When Samson, the biblical superhero who waged war single-handedly against the Philistines on behalf of the Israelites, is finally brought down and captured, he is publicly displayed at a celebration in the Temple of the god Dagon. At that point he is blind and has lost his powers. He is led by a young boy to a space between two pillars, where those gathered exult in his humiliation. In a final act of heroic desperation Samson cries out to God: “O Lord God! Please remember me, and give me strength just this once, O God, to take revenge of the Philistines, if only for one of my two eyes.” God answers his prayers that he might “die with the Philistines” and he grabs the two central pillars upon which the Temple rested and brings them down, causing the Temple to collapse on all its inhabitants.
Samson’s prayer serves as the lyrics to a popular Israeli song. While the “official” version uses the original words from the Book of Judges, the settlers emend the text and sing “n’kom ahat mi-shtei einai mi-falastinim yemah shemam/to take revenge on the Palestinians, may their names be blotted out.” Jews, and especially Jewish settlers committed to the project of the Greater Land of Israel, and the rebuilt Temple, wreaking vengeance on their Palestinian enemies is one of the themes of Shai Gal’s powerful new three-part documentary series, “The Fall and Rise of the Jewish Underground.”
The film’s subject is a terrorist group of religious, Jewish (not-at-all fringe) messianic settlers who plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock. The group carries out a number of terrorist attacks—seriously wounding two Palestinian mayors, killing three Palestinian students at the Islamic College in Hebron and wounding tens more, and in their final act attempting to blow up five Palestinian buses which could have led to the deaths of 250 Palestinians had they not been stopped and arrested by the Israeli Secret Service.
Each Jewish terror attack followed a Palestinian terror attack and was plotted as vengance. In the spring of 1980 Palestinians attacked the Jewish settlement in Beit Hadassah in Hebron and killed six men—the settlers’ attacks on the mayors was revenge. The July 1983 murder of Aharon Gross, an American yeshiva student, in the Hebron marketplace, led to the 1984 attack on the Islamic College. That period almost four decades ago, witnessed the early growth of the ideology of vengeance as a form of kiddush hashem, or sanctification of God’s name, among the settler community that has only strengthened in the intervening years.
The Jewish terrorist underground was animated by the idea of rebuilding the Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the har habayit. In order to achieve this goal, the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine originally built in the seventh century on the Temple Mount would have to be removed—blown up. This is the plot that influenced the thinking and actions of the underground.
The film deftly uses a combination of archival footage, contemporary interviews with the main protagonists, and reenactments of central scenes, in order to effectively inject an atmosphere of suspense into the narrative. At first, the Shin Bet, the Israeli Secret Service, is taken completely by surprise (as we hear from the case officers who were charged with the investigation). They start to build a unit that attempts and fails to infiltrate the close and closed circles of the settlers. The documentary stresses that the members of the terrorist underground were not marginal characters by any means in the settler movement. They were in close contact with the central rabbis of the settler movement (Levinger, Waldman, Lior) who never suffered any repercussions, legal or social. (Levinger was detained for 10 days, and freed.)
Finally, as in an episode of Law and Order, an unexploded device is found in a hiding place by chance, and the plot begins to unravel. There is a midnight chase, arrests, people confessing, a trial and convictions. This is the “fall” of the title. There is not much here that is new, though if it was forgotten it is good to remember that the accusatory finger which points at terrorists points also at Jews.
The third and final episode documents the resurgence of the Jewish Underground following its fall. Even before the trials were over, there was a movement afoot to bestow clemency on the terrorists. As is documented in the second chapter of the documentary, there were political leaders and generals falling over themselves declaring that these were “good boys” and they did what they did out of love of Israel. The Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan came to visit them in jail. Retired General Rehavam Ze’evi testified on their behalf, calling the terrorists “halutzim/pioneers” and “visionaries.”. None of the convicted terrorists, even those convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years, served more than seven years. Most served far less.
Only one of the terrorists ever recanted or expressed regret at their actions. Yet, one of them (Ze’ev Hever) is the current liaison of the settler movement to the prime minister’s office; another (Natan “Nuss” Natansohn) is a senior adviser to the head of the Jewish Home party, and has the highest security clearances; a third (Yehudah Etzion) still tours the country and evangelizes for the rebuilding of the Temple, and does that also in the Knesset itself.
There is a history of terrorists turned politicians in Israel. Menachem Begin’s Irgun militia carried out the terrorist bombing of the British military headquarters in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, which killed 91 people. Yitzhak Shamir’s terrorist group, the Stern gang, targeted Palestinian civilians, but in the process also killed many Jewish and Christian civilians. Both Begin and Shamir eventually served as prime ministers of Israel. Ironically, Menachem Begin was PM during the Jewish terrorist attacks and he condemned them. Yitzhak Shamir visited the terrorists in prison and argued for their release.
In probably the most successful assassination in the contemporary Middle East, a religious Zionist settler wannabe assassinated Yitzhak Rabin because he was on the verge of fulfilling the terms of a peace accord which included establishing a Palestinian state. This killing caused a political chain reaction which led to the victory of the Likud party and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Netanyahu has been dogged since then by accusations that he was in part responsible for the heated rhetoric and incitement which led to Rabin’s killing. (As with the Jewish terrorist underground, Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, claimed to have consulted rabbis before he undertook the murder. No rabbis have ever suffered any legal consequences for this.)
In a way, the situation of the terrorist leaders gaining entrée and acceptance into the highest circles of the Israeli government follows the paradigm of the earlier examples. There is, however, a difference. Etzion, Natansohn, Hever, and others have been “koshered” as if they were dropped in a political mikveh and when they came out the whole congregation recited: “Pure! Pure! Pure!”
The purification of these terrorist actors is the result of a cultural dynamic in which an ideology which should be fringe in a liberal democracy, becomes mainstreamed without being domesticated. Natansohn still sounds like a thug when he speaks of the occupation and the Palestinians’ lack of rights to their own property let alone rights of citizenship. Etzion does not regret a thing (except for the Israeli soldier injured while attempting to defuse one of the bombs). He still thinks that democracy is antithetical to the Jewish state and that the war which will come in the wake of the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and the building of the third Temple, will be a war of purification.
The electoral and civic power of these ideologies became obvious again when an Israeli soldier, Elor Azariah, shot and killed an incapacitated Palestinian terrorist. Though convicted by a military court, the political elite succumbed to public pressure, which it also exploited, and commuted his sentence.
The fabric of Israeli democracy is being shredded by those who are charged with upholding it. While there was always a tribalist Zionist wing, it seems that now there is almost no nontribalist wing. The messianists run the government. The bloated budgets that are diverted to the settlements (as MK Stav Shafir tirelessly points out) come at the expense of the “periphery”—the poor communities who are not in the circle of the Israeli 1 percent. Yet, the messianic anti-democratic ideologues have serious support throughout the country.
The international move to the right, and support for nationalist and xenophobic authoritarians—Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Trump in the United States—is the cultural context for this, but not an excuse. The authoritarian/messianic clock in Israel is moving closer to midnight.
Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. He is a scholar and an activist whose latest book is Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Literature. Cohen is also an Israeli citizen and served in the IDF.