Throughout their history — from the rear-guard assaults by the Amalekites during the exodus from Egypt to suicide-bombing attacks by Palestinian militants in more recent times — Jews have been victimized by varied and numerous acts of terror. Much less is known about the flip side of the coin: Jews as instigators and perpetrators of terrorism. In this brief yet compact volume, Ami Pedahzur and Arie Perliger, two Israeli political scientists, test through case studies several hypotheses about the causes underlying Jewish terrorism both before and especially since the establishment of Israel in 1948.
To avoid confusion, the authors explain at the outset what they mean by terrorism: “First, terrorism involves the use of violence. Second, there is a political motive that activates the violence. Third, there is an intention to strike fear among the victims and their community. Finally, the victims of terrorism are civilians or noncombatants.” The hypotheses being tested are embedded in a theoretical framework in the preface to the volume. It posits that terrorism is more likely to emerge in counterculture communities with dualistic ideologies — worldviews that divide humanity into polarized categories, such as good and evil — whose members feel threatened by external challenges to their values and way of life. Such communities are usually led by charismatic leaders who frame the external threat as catastrophic, thereby helping to justify violence as a legitimate and necessary response. Members of such groups become radicalized through socialization processes involving intensive interactions with family members, close friends, co-workers and neighbors. Within such social networks, members are more likely to resort to terrorism when they identify themselves intensely with the counterculture community, have a high level of “biographical availability” (young, single, unemployed), and experience a personal crisis, such as the sudden and violent loss of loved ones.
To test these propositions, the authors perused thousands of court documents and interviewed 25 former terrorists, as well as politicians, religious leaders and law-enforcement officials. They also conducted six comprehensive surveys of communities where terrorist groups had emerged, including more than 4,800 respondents. The study relied on three databases: details on each of 309 incidents of Jewish terror carried out in Mandatory Palestine and Israel between 1932 and 2008, biographies of the 224 persons who had taken part in these attacks, and analyses of the ties among members of the Jewish terrorist networks.
Prior to the establishment of Israel, Jewish terror against the British Mandatory authority and Palestinian Arabs was carried out by two paramilitary organizations that espoused Revisionist Zionist ideologies: Etzel (Irgun) and Lehi (Stern Gang). Both groups reflected the view of Zeev Jabotinsky that a sovereign Jewish state ought to be created on both sides of the Jordan River, through violence. Between 1939 and 1942, Etzel carried out 60 terrorist attacks, killing more than 120 Palestinians and maiming hundreds more. In order to hasten British departure from Palestine, Lehi operatives assassinated Lord Moyne, the minister resident in the Middle East, on November 6, 1944, in Cairo. On July 26, 1946, explosives planted by Etzel agents leveled the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the administrative center of the British Mandatory authority, killing 91 Britons and injuring close to 500 people. Lehi’s last terrorist operation ended the life of Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte , the UN mediator, on September 17, 1948, after he had issued a plan that significantly altered the terms of the 1947 UN partition resolution.
The motives behind Jewish terrorism changed drastically in the post-1948 era, as violence was increasingly driven by religious, political and nationalistic impulses. In early 1950, the terrorist underground group named Brit Hakanaim (Covenant of the Zealots) emerged in Jerusalem. Founded by rabbis determined to oppose the increasing secularization of the Jewish people, the group consisted of 35 yeshiva (religious school) students who set fires to private cars, public buses and business establishments that were open on the Sabbath. In the mid-1950s, another terrorist cell, the Kingdom of Israel, carried out a series of bombing attacks against diplomatic institutions from Eastern European countries, including the Soviet embassy in Tel Aviv. Consisting of former Lehi members, the group resorted to violence in response to increasing oppression of Jews in Communist-bloc countries. On March 3, 1957, two members of this cell assassinated Dr. Israel Kastner, a prominent leader of Hungarian Jewry, who was alleged to have prevented the rescue of thousands of Jews during World War II.
During the last three decades, Jewish terror in Israel has been aimed almost exclusively at Muslim holy places and Palestinian civilians. From 1980 through 1984, a terrorist network known as the Jewish Underground carried out a series of attacks against Palestinian targets around Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank. Consisting of cliques of settlers from the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) movement, the group emerged after the 1979 Camp David Accords and relied on terror in order to secure three objectives: to drive a wedge between Israel and neighboring Arab states and thereby prevent further progress in the peace process; stop the evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Sinai; and deter Palestinian attacks on Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories. The most notorious terrorist acts of the Jewish Underground included the partially successful booby-trapping of the cars of the mayors of Ramallah, Nablus, El-Bira, Bethlehem and Hebron in June 1980; the eventually abandoned plans to explode the Dome of the Rock mosques on Temple Mount; the attack on the Islamic College in Hebron on July 26, 1983, in which three students were killed and scores injured; and the foiled attempts to detonate explosives on buses of the East Jerusalem Transportation Company on April 26, 1984.
