Originally written for and presented at a small history conference.
Israeli and Palestinian Religious Nationalism in American Media
I will be talking about the way that religious preconceptions subtly deform the popular discourse on Israeli society. I called this paper ‘Foggy Mirror’ because I wanted to emphasize one or two of the similiarities that are present in distinctive segments of both the Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian populations. These similarities are often overlooked in the media coverage of both societies, with the reigning assumption being that Israel is a stable, secular, and liberal democracy of the Euro-American model, whilst the Palestinians comprise a semi-tribal society prone to religious extremis. In truth, both societies have their share of religious extremists with curious beliefs and maximalist agendas, and each has democratic aspirations hobbled by structural inequalities. I will argue that this simple misapprehension is one of the greatest factors inhibiting a popular American understanding of the conflict in Israel-Palestine, and it dramatically underscores the failure of our media to address the issues of substantive similarity in Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian society.
It is a well-worn trope that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East”, and the expectation of the American reader is for a system similar to those of western Europe or North America. The truth is far more complicated. We could, for example, note that numerous aspects of the Israeli legal system are in the hands of religious authorities, with no acceptable dissent from the majority faith—there is no civil marriage and no possibility of mixed marriage; no legal recognition of secular, converted, or patrilineal Jews; and no tolerance for violations of kashrut or the sabbath by public figures. Tax payers are forced to shoulder the ever-increasing burden of supporting life-long yeshiva students, who do not serve in the military and do not work for a living. It is the sincere belief of Orthodox and haredi Jews that all of Israel’s successes and failures come down to direct divine intervention, facilitated by the studious memorization of Talmud. Perhaps a closer analogue to the Israeli system might be found, not in the United States, but in the Islamic Republic of Iran—another society blending theocratic and democratic aspects (with the latter indeed being substantially more liberal and democratic than is generally appreciated).
I would suggest that the problems of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and of the extraordinary influence of religion over Israeli politics and culture, are seldom hinted at in the American press. This fact, combined with an obsession over Muslim fundamentalism, creates an intellectual disconnect that—were it the result of conscious choice—would present a most glaring hypocrisy. As a way of getting at this disconnect I propose to look at two events in recent Israeli history: the massacre in the Ibrahimi Mosque (the Tomb of the Patriarchs) in Hebron in 1994, and a massacre at the Merkaz HaRav seminary in Jerusalem last year. I will briefly summarize the main events of each, and follow with a survey of the press coverage that accompanied it. It is my contention that the language used to describe such acts draws an unnecessary—and dangerous—distinction between these two societies, which serves to minimize the radical potential of Jewish culture, and frequently misunderstands the radicalisms in Palestinian-Muslim culture.
My point of departure here was the simple observation that different language is inevitably used to describe each camp; in more than twenty years following discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I could not recall the words “terrorist” or “fundamentalist” applied to a Jewish movement or individual. And as any good student knows, word-choices are critical in shaping the meaning received, often in ways that subtly subvert what would otherwise be obvious conclusions. Either of these words can, in the Israeli-Palestinian case, present a clear example of this. When Palestinian violence is discussed as “terrorism”, the reader is generally unable to connect that violence to the occupation of Arab land and the facts of systemic humiliation that characterize that occupation. Likewise, when Israeli-Jewish violence is discussed, it must be explained away as an understandable response to provocation, or as the act of a deranged individual.
For such a brief discussion I am going to focus on just one word: “terrorist”. (I had intended a broader discussion, but had to cut out my study of “fundamentalism”.) In both of the events noted above (the Ibrahimi Mosque and Merkaz HaRav massacres), I will be looking to see if the perpetrator is considered a terrorist, and why.
Events in Hebron
The muezzin had just completed his call, shortly after 0500 on 25 February 1994, when Brooklyn-born physician Baruch Goldstein reached the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. The Cave of the Patriarchs is divided into separate worship area, and Muslims and Jews are not permitted inside together to avoid confrontations. Goldstein was stopped at the entrance by Muhammad Abu Salah, the Muslim sentry on duty; the settler slammed his rifle butt into Abu Salah, muscling past him and into the crowded mosque. 800 worshippers knelt with their backs to Goldstein when he opened fire with his Galil assault rifle.
