hereafter. The city was featured in the Old Testament and, as a result, is littered with sites holy to the Abrahamic religions. Residents likewise, concern themselves with spiritual affairs at a level foreign to those in the West. It is a more religiously conservative city than any other in the West Bank, though not nearly as conservative as cities in Sudan or Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the city has been a flashpoint for clashes which the combatants saw as battles in a holy war. In this article, we’ll discuss the religious practices and significance of the city of Hebron for potential volunteers and students.
Hebron is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth, tracing its roots back to the Early Bronze Age. Its real claim to fame however, comes from the belief that Abraham, the founder of contemporary monotheism, purchased land there to bury his wife. Later Abraham himself, along with his son and grandson and their wives, were buried there. Today the site where those burials are believed to have occurred is split between Muslims and Jews, with Jews calling the site the “Cave of the Patriarchs,” and Muslims calling the site the, “Ibrahimi Mosque.”
Because Abraham, and his son Issac and grandson Jacob, feature so prominently in Judaism, religious Jews founded a settlement in the city, Kiryat Arba, in the 1960s after the West Bank was captured by Israel. However, as all three men are also considered prophets in Islam as well, the Muslims were reluctant to hand over the site. Even today, debates over who truly owns the site and how it should be divided spark protests and occasional violence on both sides.
Today Hebron is a predominantly Muslim city, with only three Christian residents recorded in the 1997 census. Hebron has been at the heart of a conservative religious and political movement in the West Bank for some time and the residents of Hebron take their religion very seriously. Mosques are on every street corner, the call to prayer rings clearly five times a day, and religious paraphernalia is widely available in storefronts. Muslims in Hebron tend to interpret Islam differently than those in the West or westernized Arab cities like Ramallah or Amman. The sale or consumption of alcohol is forbidden within city limits and the sexes are, for the most part, kept separate unless related or married. The vast majority of women choose to dress modestly and wear the hijab, or occasionally the niqab.
Foreign volunteers and students shouldn’t be fearful of this however. Despite the conservatism, Hebronites don’t let religion prevent them from being friendly to non-Muslims. In fact, most people in Hebron believe it is a religious duty to be a good host. They also understand that most foreign volunteers are not Muslims, and even those who are have different cultural backgrounds. Therefore, foreigners aren’t held to the same religious standards as fellow Muslim Palestinians. All the same, dressing modestly and avoiding openly identifying as an atheist, Jew, or sexual minority is wise.
Life in Hebron can certainly be different from life in the predominantly secular West. However, most volunteers find the religious differences benign and think of Muslims in Hebron as welcoming hosts and new friends.