April 25, 2002
Journalist Laura Blumenfeld's new book examines the need for vengeance -- in others and herself.
"Revenge: A Story of Hope" by Laura Blumenfeld. (Simon & Schuster, $25).
While walking in the Old City of Jerusalem during a visit from New York in March 1986, Rabbi David Blumenfeld was shot by a Palestinian terrorist. He survived, the bullet just grazing his head. A dozen years later, his daughter Laura Blumenfeld, a reporter on leave from the Washington Post, set out to find the shooter, and exact her own version of "an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth."
"Revenge: A Story of Hope" is Laura Blumenfeld's account of her journey to understand the concept of revenge and ultimately act on it. She comes to realize that her goal is to get the shooter to realize that what he did was wrong; she's not interested in forgiveness. Her book is layered with Middle East politics, details of her parents' divorce, cross-cultural examples of revenge and the author's self-revelation.
"You are what you avenge," Blumenfeld says in an interview near her home on the Upper West Side.
Recently, while doing a press interview by telephone, the conversation was interrupted by a call from President Clinton, who told her that he couldn't put the book down, that it helped him to understand why the violence in the Middle East continues.
Blumenfeld is a very good writer and a bold reporter. Over the course of her honeymoon year in Jerusalem, she tracks down the whereabouts of the shooter and the mastermind of their terrorist cell; she also travels extensively, to Palermo, Sicily, "cradle of the vendetta" to interview the mayor and others, and to Northern Albania, she meets a leading member of the Blood Feud Committee, who is an expert on their written canon compiled in the 15th century that sets out the rules of revenge. Concealed by dark robes, she visits the Grand Ayatollah Abdol-Karim Musavi-Ardabili, former chief of Iran's judiciary, at the school he runs in Qom, and poses a series of hypothetical questions about just compensations for crimes, startling him by asking, "What if a Palestinian shoots a Jew?" She learns that, according to Islamic law, if he's a tourist in Jerusalem, he's entitled to retaliation.
In Israel, Leah Rabin responds to her question of how much revenge is enough by saying, "None. Because there's not enough revenge in the entire world." She learns from Bibi Netanyahu that he doesn't seek personal revenge against the person who killed his brother, Yoni. For him, revenge is a national issue. She speaks to other military and government leaders in Israel and also to a Bedouin who avenges the wrongs of several of his wives, a street criminal who follows his own code, an Arab who killed his beloved sister out of a sense of family honor after she left the house on her own. And, looking at another level of revenge, she interviews a pair of feuding 11-year-old schoolgirls in a Jerusalem suburb "who had stored a wealth of grudges worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys."
But wherever she is doing research, the story comes back to her father. When he visits her in Jerusalem, they go the site of the crime and go over the details. After they contact government authorities and learn the name of the shooter, Omar Khatib, she travels to Ramallah in search of him and learns that he is in prison. In the course of the narrative, she refers to Omar mostly as "the shooter" rather than using his name. As she explains, "You have to not lose sight of what the person did to you."
She introduces herself to the Khatib family as simply Laura, an American journalist doing research for a book. The family greets her with warm hospitality, gathers relatives, and they all laugh about the fact that their son and brother was in jail for shooting "some Jew." Blumenfeld tries to laugh too. Although she speaks Hebrew fluently, she speaks only Arabic and English with them, so that they won't realize that she is Jewish.
When it's suggested to Blumenfeld that perhaps knowing that the shooter is in jail is just revenge, she disagrees, wanting something more. She comes to her own definition: "Revenge is when you can walk away. But somehow, you cannot. Something pulls you back."
After she tells her father what she's learned from the Khatibs, he raises the question of whether she's placing herself in danger. And, he wonders whether there might be a bit of g'neyvat da'at (stealing knowledge) in what she's done; as he explains: "[It's] when you try to benefit from the information people give you, and you're not telling them the truth."
She continues to visit the Khatibs, and she begins a correspondence with Omar, using family members to smuggle her letters into the prison. Returning to Ramallah to deliver letters and pick up the replies, she keeps up her deception and, since no visit can be short, she gets to know the Khatibs. She's not sure how to react when one of the women gives her a ring as a gift and another tells her that they're going to name a new baby Laura if she's a girl. While she's planning revenge, they tell her, "You're family."
Their correspondence unfolds in interesting ways; Blumenfeld wonders if she is naive or whether he is indeed showing hints of transformation.
To tell the rest of the story would take away some of the pleasure in reading Blumenfeld's account, which has moments of real drama and suspense and some surprising turns. Omar does come to express his regret and even gratitude to Blumenfeld. When his family finds out her real identity, they continue to embrace her and later say they are pleased by her actions, that they wouldn't have gotten to know and love her as they did had they known that she was a Jew, and that she was the daughter of Omar's victim.
In a letter to David Blumenfeld, Omar writes -- as Laura recites by heart -- that his daughter was "the mirror that made me see your face as a human person deserved to be admired and respected."
Recently, in connection with the book's publication, producers of ABC's "Primetime" traveled to Israel with Blumenfeld and her father, now an executive with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. For the first time, David Blumenfeld met Omar's family and although he wanted to meet Omar, was unable to as prisoners are denied visitors, other than family members. David Blumenfeld sent him a pen, with the message that the pen is mightier than the sword. An ABC producer did manage to arrange to speak with Omar who said that Laura made him realize that he had to look past the political to the person, and that there had to be another way than violence.
Not always portraying herself in the kindest light, the author writes about painful personal moments. "I had to be tough on myself," she says, noting, "This real and true, this is part of what happens when people get obsessed."
Has writing this book changed her? "I feel 30 years older," she laughs. "I got to know the darkest part of myself and other people and the world and wrestled with it. I came out wiser."
A graduate of Ramaz and Harvard, Blumenfeld spent almost a year after college living in an Arab village as part of the Interns for Peace program. She also has a degree in international relations from Columbia. Blumenfeld, still a staff writer for the Washington Post, and her husband, Baruch Weiss, have a young son and are soon expecting another child.
"When I set out, I thought this was 'Mission Impossible.' My goal was outsized and elusive." She explains that she got her revenge by restoring her father's humanity, in Omar's eyes. "These are dark times but I do thing that my story offers a glimmer of hope, that we can get past the animosity." And, she adds, "We can't let go of that hope."
Laura Blumenfeld will be speaking about "Revenge" at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 26 at Vroman's Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado, Pasadena. For more information, call (626) 449-5320.