Hearing the gunshots, Abu Salah rushed out to the street to call the IDF soldiers on station. The Jewish soldiers chose instead to fire their weapons into the air—possibly to cover the sounds. They had already let Goldstein pass them on his way into the mosque, despite the fact that he was in his reserve uniform, armed with two guns and several grenades, and was wearing a shooter’s headset to suppress the noise from weapons fire. We can only speculate as to the soldiers’ thoughts as they let a known troublemaker enter the grounds during a Muslim prayer time, fully armed for combat. Once the shooting began, however, their duty should have been clear. Instead, they fired blindly into the mosque, hitting many of the panicked innocents who were attempting to flee the scene.1
By 0515 Goldstein had emptied four magazines and tossed three grenades; he was loading a fifth magazine into his machine gun when he was hit by a fire extinguisher thrown by one of the worshippers. Seeing their chance, several men rushed toward the murderer and beat him to death with iron bars. By the time of his own death, Goldstein had shot and killed at least 29 people, and injured 125. It was the single bloodiest incident in the West Bank since 1967.2
Goldstein had been a member of the Jewish Defense League in New York, a militant group pledged to combat antisemitism “by whatever means necessary”.3 He was also a follower of rabbi Meir Kahane, a racist politician whose Kach party advocated the expulsion or murder of all Arabs in the Land of Israel. The political affiliations of Goldstein were a matter of public record; in Israel he had managed Kahane’s campaign to join the Knesset, and he had personally served on the town council in Qiryat Arba, the Jewish settlement abutting Hebron. For some months prior to his assault Goldstein had been complaining that something ought to be done to sabotage the peace process then underway. His choice of targets was highly symbolic, as was its timing—the eve of Purim, a holiday which celebrates the Jewish peoples’ delivery from genocide. The attack was calculated to achieve a political goal: a breakdown in the negotiations over control of land in the West Bank.
His attack, therefore, can only be considered an act of political violence, or what we might call “terrorism”. To justify this appelation, we ought to set out a standard definition of “terrorism” that is uncontroversial and clear. The United States government in the 1980s defined an “act of terrorism” as an activity that:
(A) involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life that is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; and (B) appears to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping.4
This definition, published in the Congressional Record in 1984, is the legal definition that would have been known and in force at the time of Goldstein’s actions in Hebron in 1994. With this in mind, I began trawling through newspaper archives, to see if Goldstein was considered a terrorist.
Coverage of Hebron
A massive coöperative venture, with stories appearing in more than 1700 newspapers, the Associated Press is a sensible place to begin. Articles were dispatched under three different bylines on the day of the massacre, none of which referred to Goldstein as a terrorist, though one came unusually close. Jerome Delay called Goldstein a “gunman”, “shooter”, and “killer”, but neglected to mention any of his political affiliations, thus leaving the impression of a lone madman. His article places the victims on centre stage, beginning with a picture of silent worshippers at dawn prayers, but it makes no attempt to explain the killings or outline the context of settlement in Hebron.5
Haitham Hamad begins his article with the riots that followed the murder spree, pointedly referring to the events as “the worst violence since the 1967 war.” Hamad calls Goldstein a “settler” and a “gunman”, but never a terrorist, and likewise neglects the political motives for the assault. They crop up shortly, near the end of a long article—in paragraph 33—where it is noted that Goldstein “was a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated violence to expel Arabs from Israeli-controlled territory.” Despite this admission, no direct attempt is made to connect Goldstein’s religious and political views to his actions.6
Allyn Fisher comes closest to describing the attack as an act of terror. In this telling, the Kahane connexion appears in paragraph three, and it is noted that Goldstein—a medical doctor—had often refused to treat wounded Palestinians. More importantly, and uniquely, Fisher calls Goldstein the “first Jewish suicide attacker”, making an explicit connexion between faith and act, and drawing an inevitable parallel with the ubiquitous phrase “suicide bomber”. Fisher also points to Goldstein’s background in the Kach organization, and his residence in Qiryat Arba, which is described in a quote from Ehud Sprinzak (an authority on the Israeli far right) as “a hornets’ nest of radical settlers”. Even more astonishingly, he points to the long history of such actions, noting the attacks carried out by “a Jewish terror underground” in the early 1980s. Whilst still eschewing the word “terrorist” in reference to Goldstein, Fisher describes the events of 25 February in ways guaranteed to evoke such an association. But, as my survey will show, this was indeed rare (nay, it was unique).7
The Washington Post released two articles on the 26th, both of which concentrated on the impact this would have on the “peace process”. David Hoffman outlines many then-unanswered questions, but says virtually nothing about the political and religious context of the murders. He does mention that Goldstein was a follower of “militant Jewish nationalist… Meir Kahane”, which is more than can be said for Glenn Frankel.8 Frankel’s coverage goes much further in missing the point, arguing that “the real war in the Middle East is no longer between Arabs and Jews, but between moderates and extremists”. Such a dichotomy fails to understand that, for people like Goldstein, it is not a question of moderation, but of religious faith. If G-d approves of genocide, and the Torah suggests that he does, being “moderate” means betraying a duty to “redeem” the land.
