Last week’s terrorist attack on a religious seminary in Jerusalem was a crime against humanity, not an act of war under any civilized norm. No legitimate moral code can sanction the deliberate mass murder of civilians — to say nothing of students sitting in school, steeped in their studies.
And this was no ordinary school. Known as Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, it is one of Israel’s most distinguished seminaries, founded by Israel’s first Ashkenazic chief rabbi, the revered Rabbi Avraham Hacohen Kook. It is the birthplace and flagship of religious Zionism, Israel’s brand of Modern Orthodoxy. The eight shooting victims — all but one of them teenagers — went to death studying holy texts, exploring the same Scripture held sacred by Christians, Muslims and Jews alike.
Every terrorist murder unites Israelis and their friends around the world in a shroud of grief and anger. The murder of religious scholars bent to their learning sends a special shudder through our collective being. The pain is only heightened by the targeting of an academy so fraught with history and symbolism.
But Mercaz Harav carries a double emotional charge. It is the cradle not only of religious Zionism, but also of the settler ideology spawned by religious Zionism. It was there that Kook’s son and successor, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, preached the religious command that Israelis must possess and settle every inch of the holy West Bank or face God’s wrath. Disciples of Kook have led the settler movement ever since.
The killer’s selection of Mercaz Harav may have been mere coincidence, as many observers argued this week. It may be that the killer, living in the separate reality of Palestinian society, did not grasp the resonance of his target. And yet, he ignored dozens of yeshivas that were closer to his East Jerusalem home and infinitely easier to get to. Nor could he have selected a target more fraught with symbolism.
In the first hours and days after the murders, most Israelis, right and left alike, tried to avoid arguing the symbolic meaning of a terrorist attack on Mercaz Harav. Few wished to sow political division while the blood was still fresh and the grief most raw. But the rancor burst open nonetheless. It erupted during a condolence call to the yeshiva by Israel’s education minister, Yuli Tamir, three days after the attack. Tamir, a Labor Party leader and veteran of the Peace Now movement, was set upon while leaving the yeshiva by a mob of students and teachers who struck and spat upon her, calling her a “murderer” and “traitor.”
The school promptly apologized, and students were lectured on the importance of national unity and mutual respect. But the rancor was not over. According to news reports, denied by the yeshiva, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been told by school officials to cancel a planned condolence call. Rightist Knesset members were quoted blaming the massacre at least partly on the government’s peace policies. A group of Mercaz Harav alumni was caught planning a revenge attack on an East Jerusalem Muslim cleric, with the blessing of a Mercaz Harav rabbi. A Labor Party Cabinet minister warned that public tensions were rising to the incendiary level of the weeks before Yitzhak Rabin’s death in 1995, and he feared another assassination. Warnings were circulated among the yeshiva’s students and teachers to beware of strangers in the building, who might turn out to be Israeli security agents.
Saner voices have been heard on both sides. Olmert reminded the public that the students’ death was mourned by all Israelis, across religious and political divides. Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi recalled the traditional injunction against judging the mourner in the first hours of grief. Commentators across the spectrum tried to explain and excuse the attack on the minister by noting that the religious Zionist community is in a state of existential crisis as it faces the prospect of Israel dismantling the settlements that are its members’ life’s work — and, they believe, Israel’s salvation. More and more, it is said, religious Zionists are turning inward, despairing of the secular state whose holiness was the essence of Kook’s Zionism. It is that existential despair, fueled by love of the Holy Land, that gives rise to the insurrectionist, anti-government mood surfacing among settlers and their allies.
That despair is surely real, but it does not excuse insurrectionary threats and violence. On the contrary, the despair and its manifestations must be recognized and resisted as the threat that they represent. There is nothing new about a wrong-headed belief system losing a historic struggle and refusing to give up. Whatever sympathy its advocates deserve, however, they cannot be permitted to take the law in their hands or dictate policy to the majority.
The whole House of Israel shares this week in the grief of Mercaz Harav over the deaths of its students. At the same time, the murders should inspire the State of Israel to pursue peace more urgently than ever. Taking a leaf from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, the murdered students must be mourned as if there were no raging debate over the future of the settlements they were taught to revere. And yet, the debate over settlements and peace must be pressed onward despite — or because of — the students’ murder.