“A proper revenge for the blood of a little child/Satan has not yet devised.” So wrote the revered Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik in his searing poem “On the Slaughter” in April 1903, a few days after the bloody Kishinev pogrom. The two-day rampage by townspeople in the czarist regional capital had left the Jewish quarter a smoking ruin, and 49 Jews hacked or beaten to death, while the czar’s police stood and watched. Bialik’s poem captured the outraged, horrified feelings of Jews across Russia and around the world: “The world is my gallows/And we are the select few/My blood is cheap…”
Something like that feeling has been circulating through Israel after five members of the Fogel family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar — including a 3-month-old baby — were found stabbed to death, their throats slit, in what is assumed to be a terrorist attack. The country erupted in outrage. Twenty-thousand people showed up for the funeral, where Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger darkly recalled the biblical command to “remember Amalek” — the warlike tribe that Jews departing Egypt were ordered to exterminate. “Amalek is here,” he said.
Metzger carefully added that only God could take revenge. Israel could “respond,” he said, by expanding settlements and stopping negotiations with the Palestinians. “After seeing these harsh images, who can we sit down and talk peace with?” he was quoted as saying.
Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon delivered the same message in more secular terms. The attack, he told the mourners, proved peace with the Palestinians was impossible so long as their leaders continued their “wild incitement to hatred of Jews.” That was a theme that Israel was pursuing through every possible channel in response to the murders: that they resulted from an atmosphere of anti-Israel incitement that made peace impossible.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of “a society that permits wild incitement” in one of his first public statements after the attack. His Cabinet ministers picked up the theme, followed by Israeli diplomats and a brace of American Jewish organizations, mostly on the right, including the Zionist Organization of America, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the National Council of Young Israel. Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick spelled out what official types could only hint: that “genocidal Jew hatred defines Palestinian society.”
If you listened closely, some of the condemnations of incitement sounded an awful lot like, well, incitement. Ron Nachman, mayor of the major West Bank settlement-city of Ariel, blamed the attack on “incitement” by Israeli human rights advocates and urged new restrictions on them. David Wilder, a spokesman for the Jewish settlers in Hebron, wrote that the real source of incitement was “Jewish leaders who are willing to again abandon our land and our people, ‘returning’ all the heavily Arab-populated cities in Judea and Samaria to monkeys dressed up as people.” Yes, monkeys dressed as people.
Wilder also seemed to blame Netanyahu himself — or, as he put it, “Jewish leaders who continue to espouse support for declaration of a ‘palestinian state,’ planning to announce these intentions within the next couple of months in Washington.” There is speculation that Netanyahu is considering making such an announcement in favor of a Palestinian state within interim borders.
Israelis have suffered more than their share of terrorist attacks over the years. This time, though, the response seemed to have shifted up a notch. In large part this was due to the butchering of an infant. The rational mind recoils at the depravity of the act. Politicians, journalists and rabbis struggled to come up with words to match their revulsion at the seemingly inexplicable. (Though an explanation for such acts was offered in 2009 by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, dean of the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva in the neighboring settlement of Yitzhar, a few miles west of Itamar, in his book “The King’s Torah”: “There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately.”)
In part, too, the heightened reaction is due to shock. The Itamar attack came out of nowhere. Despite the outraged rhetoric, the attack comes after a long period that’s been largely free of terrorism, at least in Israeli terms. The bloodbath of the Second Intifada, with dozens of Israelis killed monthly in terrorist bombings and shootings, was largely ended by 2005. The last suicide bombing was in April 2008. In the two years since then, terrorist attacks have largely been interdicted by the Palestinian Authority in cooperation with Israeli forces, while in the wake of Operation Cast Lead rocket attacks from Gaza have been mostly stopped by Hamas out of fear of Israeli reprisals. Israeli deaths in those two years total six civilians and six security personnel, all from attacks perpetrated by lone wolves or rogue factions.
True, a dozen deaths aren’t the whole story. There were numerous non-lethal incidents, and dozens more nipped in the bud by Palestinian security, the Israelis or both. Still, it’s nothing like the hundreds of attacks implemented or planned monthly when the Israelis and Palestinians were working against each other. Israeli security officials speak highly of the cooperation of the Palestinian forces. And both sides praise U.S. Army General Keith Dayton, who spent several years training the Palestinian security forces before retiring last fall.
But in a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Dayton provided some important context suggesting that the current relative quiet will not last forever. His Palestinian trainees were doing a professional job, he told the pro-Israel audience, but they were doing it out of Palestinian patriotism, not love of Israel. If there were no significant progress toward Palestinian statehood within two years, he said, events would start slipping out of control. That was just under two years ago, in May 2009.
The murders in Itamar don’t show the futility of working with the Palestinians, but the urgency. For opponents of territorial compromise, that might be much scarier.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com and read his blog at www.forward.com
This story "J.J. Goldberg: Reckoning Wrongly in a Massacre’s Wake" was written by J.J. Goldberg.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).