The Jewish Underground, more than 30 years later

A scene from the documentary series The Jewish Underground, (photo credit: COURTESY YES)
A scene from the documentary series The Jewish Underground,
(photo credit: COURTESY YES)
It’s been over 30 years since the shocking case of the Jewish Underground, but it is all but forgotten these days. That’s why the documentary series The Jewish Underground, by Shai Gal, currently running on YES Docu and YES Sting TV, is so fascinating.
Gal gets many of the key players, in both the underground and the Shin Bet, to look back at these events with decades of perspective, and through this, he illuminates how the Jewish Underground influences today’s political landscape.
The Jewish Underground carried out a series of violent crimes against Palestinians in the early ’80s, including booby-trapping cars of West Bank mayors with explosives and shooting students on a college campus. But their plans for even more destructive crimes – bombing packed buses in east Jerusalem and blowing up the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount – were stopped when they were caught in the nick of time.
Twenty-five men, most of them respected members of the Gush Emunim movement, were arrested.
Fifteen were convicted of various crimes – three were actually found guilty of murder – but following political pressure, their sentences were reduced and all were out within seven years.
This controversial and divisive chapter in Israel’s history is masterfully examined by Gal through archival footage and intelligently conducted interviews.
The Shin Bet officers, among them Carmi Gillon and Yaakov Peri (who were interviewed in their capacity as former Shin Bet heads in Dror Moreh’s documentary, The Gatekeepers), describe in detail the difficulty of catching criminals who had spotless records and no other involvement in crime. Particularly interesting is their story of how they gathered information by pretending to be recruiting Shin Bet operatives.
Some of their suspects walked right into this trap and took lie detector tests.
A number of former underground members gave long interviews for the film, among them Natan Natanson and Yehuda Etzion. They detail their motivations, and although they do express some remorse over the fact that an Israeli soldier was blinded dismantling a bomb intended for a West Bank mayor, they say they do not regret taking part in the underground’s crimes. In fact, they seem proud of their actions.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the series is the final chapter, in which the director looks at how their influence reshaped Israel.
It is startling to see how many of the former underground members have now gone mainstream.
Natanson, for example, is a well-known National Religious political activist today, while Etzion, who turned to this cause out of messianic fervor, fights for the rights of Jews to pray on the Temple Mount.
As the underground members were being pardoned in large numbers in the late eighties, I interviewed several of them for a newspaper, including Natanson and Etzion, who had just returned home.
One detail I remember from then is briefly referenced in the series. I spoke to Etzion in his home in Ofra, where the living room was decorated with an artist’s large rendering of what the Third Temple would look like today, if it were standing, superimposed on a photograph of the Dome of the Rock.
I had never seen an image like this before, but now, of course, such posters are commonplace for those who support the Temple Mount cause.
The series is worth seeing even if you can catch just the final episode, which is the most interesting part of this important and thought-provoking series. It has played in a film version at film festivals around the world, including Docaviv, and will surely be shown at upcoming film festivals around the world, so look out for it.
A new HBO limited series, Sharp Objects, starring Amy Adams, will start running on HOT HBO on Mondays at 10 p.m. on July 9, as well as on HOT VOD and Next TV, and on July 9 at 4 a.m. and 10 p.m. on YES Oh, as well as on Sting TV.
Based on a novel by Gillian Flynn, who wrote Gone Girl, it tells a suspenseful but gory story of a reporter who comes to her hometown to write about a crime but gets caught up in family traumas.