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talking with jewish extremists by jessica stern

In these excerpts from her 2003 book, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, Jessica Stern, a leading expert on terrorism, recounts her conversations with two members of the Temple Mount Faithful, a messianic group of Jewish extremists who are followers of the teachings of Rabbi Kahane and who seek to destroy the Muslim holy sites built where the Jewish Temples once stood. They are also dedicated to expanding Israel's borders to encompass the entire biblical Israel. Stern, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, spent four years interviewing extremist members of three religions: Christians, Jews and Muslims.

[The following excerpts are from Chapter Four (pages 90-93, 99-101, 104-106) from Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill by Jessica Stern. Copyright © 2003 by Jessica Stern. Republished here by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.]


[Yoel Lerner]

...But what about the murder of Rabin? I ask. Do you believe it was religiously acceptable, given that there exists today no ultimate authority to sanction such a step?

"You've got a ticklish point," he says. "Contrary to popular belief, the highest value for a Jew is not the preservation of human or even of Jewish life. The highest value is doing what God wants you to do. So in an attempt to put Jewish values in a hierarchy, human life in general, Jewish life in particular, is high on the list. But it's not the top."

But how, I wonder, does a Jew know what God wants him or her to do in any given instance? Why is it that the only people who seem to know with absolute certainty are the people who become terrorists?

"There are a number of circumstances under which the individual is enjoined to take a Jewish life if necessary without consulting a court," Lerner continues. "If you see a person preparing to commit a capital crime -- rape or murder -- it is your duty to stop him. You must stop him any way you can. It's similar in some respects to the right Jewish law accords the individual to restore his own property from a thief if it is stolen. You don't have to bring him to court. If you can catch up with him, you can take your property back by force. You don't have to bother the court with stuff like that. Rabin was stealing Jewish property, proposing to give it away."

So the death of Rabin was simply "collateral damage" in an effort to recover stolen property, according to Lerner's convoluted reasoning. His murder would not even have required a ruling by the Sanhedrin, if it had existed.

"I had been convinced for some time that Rabin's death was coming, that it had to come," Lerner continues. "I understand what motivated Yigal Amir [Rabin's murderer]. I am convinced that he felt that Yitzhak Rabin was putting the survival of the Jewish people in danger by his policies. There was no other way of removing Rabin from the gun he was pointing at the Jewish people. I'm ninety-nine percent positive that that's what he thought. Honestly, I can't argue with it."

After his arrest, Amir proclaimed that the killing of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was justified, even commanded, by the rulings of Din Mosser and Din Rodef, as described in the Jewish religious law, or halakha.

According to the halakah, the rulings of Din Mosser and Din Rodef apply to those Jews who have committed the most despicable crime imaginable -- the betrayal of their fellow Jews. The punishment of the Mosser -- a person who hands over sacred Jewish property to the gentile -- as well as that of the Rodef -- a person who murders or facilitates the murder of Jews -- shall be death. Since the execution of the Mosser or the Rodef is aimed at saving the lives of other Jews, there is no need for a trial.

Amir admits that he was partly inspired by the book Baruch the Man, published to commemorate the death of Baruch Goldstein, the terrorist who massacred a group of twenty-nine Palestinians near Hebron in 1994. Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg, a mathematician and specialist in Jewish mysticism, contributed a chapter that discusses revenge and terrorism as purifying. Jews are encouraged to take revenge against those who harm them to recover their inner power after centuries of humiliation. Revenge, he argues, "is stressing my positive essence, the truth in my being. . . . It is like a law of nature. He who takes revenge joins the 'ecological currents of reality.' . . . Revenge is the return of the individual and the nation to believe in themselves, in their power and in the fact that they have a place under the sun and are no longer stepped on by everybody." Rabbi Cohen, another contributor, argues that seeking revenge not only helps the Jewish people, but also "provides the individual Jew with the satisfaction and consolation for the troubles the people of Israel suffered so long." Both rabbis were talking about revenge against gentiles, but Yigal Amir felt that Rabin was the Jews' worst enemy.6

"The land is a sacred thing," Lerner says, trying to explain Amir's decision to kill Rabin. He refers me to passages in Genesis and Deuteronomy for evidence that the land was given to the Jews in a sacred contract, and that no Israeli leader has the moral right to "give this sacred territory away."

