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Up in Arms

A new book offers a history of Jewish terrorism in Israel from the Maccabees to the present

Benny Morris
March 10, 2010
Jewish residents of Hebron brandish toy guns at a reading of the megillah, 2005.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)
Jewish residents of Hebron brandish toy guns at a reading of the megillah, 2005.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

This is the second in a two-part series.

A few weeks ago, Israel’s education minister, Gideon Saar, instructed the country’s school teachers to devote a lesson or two to olei hagardom (literally, those who ascended to the gallows), the dozen or so Palestine Jews hanged by the British authorities for politically motivated attacks during the last decade of the Mandate.

A predictable controversy was triggered, the left charging the Likud minister with trying to beatify right-wing “terrorists”—those executed had all belonged either to the IZL (Irgun Zvai Leumi—the National Military Organization, or, as the British called it, the “Irgun”) or the LHI (Lohamei Herut Yisrael—Freedom Fighters of Israel, or, as the British called it, the “Stern Gang”). The two organizations emerged from the right-wing Revisionist stream of Zionism; both sought Jewish independence and a state standing astride the Jordan River and encompassing the undivided Land of Israel/Palestine.

Most had been tried and executed for attacking or killing British servicemen. Two had shot dead Lord Moyne, the British minister resident in the Middle East during World War II. One had participated in the 1938 ambush of an Arab bus (no one was killed) during the Palestine Arab Revolt against both the British Mandate and the Zionist enterprise it had fostered.

Terrorists? Freedom fighters? Some sort of mix?

My definition of terrorism would be deliberate and indiscriminate attack on civilians with the aim of terrorizing and otherwise causing harm to a rival community, society, or state in order to achieve political ends. Within that definition certainly fall the cases of Baruch Goldstein, the American-born, Jewish West Bank settler (and medical doctor) who in 1994 slaughtered a roomful of Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque (for Jews, the Tomb of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, and Jack Teitel, the recently arrested American-born West Bank settler who over the years allegedly killed at random a number of Arabs and injured with a bomb the left-wing Israeli political scientist Zeev Sternhell because he is outspokenly critical of the settlers.

I’m not sure Ami Pedahzur and Arie Perliger, Israeli-bred political scientists who work at the University of Texas at Austin and at Stony Brook University, respectively, would contest this definition, but in their new book Jewish Terrorism in Israel they broaden it in an effort to provide their subject—settler-linked Jewish terrorism since the 1980s—with pedigree and historical gravitas. In their effort to establish pattern and continuity, Pedahzur and Perliger trace the roots of the extreme right-wing Jewish terrorists of the end of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st to the Maccabees (apparently resisting the temptation to trace them back to Cain), the family of Judaean priests who led a successful nationalist-religious revolt against the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire in the mid-second century BCE.

The historical “background” Pedahzur and Perliger provide is a stretch, flimsy, and, at times, derisory. Some might find it offensive. They write: “The foremost incident of terrorism to be carried out by the Hashmonaim [Maccabees] was the murder of Apelles, a Hellenistic envoy. He had been sent to their town, Modi’in, in order to ensure” the Hellenization of the Jews. The authors somehow fail to mention that the assassination was, in effect, the triggering mechanism and clarion call for the Jewish revolt against the Greek-speaking, pagan Seleucid Empire that had oppressively ruled over Jewish-inhabited Judea for decades. But the authors write that “despite the great historical gulf between the Hashmonai revolt and contemporary Jewish terrorism, it is hard not to be impressed by the similarity of the factors responsible for the violence.” I see absolutely no connection between that revolt against foreign oppressors of yore and contemporary Jewish terrorism against Arabs (and, occasionally, left-wing Jewish Israelis).

Pedahzur and Perliger go on to berate as “terrorists” (for murdering Jews who collaborated with the Romans or opposed the rebellion) some of the Jews (the Sicarians) who rebelled against the Roman Empire from 66 to 73 CE. They suggest that the 1,000-odd Jews who held out in the Judean Desert fortress of Masada until it was vanquished in 72-73 CE did not, in the end, commit “mass suicide,” as described by Josephus, but, rather, that “the Sicarians committed mass murder among themselves.” Of course, the authors have no historical evidence for branding the Sicarians of Masada “murderers” (Josephus is the only historical source for the Masada story), and one wonders what purpose such a designation serves.

