Jewish Terrorism?

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Is Jewish terrorism possible, and, if it is, what does that mean for us? Could terrorism emerge from within the Jewish community? No matter how challenging they are to pose, as educators, it is our responsibility to ask tough questions and to do so in a way that does not distance our students from Israelis but deepens their connection to Israelis. 

Although Jewish terrorism from within Israel is certainly rare, in the last two weeks, this question on Jewish terrorism has been front and center in the Israeli media. Jewish Israeli teenagers were arrested as suspects in a terror attack that killed a Palestinian woman, Aisha Mohammed Rabi, a mother of nine.
This past week, we released a video on the Munich massacre along with a teacher’s guide with checks for understanding, discussion and reflection questions, which provoked tough questions about terrorism. But what about terrorism that comes from within Jewish communities? 
How should we discuss and learn about terrorism when it comes out of Jewish communities? 
How do we, as Jews, understand Jews whose actions seem unconscionable?

This is not a light topic, but it is one that students have big questions about. Let’s help them ask those questions and be there as a “guide on the side,” helping them to internalize and to navigate these tricky issues.

What Happened?

Over the last two weeks, five teenage boys were arrested, and four released, on suspicion of perpetrating an act of terror. On October 12th, a Palestinian woman was killed in the West Bank after her car was pelted with stones. The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) has reason to believe Jewish Israeli teens from the the Religious Zionist school Pri Haaretz carried out the attack; it is currently investigating. The issue has become heated, with some accusing the Shin Bet of subjecting the teens to overly harsh interrogation techniques, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the agency.

Why Does This Matter?

While the jury is still out on the specifics, our goal in this week’s issue is to deal openly with the notion of Jewish terrorism. Our objective is not to record every instance of individual or group involvement with extremism, or to focus on or equate it with Palestinian terror, whose pervasiveness is unquestioned, but to give students context and guidance, as well as a framework for how to grapple with troubling topic like this. 

Religious Zionist leadership, led by former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, has made clear in his book Meishiv Milchama that hurting or targeting non-combatants in the fight against Arab and Palestinian terrorism is unacceptable, saying:

We are not to harm the non-combatant population (in the Land of Israel)… We are commanded by law to walk in the paths of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and to show mercy to His creations, as it is written: ‘God’s mercy is upon all God’s works.’

But in the mid-1990s, two events occurred that shook the Jewish people. In 1994, American-born doctor Baruch Goldstein opened fire in a Hebron mosque, killing 29 Arabs and injuring 125. The following year, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir. These incidents alarmed Israeli society and were either the symptom or the cause of fractures in Israeli society, depending on one’s perspective. 

Here are three points to consider when discussing with your students: 

1. Responsibility – Individual or Communal

Both Goldstein and Amir were products of the Religious Zionist establishment. After Rabin’s assassination, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion addressed his students and community. He spoke of the shame that he expected everyone – religious, secular, right and left – to feel, “that our state, our people, should have fallen to such a level.” He implicated his own Religious Zionist community most of all, as Amir was a product of its institutions. While it’s easy to call Amir an anomaly, Rabbi Lichtenstein pointed out that “a day before the murder, [Amir] could have been cited as a shining example of success and achievement, and a source of communal pride.” In a display of taking ownership and accountability, Lichtenstein demanded that the community take a deep look at itself and confront what it sees: 

…If a day before the murder we would have said proudly, ‘See what we have produced,’ we must say it now as well: ‘See what we have produced!’ It is indefensible that one who is willing to take credit when the sun is shining should shrug off responsibility when it begins to rain.

2. Lay and leader reaction – There is stark contrast between the response to terrorismamongst Israelis and Palestinians. When a Jew carries out an act of terror, Israeli officials typically condemn it in the strongest terms, and most Israelis are ashamed, if not outraged. (However, a leading religious Zionist leader, Rabbi Haim Druckmancame out defending the Jewish teens, saying they were not terrorists.) In contrast, Palestinian leadership sometimes celebrate and hand out candies when a terroristcommits a crime, even hailing the terrorist as a martyr and calling for more. 

3. Is national extremism peripheral or pervasive? Far-right national extremists seem to be few and far between, but it is difficult to measure. Various groups have formed over the years, such as Rabbi Meir Kahane’s “Kach,” which was outlawed by the Israeli government and “Terror Against Terror,” which advocated for Jewish terrorism against Arab terrorism. While only a rare few carry out fatal attacks, groups like Tag Mechir cause Jewish and Israeli leaders to acknowledge, as Rabbi Yosef Blau, former president of the Religious Zionists of America did, “The percentage that fully articulate the positions I have described is not a majority, but it is not insignificant. This growing phenomenon of ‘tag mechir’ should be a wake-up call to the majority that opposes radical behavior.” 

Discussion Questions

  1. Baruch Goldstein’s attack and the attack against Aisha Mohammed Rabi were against Palestinians. Amir’s attack was against another Jew. When you think about it, does a Jew killing another Jewish person bother you more, less or equally to committing a similar atrocity against someone of a different faith. Why? 
  2. Many Jewish attacks, including Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir’s, are driven by religious or nationalistic zealotry. What are the positives of religious and nationalist zealotry and what are the red lines?
  3. In light of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s point above, in which he faults both the individual and the community for terrorist action, what are some practical suggestions you can give to ensure communities evoke passion for a cause without unintentionally encouraging extremism? 

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Play this video of Amir’s interrogation after the assassination, which is for a more mature audience. Ask students to reflect on their feelings. First have them describe their feelings with just one word, and then quickly share out with the class. Afterwards, have them think through and discuss how a Jewish person could kill another Jewishperson, as the interrogator asked Amir. 
  2. Have students write a 3-2-1 card after learning these current events. Write 3 things they thought about for the first time, 2 questions they still have, and 1 idea they’d like to find out more about. Encourage them to write and then share what they are unsure about. In order to do this, first model vulnerability yourself. This tool is very helpful to encouraging students and children to share.
  3. Hang three big papers in your room. The first prompt can ask the students what they “think” about the idea of Jewish terrorism, the second big paper can be a prompt for how they “feel” about it, and the third paper can be a prompt for what they want to “do” about it. They can walk around their classroom and have a silent discussion about it.

Further Reading

  1. Rabbi Benjamin Lau’s recent op-ed in Times of Israel.
  2. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s full address after Rabin’s assassination. 
  3. President Bill Clinton’s eulogy for Rabin. His parting words, “shalom, haver” or “goodbye (/peace), friend” made history.

In Other News…

  1. Jewish philanthropist and owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, wasawarded the prestigious Genesis Award. He is being honored for his commitment to Israel and social justice. He plans to spend the $1 million reward on combating BDS and anti-semitism. 
  2. Former Israeli defense and justice minister, as well as ambassador to the U.S., Moshe Arens passed away at the age of 93. He was known as a “gentleman” and a “statesman,” in addition to being well-respected for his achievements. 
  3. Rami Levi, a supermarket chain in Israel that bears the name of its business mogul CEO, opened a new mall in Jerusalem to service both Israelis and Palestinians. This mall will join Levy’s five other West Bank shopping centers, which are known as “islands of coexistence where Palestinians and Israeli settlers work and shop side by side.”

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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