"In that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates..." (Genesis 15:18). And also, "Every place whereon the sole of your foot shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness, and Lebanon, from the river, the river Euphrates, even unto the hinder sea shall be your border. There shall no man be able to stand against you: the Lord your God shall lay the fear of you and the dread of you upon all the land that ye shall tread upon, as He hath spoken unto you" (Deuteronomy 11:24-25).7 These areas include lands that today are in Jordan and Iraq. These are the words that inspired both Lerner and Yigal Amir. They also inspire many settlers. And they will probably continue to inspire terrorism for years to come.

The biblical promise of Eretz Israel, the land of Israel, to God's chosen people makes the concept of land a key component of religious doctrine to fundamentalist Jews, who believe that possession of the land of Israel is part and parcel of the Jews' Covenant with God. Accordingly, relinquishing or dividing any part of the land promised by God to the children of Israel would constitute a breach of the Covenant.

Israel's victory in the June 1967 war (the Six Day War) not only tripled Israel's territory, but the newly conquered areas included the biblical territories of Sinai, Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. For messianic Jews, the victory was a modern miracle of unimaginable proportions, a miracle that indicated the imminent arrival of the Messiah. The movement centered around the Merkaz ha-Rav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, whose students formed the nucleus of what became known as Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), a messianic group that became the vanguard of the Israeli settlement movement after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The mantra of the students at Merkaz ha-Rav Yeshiva, and later on of Gush Emunim, was the settlement of the newly "reconquered" territory in the West Bank or, as they referred to it, Judea and Samaria. Fundamentalist rabbis swiftly declared every inch of the West Bank holy land and called on Jews to settle it. They declared that by settling on this land. Jews could accelerate the process of redemption, i.e., the coming of the Messiah, who is expected to remove pain and agony from the Jews. The argument was that redemption would ultimately be achieved when the Jews controlled all of the biblical land of Israel.

Within hours of the arrival of Israeli troops on the Temple Mount, however, then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan decided to leave the compound in charge of the Muslim religious trust known as the Waqf. The belligerent parties agreed that Jews would be allowed to visit the Temple Mount only when Muslims were not conducting prayers there. Israelis would be treated as tourists, and Jews would not be allowed to pray on the compound at any time. In conceding control of the Temple Mount to Muslims, Dayan had made a pragmatic decision that enabled the Islamic world, however reluctantly, to tolerate Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

Dayan's pragmatism did not win him many friends among Israel's religious right. To them, he was relinquishing the biblical Mount Moriah, the site of the two ancient Jewish temples that were built to honor and worship God. ...


. . .


Avigdor Eskin, like Yoel Lerner, is a follower of the teachings of Rabbi Kahane. Kahane's teachings remain a strong influence on Jewish extremists long after a Muslim extremist assassinated the rabbi in New York City in 1990.16 To followers of Kahane, redemption is inevitable, now that God has helped create the modern state of Israel. But it is up to the Jews to reestablish a theocracy, and to remove any obstacles that stand in the way, including the Arabs.

The Kahanist ideology was institutionalized in the Jewish Defense League (JDL), which Kahane founded in 1968 under the slogan "Never again!" The group's activities have included fighting "black and white anti-Semitism," supporting the emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, hunting for Nazi war criminals, and practicing "Jewish self-defense."17 Under the motto "Every Jew a .22," the vigilante JDL urged American Jews to arm themselves.

In September 1968, Kahane moved to Israel, where he founded the organization Kach (Thus) in 1971. An offshoot of Kach, an organization called Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives), was founded by Kahane's son Binyamin 18 following his father's assassination. Both groups have a violently anti-Arab outlook and call for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel.

