There are terror attacks, and there are pogroms. The attack at a Jerusalem synagogue this week that killed four rabbis was a pogrom. It was an attack motivated not by politics but by religious hatred; it was directed not at Israelis but at Jews.
The killers were armed with hatchets and guns instead of suicide belts, and they came not to kill Jews but to butcher them. The images are horrific: a prayer shawl in a pool of blood; a prayer book turned crimson, from which one of the victims had been worshiping as he was killed; and more haunting, the hand of a dead man, still wearing his phylacteries, soaking in his own blood. Witnesses said a worshiper’s arm, also wrapped in a leather prayer strap, had been hacked off its torso.
To Jews schooled in Jewish history, these images are not new; they are the images of a destiny from which Israel had been intended to redeem the Jews. Consider this description of the Kishinev Pogrom in 1903:
“(One young boy), blinded in one eye from youth, begged for his life with the offer of sixty rubles; taking this money, the leader of the crowd … gouged out (his) other eye, saying “You will never again look upon a Christian child.” Nails were driven through heads; bodies, hacked in half; bellies split open and filled with feathers. Women and girls were raped, and some had their breasts cut off.”
Jews knew that sort of hatred could not be combated with reason. Violence of that sort was not motivated by economics, by contested territory or even by history. It was, they understood, malignant Jew-hatred at its core, driven by a millenniums-old sickness from which Europe would never recover.
The 20th century was to have been the century of reason, of banishing ancient hatreds. But when the Kishinev poison was unleashed with the new century already under way (they had no inkling, of course, of how horrific the century would become), they knew they needed to flee.
At the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, evoked Kishinev not as an event, but as a condition. “Kishinev exists wherever … (Jews’) 8 self-respect is injured and their property despoiled because they are Jews. Let us save those who can still be saved!” The Jews, he insisted, needed a state of their own.
He was not the first to say this. When the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 unleashed a similar burst of murderous anti-Jewish violence, an earlier Zionist, Yehuda Leib Pinsker, wrote that “the misfortunes of the Jews are due, above all, to their lack of desire for national independence; … if they do not wish to exist forever in a disgraceful state … they must become a nation.” As long as the Jew was landless and stateless, Pinsker argued as Herzl would once again a decade and a half later, the Jew would persist in a “disgraceful state.” He, too, argued that there was no choice — the Jews needed to flee Europe.
So flee they did, by the many millions. Most went to America, but some newly committed Zionists went to Palestine where they hoped to build a nation-state for the Jews. The Italians had Italy, the Poles had Poland and the Germans had Germany. Each had a language, a history, a culture. So, too, did the Jews; what they lacked was a state, and the price of that statelessness, they believed, was Kishinev.
The Jewish State was supposed to put a stop to those images. Yes, a tragic and bloody conflict over land erupted, but Jews — later called Israelis — believed the conflict could be resolved. Israel would sign treaties with its Arab neighbors, sometimes giving up land (as with the Sinai Desert in the case of Egypt) and sometimes not (since Jordan essentially required no meaningful territorial concession). When Palestinian nationalism emerged and then became the world’s darling, left and centrist Israelis remained unfazed. This was a conflict over territory, they reasoned; when the Palestinians were ready to live side by side, Israel would cede more land, and the conflict would be over.
But the images of Jewish bodies hacked to death on a blood- soaked synagogue floor are about a hatred too deep to be assuaged by territorial concessions. Those images tell Israelis that although they fled Europe and have built their national home, they are still assailed by the same venomous loathing they had sought to escape.
This time, 7 million Jewish Israelis have nowhere to run. To where would they go?
While Hamas has praised the butchery and Palestinians have celebrated by handing out candies to children and posing with hatchets and photographs of the killers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for restraint, urging Jews not to take the law into their own hands.
Yet while Netanyahu seeks restraint on the part of private Israelis, he is unlikely to show restraint himself. For if this horror cannot be stopped, the fundamental premise of Zionism and the promises that it bore for the Jewish people — that the butchery was over — will be upended. And no Israeli prime minister can willingly allow that to happen on his or her watch.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jersualem.
© 2014, Bloomberg News