Robert Gregory Bowers walked into L’Simcha Congregation (Tree of Life synagogue) in Pittsburg, on October 27, 2018, and shot unarmed worshippers. Eleven died and seven (including the gunman) were injured. One need not be a Jew to recognize Bowers as a terrorist.
On August 5, 2012, Michael Page walked into Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek and shot unarmed worshippers. Eight (including the gunman) died and three were injured. One need not be a Sikh to recognize Page as a terrorist.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and shot unarmed worshippers. Nine died and one was injured. One need not be Black to recognize Roof as a terrorist.
On July 27, 2008, Jim David Adkisson walked into Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church in Knoxville and shot unarmed worshippers. Two died and seven were injured. One need not be a Unitarian Universalist to recognize Adkisson as terrorist.
On June 16, 2022, Robert Findlay Smith walked into St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, and shot unarmed worshippers. Three died. One need not be an Episcopalian to recognize Smith as a terrorist.
To walk into a house of worship – regardless of the faith tradition of the congregation – and shoot unarmed believers is an act of terror. And yet, there are those who would praise such terrorists. Worse, there are politicians who would insist such terrorists are in fact martyrs.
On February 25, 1994 – Purim day – reserve army officer Baruch Goldstein walked into the Ibrahimi Mosque in the Tomb (or Cave) of the Patriarchs in Hebron and shot unarmed Muslim worshippers. Twenty-five died (the youngest was 12 years old) and 125 were wounded. Goldstein was also killed.
But it seems one can only be a Palestinian to recognize Goldstein as a terrorist. Why isn’t Goldstein – like Bowers, Page, Roof, Adkisson and Smith – also universally condemned?
Last year, I stood at Goldstein’s grave in Hebron. Or should I say “shrine”?
Engraved on his tomb is: “To the holy Dr. Baruch Kapel Goldstein … Son of Israel. He gave his life for the sake of the people of Israel, the Torah, and the Land. His hands are clean and his heart good. … He was assassinated for the Sanctity of God.”
Referred to as a martyr, his tomb has become a pilgrimage site, a spot for veneration. As a sign of respect, pilgrims leave a stone on his tomb, signifying the permanence of his memory and solidarity with his acts.
True, many in Israel condemned his action at the time of the massacre. Then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called him a horrible man, a shame on Zionism, and an embarrassment to Judaism. Rabbi Yehuda Amital said his murders were a stain on the Jewish people and the Torah.
Also true is that others praised Goldstein’s terrorist act. Rabbi Yaacov Perrin told mourners that a million Arabs were “not worth a Jewish fingernail,” eliciting the response from the congregation: “We are all Goldsteins!”
What happens when a society refers to terrorists as patriots? One can always dismiss those who come to Goldstein’s tomb to sing songs, dance and celebrate his deeds as a fringe extreme. But what happens when the extreme becomes the political center?
On December 29, 2022, Benjamin Netanyahu – who is on trial for political corruption – was sworn in as prime minister, destined to lead the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
Itamar Ben Gvir will assume the post of National Security Minister, charged with overseeing police activity in Israel and in some of the occupied West Bank. Once seen as dangerously extreme, Ben Gvir is viewed today as a mainstream kingmaker for his role in engineering Netanyahu’s comeback.
Ben Gvir is known for hanging a portrait of Baruch Goldstein in his home. He also has the distinction of multiple convictions for his support of terrorism and inciting racism. He supports rabbis who have called for stripping Arab Israelis (a fifth of the population) of their citizenship.
Even the Israeli army barred him from serving because he was deemed too extreme, a member of what Israel designated as a terrorist organization – the now-defunct Kach Party.
Earlier in December 2022, in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah (East Jerusalem), he pulled out a gun during a clash between Israelis and Palestinians, yelling at the police to shoot Arabs. This is the man who will oversee law enforcement!
The new finance minister, who will also serve as a minister within the defense ministry, is the ultranationalist settler Bezalel Smotrich and self-proclaimed “proud homophobe.” When a West Bank Palestinian home was firebombed in 2015, burning to death an 18-month-old and his parents, he refused to call it a terrorist act.
Smotrich is on record wanting to annex the West Bank. He has also called for the segregation of Arabs and Jews in maternity wards. In his ministerial role, he will be responsible for agencies that deal with Palestinian civilian life and the construction of illegal Jewish settlements in occupied territories.
This new right-wing coalition has made its intentions clear: declaring Israeli Jews “exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,” pledging to bolster illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and explicitly calling for the abandonment of the internationally recognized formula for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on establishing a two-state solution.
One need not be a soothsayer to predict a greater violent repression awaiting the Palestinians in the form of reduced autonomy of their lands, less recourse to a judicial system, more death at the hands of Israeli military and police personnel, a more empowered settler-colonialist mentality, and the dismantling of the illusion of any future two-state solution. In short, a strengthening of the current political, economic and social structures designed to create greater disenfranchisement, dispossession and disinheritance.
While I applaud hundreds of U.S. rabbis who have signed an open letter protesting this new alt-right Israeli government that has named terrorists to important cabinet posts, I am left disappointed that the realization has yet to occur that this new government simply unmasks what has been decades of apartheid settler colonialism.
What a death-dealing time for Palestinians to be living through.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.