In 1973 and 1977, Kach participated in the Israeli parliamentary elections, but failed to gather a sufficient number of votes to elect anyone. The movement ran for elections again in 1984, and Kahane was elected to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, with twenty-six thousand votes. In the following year, the Knesset banned Kach from participating in the next elections based on its incitement to racism. In his appeal to the Supreme Court's decision to ban Kach, Kahane claimed, to no avail, that "security needs justify severe measures of discrimination against Arabs." 19

Kach and Kahane Chai were declared terrorist organizations in 1994 by the Israeli cabinet. The banning of the two groups followed one of the most well-known incidents of Jewish extremism, namely the massacre of twenty-nine Muslims in Hebron by Dr. Baruch Goldstein on February 25, 1994. Goldstein, a thirty-seven-year-old doctor and father of seven at the time of the shooting, was a prominent member of Kach. The group had issued statements supporting Goldstein's attack.

Both Kach and Kahane Chai organize protests against the Israeli government and harass and threaten Palestinians in Hebron and the West Bank. Groups affiliated with them have threatened to attack Arabs, Palestinians, and Israeli government officials. They claimed responsibility for several attacks of West Bank Palestinians in which four persons were killed and two were wounded in 1993. In April 2002, the current leader of Kach, Baruch Marzel, was arrested by Israeli police in connection with a plot to leave a trailer laden with two barrels of gasoline and two gas balloons outside a Palestinian girls' school in East Jerusalem.20 The West settlements of Tapuah and Kiryat Arba are strongholds of the Kahnist movement. According to the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, both organizations receive support from American and European sympathizers.21 ...

I ask Erzion to explain his feeling of urgency about rebuilding the Temple. "If you seek the kernel of meaning in the Temple," he says, "it is akin to the meeting of love between the Jewish people and God, or the attraction between men and women. The Jewish people are the female aspect, and they are missing their other, an other which can only be recovered when the Temple is rebuilt. The view of God is symbolized by the man, and the Jewish people as a woman.

"It is something so wonderful you can hardly imagine it. None of us has ever seen or touched anything like it. It is not just the stones it's built of. That's just the framework, like the peel of an orange. The Temple is the collective spirit of the people." Erzion is clever, like Lerner. But he is also poetic. Listening to him, I start to feel the loss of this mystical place. I feel the longing. For the Temple, and for this sensual union between God and man that he describes. Fundamentalism is always about longing, I remind myself, often for something that never existed.

In 1984, Israeli authorities uncovered a plot by Yehuda Erzion and coconspirators to destroy the Dome of the Rock, which the group called "the abomination." The group, an offshoot of Gush Emunim, was known as the Jewish Underground, or Makhteret. Until that point, the Gush Emunim settlers had eschewed violence, despite their messianic and fundamentalist outlook. Beginning in the 1980s, in the wake of the Camp David peace accords, the group began to despair of achieving its goals peacefully. Some members of the group, among them Erzion, turned increasingly violent, prepared, in the end, to risk a world war in pursuit of religious redemption for the Jewish people.30

Erzion subscribed to the teachings of Rabbi Shabtai Ben Dov, who promoted the idea of active redemption as the best strategy to achieve the total transformation of Israel into a sacred state run according to Jewish law. The group had stockpiled weapons to use against the Dome as soon as they had received rabbinical authority, which, fortunately, did not occur prior to their discovery by law-enforcement authorities.

Carmi Gillon was chief of the Shabak, the Israeli general security service, when Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Rabin. He was head of the department that uncovered the Jewish Underground. Gillon describes Erzion as an unusually clever terrorist. On May 2, 1980, Fatah threw a grenade into a group of Jews who were praying in Hebron, six of whom were killed. The Jews in Hebron wanted to take revenge. Most of them wanted to go to a market and blow up as many Arabs as they could or do the same in a mosque. But Erzion persuaded his colleagues that wounding, not killing, several Palestinian leaders was a better strategy. Erzion felt that killing them would only make them heroes. This was a clever strategy. The group managed to wound several Palestinian mayors.