Opposition to the Camp David Accords spawned another network of terrorist cells under the rubric of the Kach movement led by Rabbi Meir Kahane. The Kahanist counterculture fostered the emergence of religious Jewish terrorism. Its members, mostly American immigrants who settled in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, resorted to violence against Palestinian targets in order to retain Israeli control over the territories and establish a theocratic state based on Jewish religious law in what they regarded as Greater Israel. The Kahanist vision included the building of a Third Temple in East Jerusalem, an unrealized dream that required and justified the destruction of the Temple Mount mosques. Terror instigated by Kach included setting fires to cars and buses owned by Palestinians in Jerusalem and Hebron, killing and maiming Palestinians traveling in buses or private cars on West Bank roads, and spreading fear in refugee camps near Bethlehem. The most notorious act of terror associated with Kahanism was carried out by Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a settler who tossed a hand grenade and opened machine-gun fire in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on February 25, 1994, killing 29 Muslim worshippers and injuring 125 more.
Vehement opposition to the 1993 Oslo Accords provided yet another impetus for the radicalization of West Bank settlers and their resort to violence. Beginning in late 1993, a cell of Hebron-area settlers known as the Vengeance Underground launched attacks against Palestinians riding in cars on West Bank roads. A desire to punish Palestinians for carrying out terrorist attacks, determination to stop the transfer of West Bank territory to the Palestinian Authority, and deep hostility toward the country’s political institutions and leaders led to the formation of yet another small terrorist cell, headed by Yigal Amir, a 25-year-old law student at Bar Ilan University. Amir’s network of Orthodox students perceived the Oslo Accords as a mortal threat to the existence of the Jewish state and therefore regarded Yitzhak Rabin as a traitor. Spurred by rabbinical pronouncements that justified the killing of a Jew who endangers the lives of other Jews or hands Jewish property over to gentiles, Amir assassinated Rabin following a mass peace rally in Tel Aviv on November 4, 1995.
The Al-Aqsa Intifada that began in October 2000 served as a catalyst for the emergence of the Bat Ayin Underground. A network of young and religiously observant thirdgeneration West Bank settlers, Bat Ayin activists ignored Israeli authorities by establishing communal farms on West Bank hilltops, hoping to lay the foundation for a theocratic state based on Jewish religious law. Beginning in early 2001, members of the Underground initiated two types of attacks: firing at Palestinians in passing cars and placing explosives in public buildings, especially schools, in Arab villages around Hebron and East Jerusalem. Several of their terrorist actions were foiled by the General Security Services (formerly known as Shin Bet), and the network fell apart after the arrest of its leaders in 2003.
To their credit, Pedahzur and Perliger also analyze several other Jewish terrorist groups whose behavior cannot be explained by the theoretical framework outlined at the outset of the study. These groups lacked ideological visions, their members did not belong to counterculture communities, and they often resorted to violence as a spontaneous act of vengeance for terrorist acts against other Jews. The authors also identify another variety of violence, “lone-wolf terrorism,” that falls outside their theoretical construct. As indicated by its designation, such violence is carried out by three types of individuals: those suffering from mental illness, those with mental illness who are motivated to seek revenge, and those without mental illness who engage in spontaneous acts of vengeance.
Several conclusions emerge from this study. First, unlike political or business organizations, Jewish terrorist groups lack clear structures and hierarchy and are best characterized as informal and flexible social networks. Second, Jewish terrorism has been most frequently motivated by an admixture of political, religious and nationalistic causes. Third, terror undertaken by subculture communities such as Gush Emunim and Kach has often been prompted by reactions against perceived external challenges to communal values and visions; hence the increased violence following the Camp David Accords, the two Intifadas and the Oslo Accords. Fourth, the tactics employed by Jewish terrorist groups do not include suicide bombings. Fifth, Israeli terrorists have enjoyed relatively easy access to weapons and explosives, due either to past or present service in the military and the existence of a black market for weaponry. Lastly, a significant number of terrorist plans have been foiled by Israel’s intelligence agencies.
Jewish terrorist networks also appear to share similarities with other religious terrorist groups, such as Islamic groups operating in the Middle East and Southeast Asia and fundamentalist Christian groups in the United States. All such communities adhere to ideologies that combine religious, territorial, nationalistic components. Furthermore, their adherents are driven to violence by a grand vision of a new order. Members of such groups tend to justify terror as a divine duty mandated by a radical interpretation of religious scriptures. Such groups reject reconciliation and tend to recruit members from family and friendship networks that are often embedded in religious and cultural institutions.
Pedahzur and Perliger are to be commended for tackling a complicated, sensitive and politically embarrassing subject. Their study, however, is beset by several shortcomings. First, the theoretical framework they construct refers solely to terror committed by private groups, thereby excluding consideration of terror carried out by Israeli military and civilian state institutions. Thus, while acts such as the killing by the IDF Unit 101 of 60 Palestinian residents in the West Bank village of Qibya on October 14, 1953, fully meet the authors’ definition of terror, they remain completely outside the parameters of this study. Similarly ignored are terrorist attacks carried out by Israel’s intelligence agencies, such as the assassination campaign by the Mossad against PLO activists in various West European countries and Lebanon following the killing of Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Second, there are glaring and inexplicable omissions even within the narrow confines of this study. Why the authors chose to ignore the most notorious, brutal and consequential act of Jewish terror — the Etzel and Lehi massacre of some 250 Palestinians, mostly women and children, in the village of Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948 — remains a mystery. In addition, one learns very little from this study about the impact that Jewish terrorism has had on its perpetrators, its victims and the Israeli polity at large. Lastly, the volume lacks a bibliography of sources. In light of the rather limited scope of this study, the definitive book on Jewish terrorism remains to be written.