Unwilling to examine the nature of Jewish fundamentalism, in the very first paragraph Frankel shifts the reader’s attention from the Jewish extremist to the more familiar Muslim terrorists, by stating that Goldstein’s acts “advanced the cause of extremists from the Islamic side”. Frankel then expends ink to reference a handful of Arab attacks on Jews in Hebron, but neglects to describe the living conditions in the divided city, leaving the reader with the impression that Goldstein may have been a hate-obsessed madman, but he had nothing on the wacky Palestinians.9
The New York Times did marginally better in its article on the massacre. Alison Mitchell describes Goldstein as “a fervent supporter of… Meir Kahane” in her second paragraph, and points out that the Kach movement was eventually banned in Israel. Late in her article she notes how close Goldstein was to Kahane, and that Goldstein had even run his campaign for the Knesset. In the hands of a more courageous writer, this might have offered an opportunity to examine how closely intertwined this act of violence is with a particular strain of Jewish messianism. Indeed, she had earlier mentioned that Brooklyn’s Jewish neighbourhoods have “spawned many militants who settled on the West Bank.” Unfortunately, the real significance of Goldstein’s actions is addressed only by implication, and (of course) he is never called a terrorist or a holy warrior.10
We could go on and on, but to little purpose. I examined over 100 articles from the day of the massacre and from the weeks and months that followed, including those that focussed on subsequent responses. Much of the coverage was, in fact, significantly worse than that sampled above—with some sources going so far as to excuse the events in the very first line as the response of a “traumatized” doctor to a “recent spate of Arab terrorism against Jews.”11
Not a single mainstream American news source that I could find described Goldstein as a terrorist. If not by the severity of the crime, nor by the symbolic value of the target, nor by the political motives of the attacker, by what criteria are we to judge a given event as an act of terrorism? Without providing a facile response to this basic question, or dipping into needless hyperbole, I think it is clear that there are some criteria by which the media disqualifies an act as terrorism—and Israeli-Jewish identity asppears to be one such marker. Let’s see what happens when we turn this story around.
Events in Jerusalem
At approximately 2030 on 6 March 2008, 26-year-old Ala’a Abu Dhein walked onto the grounds of the Merkaz HaRav in Jerusalem, carrying an Ak-47 assault rifle hidden inside a cardboard box. He entered one of the yeshiva’s study areas and quickly opened fire on the innocents inside. Students tried to flee by leaping out of windows, but within minutes the holy books were covered in blood. Abu Dhein’s bullets killed eight students—half of them teenagers—and wounded eleven others. Like Goldstein, he fired several hundred rounds in less than 20 minutes, and went through several clips of ammunition before he was stopped. A part-time student at the seminary with his own firearm handy exchanged fire with Abu Dhein, and a former student and resident in the neighbourhood bravely rushed in and finished the job.
Merkaz HaRav is considered the ideological heart of the religious Zionism movement. Founded by Avraham Isaac Kook, it has trained several generations of West Bank settlers to believe that the land belongs in perpetuity to the Jewish people, and that the Arabs should consequently be expelled. Like the earlier events in Hebron—which targetted a contested religious site within a principal battleground in the war for the Territories—the attack on Merkaz HaRaz had great significance for all concerned. It was a strike at the symbolic epicentre of the whole settlement enterprise, and was thus a clearly political move.
And it was immediately accepted as a political statement by all sides in the conflict. Several different groups tried to claim responsibility for the attack, though most—including Hamas—quickly retracted their statements. They did not, however, disavow the actions of Abu Dhein; on the contrary, his actions were greeted with widespread acclaim in the Palestinian Territories, with celebratory posters and boistrous rallies held in his honour. This was reported constantly in the press, but never with a sufficient description of the context; i.e., why an attack on the Merkaz specifically would have been welcomed or considered just.