Pedahzur and Perliger reluctantly admit that during 2,000 years of Jewish life in the Diaspora the “Jews have refrained almost entirely from terrorism,” and they concede that this is ascribable to Jewish religious tenets (as well as to Jewish powerlessness). The absence of any Jewish terrorism between the second and 19th centuries forces the authors to skip to the 20th, where their real argument begins. The authors highlight the assassination by one Dmitri Bogrov, a Jew from Kiev, of the czarist Russian prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin, in 1911. But is assassination of a leader of an oppressive regime tantamount to terrorism? Were the failed July 1944 German conspirators against Hitler terrorists? Pedahzur and Perliger then inform us that “many” members of the American Weather Underground were Jews and that a Jewish Labour Bund activist, Hirsh Lekert, in 1902 attempted to assassinate the Russian governor of Vilna, who had earlier ordered the flogging of 20 Jews (the authors mistakenly write that Lekert killed his man). What has any of this to do with Jewish terrorism in Israel?

Very little, but the authors’ purpose is clear: to establish that the Jews have a rich tradition of terrorism. Pedahzur and Perliger then move on to 20th-century Palestine. But they get off to a rather confusing start. They mention the first, feeble Zionist self-defense organizations—Hashomer (1909-1920) and its precursor Bar-Giora (1907-1909)—and admit that their “acts of violence” “were carried out primarily in self-defense.” But they then write: “However, despite the determination of these groups, the option of engaging in systematic terrorism was not viable.” Do Pedahzur and Perliger believe that using violence in “self-defense” is tantamount to “terrorism”? Did Bar-Giora and Hashomer seek to engage in “systematic terrorism”? The authors pose the idea but do not offer proof of any kind.

They next describe the activities of the 20th-century Jewish political right in Palestine, beginning with the IZL and the LHI. But here, too, they misinterpret, mislead, and mis-define. LHI’s “public platform,” they tell us, “gave preeminence to the aspiration of building a Third Temple.” Surely, when LHI literature referred to establishing the “Third Temple,” the meaning was metaphorical (to re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel) not literal (to constructing a third Temple on the Mount), as Pedahzur and Perliger would have it. Much as when the LHI spoke of re-establishing Malchut Yisrael (the Kingdom of Israel), they meant re-establishing Jewish sovereignty, not a monarchy (very few LHI members, and none of its leaders, were either religious or monarchists).

Pedahzur and Perliger assume that the IZL and LHI were terrorist organizations and describe at length some of their anti-British operations. But was the killing of two British police officers, who were reputed to have been responsible for routinely torturing captured IZL suspects, an act of terrorism? Were the IZL and LHI campaigns against the British in Palestine—directed almost exclusively at military and police personnel—terrorism? They may have been immoderate, unwise, murderous—but were they “terroristic” (as, indeed, these organizations’ socialist rivals, from Mapai, Mapam, and the Haganah at the time dubbed them)?

The authors, of course, are on much firmer ground when they define the deliberate IZL and, later, LHI attacks on Arab civilians from the beginning of the Arab Revolt to the end of the civil war of 1947-1948 as “terrorism” (albeit “terrorism” enacted in response to Arab “terrorism”). In 1938, IZL operatives placed large bombs in Arab markets and bus stops in Haifa and elsewhere, indiscriminately killing dozens at a time, and in 1947-1948, IZL and LHI members deliberately targeted civilians, killing large numbers of them outside of the Old City of Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate and in Jaffa’s Saraya (governmental) building. Such operations were then emulated by Palestinian bombers, down to the first decade of the third millennium, but with the suicidal nature of the attacks adding a novel, grisly twist.

