The houses of Yibna surrounding the village mosque during the British Mandate (left); what's left in 2012 (right)
Can Yavne help the cause of justice in Israel-Palestine? For his vision of a single state with equality for Jews and Palestinians, Peter Beinart invokes it and its pivotal place in Jewish history. Yavne, where Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the Roman general Vespasian to let him establish a school when the destruction of the Temple was imminent. Yavne, where the foundations of rabbinic Judaism were set. It can be hard to grasp that importance on the spot today. Modern Yavne is a small city of some 50,000 people between Tel Aviv and Gaza. When my wife and I lived in Israel, our main impression was the smell of trash as you passed the city on Highway 4, leading us to dub it the New Jersey of Israel. On the other side of the city from the landfill, alongside the railway line, is a tell, a mound that marks the spot of the ancient town. Visit it today and there’s not much to see from its ancient past. (There have been archaeological excavations here but nothing impressive in the way of ancient architectural finds on the ground.) Amid the overgrown weeds and dirt, it’s hard to see more than a “dusty coastal village” of the first century here.
This isn’t the only reason Yavne’s importance is hard to imagine. When I visited the tell with a couple of friends several years ago, one of them, a scholar of early Judaism, announced something to the effect of “This is the place where the rabbis didn’t canonize the Bible.” I was surprised. I’d never heard the reality behind this story questioned before. But such questioning really has become routine in Jewish Studies over the last few decades. Then there’s the Talmud’s mythical tale of how Yochanan ben Zakkai won Yavne for the rabbis, by predicting that the Roman general Vespasian would become emperor. It’s too convenient, and it’s remarkably similar to the Jewish historian Josephus’s claim (written much earlier) that he was granted favor by Vespasian after predicting his rise to emperor. So much about Yavne’s place in Jewish history probably never happened.
Ancient Yavne itself was very much a real place, though, and for long after the first century. At the mound today, besides the weeds and the occasional excavation trench, you’ll see cactus hedges running along it, the telltale sign that there were once Arab fields here. People continued to live in the village long after the Sanhedrin, and Hebrew Yavne became Arabic Yibna. It was a district center under the early Muslim caliphates, minting its own coins; famous for its figs, according to the tenth-century resident of Jerusalem al-Muqaddasi; the site of the Crusader castle of Ibelin; and later reduced in size to a village, though a large and important one along the main north-south road. The residents were there throughout, for some 1850 years after Yohanan ben Zakkai, until 1948, when they either fled or were forced out by the armed forces of the new state of Israel, never allowed to return. The village was then demolished. About the only structure left on the mound that was the village of Yibna is the minaret of a mosque, built in the 1300s. The minaret stands there alone – the rest of the mosque was destroyed by Moshe Dayan in 1950, as part of his campaign to demolish Islamic holy sites in the region. The modern Israeli city of Yavne was not a continuation but a replacement: it grew up alongside the mound, but the mound itself was left empty.
Yibna by itself was not a place of great importance. But it surely mattered to the Palestinians who lived there, like the hundreds of other villages that met a similar fate in 1948. Its absence from recent invocations of Yavne is a fitting symbol, showing how easily even well-meaning plans leave Palestinians out of their own history – and their own future. How can Yavne serve as a model for a shared Jewish/Palestinian state if we mention only the brief (semi-legendary) moment of its importance to Jewish history, and aren’t even aware of its much longer existence as an Arab village? The “dusty old village” of the first century, after all, was the same place as the “dusty old village” from which Palestinians were evicted in 1948. Is there a way we can refocus on a more complete history of Yavne?
Just off of the mound of Yibna is an old shrine. For at least 800 years this was the tomb of Abu Hurayra, one of the companions of Muhammad. It was an important shrine, renovated and expanded under the auspices of the Mamluk sultans of Egypt themselves in the late 13th century. Today, with the Arab residents gone, it now serves for Orthodox Jews as the tomb of Rabban Gamaliel of the Sanhedrin. The Arabic inscriptions left on the cenotaph – the sarcophagus in the center of the shrine – by worshiping Muslims is now covered over or cleaned off, the Muslim graves outside the shrine removed. Like Yavne’s place in Jewish history, this shrine’s origins are mixed with legend: Abu Hurayra was widely believed to have died and been buried in Medina, and he had at least two other tombs in what is now Israel. There isn’t any evidence that this building was originally connected with Gamaliel, either – though medieval Jewish travelers in the 13th and 14th centuries already identified it as his tomb. But what this does mean is that, centuries ago at least, the shrine was a shared holy place. Maybe this is the Yavne we should use as a model, a starting point to reconcile past and present, Jew and Arab.
The tomb of Abu Hurayra/Rabban Gamliel during the British Mandate (left) and 2012 (right)