The attacker was from east Jerusalem; he spoke Hebrew, moved relatively freely within Israeli society, had worked as a delivery man for the yeshiva, and had no previous history of violence or militant sympathies. His family reports that he was radicalized by a recent incursion into Gaza that had killed at least 120 Palestinians. Abu Dhein seems to have made a simple connexion between the instruments of occupation—the Israel Defence Force and its use of lethal force against civilians—and the religious and political ideology taught at the Merkaz. Of course whilst many of the articles surveyed did note that the yeshiva was a font of religious Zionism, none chose to elaborate on what exactly was taught there: an extreme form of Jewish chauvinism and an ideology of violent dispossession.12
Coverage of Jerusalem
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conservative press immediately branded Abu Dhein a terrorist. Andy Soltis, writing for The New York Post, described a “terrorist” on a “10-minute rampage”, before passing along unconfirmed reports from a hitherto unknown terror group hoping to claim responsibility for the attack.13 His article the next day contradicted his first, passing on another unconfirmed report from a different group—this time with the attention-grabbing headline ‘Hamas’ Evil Claim Over Yeshiva Horror’. (The Post also chose to refer to Merkaz HaRav as a “revered” institution, hardly the word I would have chosen.)14
The Washington Times was likewise quick to label Abu Dhein a terrorist. Joshua Mitnick, writing on 13 March, passed along speculation that the attack was planned by Hizbullah, on account of that organization’s demonstrating “a deep understanding of the symbols and complexes that shape the Israeli psyche.” He quotes Israeli analyst Shmuel Bar, arguing that this attacked showed “a much higher level of sophistication than the average Hamas attack. Because if you have a gun, and you’re Hamas, you go into any restaurant and open fire”, by which he means that the leaders of Hamas are far too stupid to select a symbolic target—even one so polarizing as Merkaz HaRav.15
More mainstream sources were predictably circumspect, employing various devices to avoid directly applying the label “terrorist”. Matti Friedman of the Associated Press called Abu Dhein a “gunman”, but quoted several Israeli sources who “saw the terrorist shooting”, talked about the need to “eradicate terrorism in every way possible”, and suchlike. The article sets up a curious contradiction, by reporting that Abu Dhein “was not a member of a militant group”, whilst referring to the event as “the first major attack by Palestinian militants” in four years. All the same, we might note that Friedman’s cautious tone has earned critiques from American Jewish activists eager to present Israel in a uniformely positive light.16 The Associated Press released several additional articles on the yeshiva massacre, none of which directly called Abu Dhein a terrorist, but all of which implied a connexion with terror groups.
Griff Witte of the Washington Post called him a “gunman” and an “attacker”, but not a terrorist—though like the Associated Press, he allowed Israeli sources to do so without comment. These authorities blamed the “terorist attack” on “Islamic extremist groups”, and the people who cheered for Abu Dhein’s murderous rampage were universally branded “hateful extremists”. Witte repeatedly referred to the massacre as an “attack”, whilst drawing attention to previous “attacks” carried out by Hamas, with obvious implications: this was not an isolated incident, but reflects a long history of Palestinian terrorism.17
The New York Times was less cautious in its reporting of the event. Isabel Kershner and Steven Erlanger, writing on 8 March, directly labelled the attack “an act of terrorism”. They note that it is “unclear what group, if any, was responsible for the massacre”, and repeat the assertions of Abu Dhein’s family that he “did not belong to any militant group”. Here, without the immediate political motives that would come with connexion to an established group, we might expect the writer to refrain from calling the massacre a terrorist attack, but clearly the circumstances of the event—the identity of the perpetrator, the symbolism of his target, the history of conflict—were more than enough to make this a clear case of politically-motivated violence.18 Why, then, did the Hebron killings not earn a similar distinction?
My purpose in placing the coverage of these two events in dialogue is not to challenge the political motivations of either attacker, nor to apologise for—or explain away—either atrocity. Instead, what I hope to have made clearer is the ease with which political motives and murderous intent are applied to Palestinian perpetrators of violence, and the lengths to which our public interlocutors will go in order to remove the same attributes from a Jewish attacker. We have seen Goldstein explained away as mentally unstable, or as an aberration in an otherwise peaceful occupation. We have seen that the vital context of both these events is left out of most reporting, as if the Palestinians’ daily lives were immaterial to desperate acts of violence like Abu Dhein’s, and as if the violent nationalism taught in the seminaries of religious Zionism and in the popular culture of the West Bank settlers played no part in Goldstein’s barbarism.
As I said at the outset, I do not expect these conclusions to be at all surprising, but I hope that this discussion has not been without merit.
Griff Witte. ‘Israel Mourns Eight Slain Students; Thousands Attend Service for Victims of Gunman Describes as Despondent Over Gaza’. The Washington Post. 8 March 2008.