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The long history of Jewish violence in Israel

Last week’s terrible killing of 18-month old Ali Saad Dawabsha in Duma, together with the horrific violence at the Jerusalem gay pride parade, left many Jews stunned, repulsed and demoralized. We have inculcated in ourselves — and projected to our children — the belief that whereas they operate according to a primitive code of morality, we adhere to a standard of ethical virtue. Golda Meir gave crystal-clear expression to this sentiment when she proclaimed: “Peace will come when the Arabs start to love their children more than they hate us.”

But what happens when “we” willingly kill “their” children — when we hate their children with a purity that sanctions all acts of violence? What does that say about us? It is tempting to cast the killers, who wrote “Revenge” on the home where they threw a gasoline bomb that burned the toddler, as complete outliers from Jewish tradition and Zionist history. (In parallel fashion, it may be consoling for some to regard Muslim terrorists as renegades from Islam.)

[MORE: Fighting Jewish terrorism is the burden of Israel’s right]

This kind of thinking may offer some measure of comfort, but it cannot insulate us from the fact that the century-long history of Zionism is replete with acts of terrible violence committed by Jews against Jews and non-Jews. In fact, the Zionist movement emerged on the stage of history with a deep commitment to overcome the perception of millennia of Jewish passivity through strong action. 

Much of that action took the form of self-defense against Arab attack. But not all. Indeed, violence directed against civilians — what some might call terrorism — has hardly been exceptional in Zionism. Perhaps the first major example was the killing, most likely conducted by members of the Haganah, of Dutch Orthodox Jewish writer Jacob Israel de Haan in Jerusalem in 1924. De Haan’s anti-Zionist sensibilities and close relations with local Arabs (at political and sexual levels) were deeply discomfiting to Zionist officials. 

Nine years later, in June 1933, a leading Labor Zionist official, Haim Arlosoroff, was assassinated while walking on a Tel Aviv beach with his wife. His killing occurred in the midst of intense animosity between Labor and Revisionist Zionists in Palestine. One Revisionist-leaning group that was accused of being involved in Arlosoroff’s death was known as Brit ha-biryonim (Alliance of Thugs). The group operated in an environment in which the spilling of blood was seen not as a necessary evil, but as a vital redemptive act, as poet Uri Zvi Greenberg unabashedly declared: “Land is conquered with blood. And only when conquered in blood is it hallowed to the people by the holiness of blood.”

Under cover of such poetic expression, murder became a path of political and ethical rectitude. It prompted members of the Irgun Tseva’i Le’umi (National Military Organization) to plant bombs in markets that killed scores of innocent Arabs during the Arab General Strike in 1938. It justified the actions of the paramilitary group Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang) to plot and execute assassinations of international officials — British minister Lord Moyne in 1944 and United Nations official Count Bernadotte in 1948. And most famously, it led the Irgun to blow up the King David Hotel, where the British Mandatory government and military were headquartered in 1946, leading to 91 deaths. 

All of this activity — and sadly a much longer list could be compiled — occurred well before 1967. It was undertaken in the name of the movement for national redemption. After 1967, a new and explosive element was added to the mix. Violence conducted in the name of Judaism and Zionism was suffused with a highly charged religious, even messianic, fervor that attended the conquest and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Jews in Israel who have attacked and murdered political opponents or Arabs since then have frequently done so in the name of God, at times empowered by rabbinic warrants. The toxic and intoxicating blend of religious and national virtue has yielded a lengthy roster of victims, most notably Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish terrorist in 1995; the West Bank mayors who were maimed in 1980 by the “Jewish underground” that set its ultimate sights on blowing up the Temple Mount; Jewish activist Emil Grunzweig, who was killed by a bomb at a Peace Now rally in 1983; the 29 Muslim victims of the murderous rampage of Baruch Goldstein in 1994; the four Palestinian Israelis killed by a Jewish terrorist in 2004; Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was brutally murdered last summer; Shira Banki, who died of her stab wounds from the assault at the Jerusalem gay pride parade; and Ali Saad Dawabsha, the Palestinian toddler who was burned by unknown terrorists. 

It would be very easy to isolate these cases and say that the perpetrators are not “ours.” But they are. They emanate from Zionist and Jewish history, from the heart of our Zionist and Jewish worlds, in which we have all tolerated for too long a language and culture of violence as redemptive. It is therefore our, not their, responsibility to look inside ourselves — into our sources, our curricula, our values, our sense of self — to remove the cancer that lurks. Rabbis, teachers and parents alike share in that task. As we enter the month of Elul, we should bring to our work of cheshbon ha-nefesh an awareness of history and an unsparing resolve to confront the terrible demon of violence within us.


David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA.

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