January 4, 2001
Acts of Vengeance
Surveilance of right-wing radicals and security increased following Jerusalem riot
Twenty thousand mourners, seething with anger, followed the bodies of Binyamin and Talia Kahane through downtown Jerusalem to the Givat Shaul cemetery last Sunday night. Most of them were Orthodox yeshiva students, admirers of Meir Kahane, the assassinated founder of the Jewish Defense League and of the outlawed Kach party. The rabbi's son and daughter-in-law, aged 34 and 31 respectively, had been shot by Palestinian gunmen as they drove home from a Jerusalem Shabbat to the West Bank settlement of Kfar Tapuach. Five of their six children were injured.
The funeral procession rapidly degenerated into a riot. In King George Street, young men burst into a kebab bar and chased terrified Arab workers up to the second story, while the crowd outside chanted: "Lynch! Lynch!" In the Rehavia suburb, the march paused outside Prime Minister Ehud Barak's heavily guarded official residence. "Kill the traitor!" they yelled. "Death to traitors! Hang him! Ehud the murderer!" Ten policemen were injured in the confrontations.
Baruch Kahane, the murdered man's brother, told the mourners: "There is no exemption from God's obligation to take revenge." Noam Federman, a leading Kach activist in Hebron, exhorted them: "Wake up, Jews. Take your fate into your own hands."
No one this week is dismissing their words as windy rhetoric. The Kach fanatics, reduced to a bunch of spray-painting sloganeers since an Egyptian shot Meir Kahane in New York 10 years ago, no longer feel isolated. The daily armed attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians are dragging the mainstream closer to the fringe. Settler rabbis, subdued since one of their disciples, Yigal Amir, assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, are preaching against the "treason" of ceding the Temple Mount to Palestinian rule. Opposition politicians, reluctant to call Israel's most-decorated war hero a traitor, say Barak has "merely" gone insane.
The morning after Binyamin Kahane's funeral, political commentator Hemi Shalev wrote in Ma'ariv: "The entire region is sitting on a powder keg, the Temple Mount is the primed fuse, and all that is missing is a match... A divided people is united in a rare consensus of despair at the present situation, and fear of what is to come."
The Shin Bet, Israel's FBI, is stepping up surveillance of the radical right and reinforcing the guard on sensitive sites like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. "All scenarios are possible," said a senior security man.
Three doomsday scenarios are being taken seriously. All three have been tried, successfully or otherwise, over the past 20 years. They are:
An attack on a Muslim shrine, like Al Aqsa mosque, which the "Jewish underground" once plotted to blow up so that the Jewish Temple could be rebuilt.
A massacre of Palestinians, along the lines of the slaughter of 29 Muslims at prayer by Baruch Goldstein, an American-born settler physician, in Hebron.
The assassination of Barak or other ministers identified with the peace process.
Prof. Ehud Sprinzak, an expert on Israel's radical right, said this week: "The motivation of the Kahane people to strike is very powerful. They may not do it today or tomorrow, but I think they're cooking something. They probably also feel they have a public behind them, a lot of sympathy and support."
Sprinzak, dean of the Lauder School of Government at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, Israel's first private university, argued that Kach had cultivated an ideology of Jewish revenge even before the murder of Binyamin and Talia Kahane. "For them" he said, "it's not a necessary evil, not a matter of self-defense; it's a virtue. They believe that striking a gentile constitutes a holy act."
At the same time, he went on, Kach had suffered a sense of guilt for failing to avenge the blood of its charismatic rabbi. This would only intensify with the death of his son and ideological heir. "They did not live up to Kahane's legacy," Sprinzak said. "This is another powerful drive to take revenge now."
The professor was less sure about the broader settler right, who have surprised many observers by their relative restraint during the three-month Intifada. They were, he explained, very pleased that their job was being done for them by the army and felt they were part of a consensus.
Now, all would hinge on whether there was a last-minute deal between Barak and Arafat. "If there is, they'll go bananas. If not, they'll sit back and say, 'We told you so. You can't trust Arafat.'" Unless, that is, Palestinian terrorism pushes their patience to the breaking point.