In subsequent attacks, Erzion failed to prevail over his more violent colleagues. On July 17, 1983, an Israeli yeshiva student was killed in Hebron. Erzion's colleagues entered the Islamic College in Hebron, determined to kill as many Arabs as they could. They killed three and injured over thirty. Yehuda Erzion objected to this. He does not believe in random violence or acts of pure vengeance, Gillon explains.31 The group was shaped initially by Erzion's desire for redemption, but over time its goals shifted to sheer revenge. The group had the potential to become a professional organization of killers, but was stopped before it got that far.32

Although Erzion appears to have given up violent struggle, at least for now, he has not given up his efforts to prepare Israelis to rebuild the Third Temple when the time is ripe. Yehuda Erzion, Yoel Lerner, and Avigdor Eskin are all members of the Temple Mount Treasury, a group that continues to raise funds to rebuild the Temple.33

Gillon believes that the radical right continues to pose a grave threat to Israeli national security, perhaps even more than Hamas. "Here in Israel we don't like to say this very loudly, bur the radical-right Jewish groups have a lot in common with Hamas," he told me. Hamas and the radical-right groups have twin objectives: one religious, the other political, Gillon explains. Both use selective readings of history and of religious texts to justify violence over territory.

Etzion tells me sadly that he has learned the Jewish people are not ready for redemption. He serves as the leader of the group Chai Vekayam (Alive and Existing), which regards itself as "the catalyst for a Jewish renaissance."34 The group focuses on encouraging Jews to prepare themselves for the imminent redemption through prayer.

The Temple Mount is the only holy place for the Jews, Etzion explains. "The one thing I am sure of," he says, "is that the Dome of the Rock is a temporary building. It must come to an end. Exactly when and exactly how I cannot say. But as a principle, I am sure its end is near."35

Selective reading of history is a powerful tool for mobilizing terrorists seeking to settle conflicting claims to the same territory. Both sides in the Kashmir dispute use the same tool, as we shall see in the next chapter. ...

6. Quoted in Ehud Sprinzak, Brother Against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination (New York: Free Press, 1999), 261-62.

7. Other passages from the Old Testament that are frequently cited to show the Jewish connection to the land of Israel include Genesis 13:14-15, God said to Abram: "Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever." In Genesis 26:3, God confirms to Abraham's son Jacob, "Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore unto Abraham thy father."

16. For more on the assassin of Rabbi Meir Kahane, El-Sayyid Nosair, see Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror (New York: Random House, 2002), 3-7.

17. See Jewish Defense League (JDL), "Introductory Message," JDL Web site, last accessed 11 January 2003,

18. Binyamin Kahane, the son of Rabbi Meir Kahane, was killed on 31 December 2000, along with his wife, in a drive-by shooting near the settlement of Ofrah in the West Bank.

19. "Kach and Kahane Chai," Web site of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Herzliyya, Israel, last accessed 11 January 2003,

20. Davan Maharaj, "Israel Says It Foiled Anti-Arab Plot," Los Angeles Times, 13 May 2002, 4.

21. "Kach and Kahane Chai."

30. Ehud Sprinzak, "From Messianic Pioneering to Vigilante Terrorism," in Inside Terrorist Organizations, ed. David C. Rapoport (London: Frank Cass, 1988), 194-216.

31. Carmi Gillon, interview with the author, Tel Aviv, Israel, 8 August 1999.

32. Sprinzak, "From Messianic Pioneering to Vigilante Terrorism," 207.

33. Nadav Shragai, "Raising Funds for the Third Temple," Ha'aretz, 20 July 1999.

34. See Web site of Chai Vekayam, last accessed 19 August 2002,

35. Yehuda Etzion, interview with the author, 4 August 1999.

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posted april 5, 2005

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