In the years immediately after 1948, some LHI and IZL veterans took part in (usually) amateur terrorist acts in the newborn state of Israel against their ideological and political opponents. In 1957, one group murdered Israel Kastner, a prominent Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivor who was accused of collaborating with the Nazis; in 1953, the Tsrifin Underground bombed the Soviet Embassy in Tel Aviv, injuring three people. The reason for the attack was the Soviet Union’s mistreatment of its Jews (which the authors compare to the current situation of sometimes radical and violent “European Muslims who identify with the suffering of Muslims in places such as Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan”). This attack occurred a few months after the group had tried to blow up the Israel Foreign Ministry in protest against Israel’s acceptance of German reparations for the Holocaust.

This brings us to the core of the book, which is a fairly straightforward, systematic description of the successive cells of terrorists who sprang up in the Jewish settlements of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and their supporters in Israel proper, beginning with the Jewish Underground of the early 1980s that badly injured several PLO-supporting West Bank mayors, targeted the Islamic University in Hebron (where three Arab students were killed and dozens were injured), and made preparations, stopped by Israel’s security service, the Shin Bet, to blow up the Islamic holy sites on the Temple Mount. The terrorists were driven by a desire to avenge the death of Israelis killed by Arab terrorists, to consolidate Israel’s hold on the West Bank (“Judaea and Samaria”), and, in the case of the Temple Mount, to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah.

The authors’ description of the Jewish Underground and its activities is thorough and detailed. They lay particular emphasis on the social networking that underlay its emergence and organization.

Pedahzur and Perliger then describe the activities of Rabbi Meir Kahane and his Kach movement, before and after the rabbi’s murder by a Muslim fundamentalist in New York. The Kahanist groups in Israel, composed mostly of new Jewish American immigrants, they write, “resembled, more than anything else, the global Salafi jihad cells of current times”: Both are built on immigrant groups who fail to assimilate in their new countries and are alienated from the majority culture’s values.

Pedahzur and Perliger’s thesis, laid out in the book’s preface, is that modern fundamentalist terrorism is a result of a “totalist” ideology or religion that produces a “counterculture community.” That collective, or some of its activist members, turn to terrorism when an “external” event occurs that “poses a potential threat to the community or its most cherished values” and when leaders, often clerics, emerge who frame that event as “catastrophic.” Some sort of crisis, personal or communal, then propels the activists into terroristic action. All this sounds fairly reasonable.

Not so, however, some of their extrapolation. Pedahzur and Perliger, driven it seems by political correctness, go out of their way to absolve Islam of being uniquely, internationally, responsible for contemporary terrorism, arguing that “religious terrorism is not a one-faith phenomenon”—as if the modern world has also witnessed waves of Christian and Buddhist and Hindu (and Jewish) suicide bombers and airplane hijackers. The most cursory survey of post-World War II terrorism across the globe, from the Philippines to Indonesia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, Somalia, Kenya, Morocco, Madrid, London, and New York, demonstrates that Muslims are peerless and unrivaled in this realm of human enterprise. Conversely, the authors also assert that their study of Jewish terrorism is “pertinent to the study of other contemporary networks of terrorism”—again, “because of the many similarities between the processes that distinguish Jewish terrorism networks and those of the Salafi jihad networks [in] Britain, Holland, Spain.” Both are based, they write, on nonhierarchical social networks rather than on rigid, structured organizations.

However true this may be, I seriously doubt that anything one can learn from this book, primarily about the last century of small-scale Jewish terrorism in Israel and the West Bank, will prove useful in fathoming what is happening in the darkest recesses of the Islamist world.

The authors predict an unprecedented level of violence by Jewish terrorists if Israel ever decides to uproot the West Bank settlements. Should a Jewish terrorist attack against the Islamic holy sites on the Temple Mount ever succeed, it “could open the doors to hell,” the authors write. This may be so. But it is worthy of note that Israel’s destruction of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and its uprooting of 7,000 settlers and thousands of their supporters in 2005 passed without serious incident—no one killed, no one severely injured. Then again, destroying settlements in Judea and Samaria, the heartland of Judaism, may prove to be something else entirely.

Benny Morris is a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University and the author, most recently, of One State, Two States.

Benny Morris is an Israeli historian and the author, most recently, of Sidney Reilly: Master Spy (Yale 2022).