Between Hebron and Jerusalem

Reflections on the yeshiva massacre and its origins.

Mercaz Harav attack224.8 (photo credit: AP)
Mercaz Harav attack224.8
(photo credit: AP)
On a Friday morning 14 years ago, Dr. Baruch Goldstein walked into the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, on a day that was Purim for him and Ramadan for his victims, and opened fire, with his army-issued semi-automatic rifle, on dozens of Muslims who were praying there, killing 29. Goldstein had, like his hero Rabbi Meir Kahane, been born in Brooklyn. After studying at Yeshiva University and completing his medical studies, he immigrated to Israel in 1983, settling in Kiryat Arba on the West Bank. It was from his home there that Goldstein, accoutred in his IDF reserve officer's uniform, made his way to the holy tomb. Before leaving on his deadly mission he dutifully attended services for the day of Purim. The Torah reading, from Exodus 17, recounted the Amalekite "rear attack" upon the Israelites at Rephidim, and it was followed by a rereading of the Book of Esther, culminating in the hanging of Haman and the revenge of the Jews. There appears little doubt that Goldstein regarded not only Haman and his sons but also the Arabs of Hebron as Amalekites who, according to divine commandment, were to be utterly destroyed. EARLIER THIS month, on a Thursday evening that inaugurated the New Moon of the traditionally merry month of Adar, Ala Abu Dhaim, a 25-year-old Arab resident of east Jerusalem, left his home in the Jebl Mukaber neighborhood armed with a semi-automatic rifle and made his way to the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in west Jerusalem, a trip which took just a bit longer than that taken by Goldstein from Kiryat Arba to Hebron. Arriving at the yeshiva, Abu Dhaim sprayed his bullets as indiscriminately as had Goldstein, killing eight young men - most of them teenagers. Speaking at the collective funeral of the young victims, which took place the next day at Mercaz Harav, Rabbi Ya'akov Shapira, who succeeded his late father as head of the yeshiva, said that "the murderers are the Amalek of our day, coming to remind us that Amalek has not disappeared, just changed its appearance." He also saw the attack as "a continuation of the 1929 massacre" in Hebron, many of whose 67 victims were students of the famed local yeshiva. Although the rabbis of the Talmud have taught us that "a man is not to be held responsible for things said in a time of sorrow" (Baba Batra, 16b), I beg to differ with Rabbi Shapira on both points. Regarding the latter, it is not likely that Abu Dhaim, who was not much older than most of his victims, had ever heard of the massacre in Hebron. He was much more concerned with the 126 Palestinians, many of them women and children, who were killed by Israeli forces in Gaza during the first week of March, 2008, in their (perhaps overzealous) attempt to save the lives of Israeli women and children in Sderot and Ashkelon. BY CONTRAST, Baruch Goldstein, like most Jewish residents of the Hebron area, had been well aware of (if not obsessed with) the bloody massacre that took place some three-score-and-five years earlier, and it is his murderous action in that same city which would more accurately be described "a continuation of the 1929 massacre." With regard to the alleged Amalekite affiliation of "the murderers," Rabbi Shapira is on even shakier ground. As every student in his yeshiva knows, the biblical Amalek was the grandson of Esau, the older son of Isaac. The Arabs, by contrast, are seen as descendants of Ishmael, the half-brother of Isaac. Rabbi Shapira presumably meant that those behind the murder of his young students were Amalekites in the metaphorical sense. But in that case, it may be argued, so was Dr. Baruch Goldstein. The writer, who teaches at Bar-Ilan University, is the author of Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton, 2006).