Baruch Goldstein: Legacy of a Massacre


On the festival of Purim in 1994, Israeli-American doctor Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, killing 29 Muslim worshippers. Condemnation was swift and decisive, but among the voices of dismay and repulsion were those who supported Goldstein’s actions and honored him after his death. Noam Weissman explores the background of the massacre, the events that followed and asks important questions about Jewish terrorism.

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Episode Transcript

Jewish terrorism. Is that even a thing? For many, it can sound like an oxymoron. 

At 5:05 a.m. on the morning of Purim, on Feb. 25, 1994, a local doctor from Kiryat Arba, the Jewish community with ancient roots on the outskirts of Hevron, called the local IDF command center. The officer in charge, Shlomo Edelstein picked up. Edelstein remembers the doctor asking to send a jeep to pick him up, which seemed really strange to Edelstein because he knew this man wasn’t the doctor on call at the time. And even if it was a real emergency, wouldn’t he need an ambulance?”

But the doctor sounded decisive, so Edelstein ordered a driver, Motti Unger, to go see what was going on. When Unger arrived, the doctor told him that he just needed a quick ride to the nearby Cave of the Patriarchs located just over a mile away. The short ride seemed ordinary and the doctor did all of the talking. 

Unger didn’t think it was weird that the doctor was wearing his army uniform and carrying an automatic rifle. Violence in Hebron was commonplace and attacks against the Jewish residents had become more and more common. The doctor was constantly on reserve duty, running from one Palestinian terrorist attack to the next attempting to save as many lives as possible. Unger figured that if the doctor needed a quick morning lift, he probably had a good reason.

When the doctor approached the cave, the soldiers guarding outside were just as nonchalant. One soldier asked the doctor why he was there so early, and in army uniform. The doctor responded by mumbling something about miluim, Hebrew for reserve duty, and walked in. The small Abraham Hall, underneath which Abraham and Sarah, you know, the first Jewish parents and the ancestors of three major world religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, are traditionally said to be buried, was almost empty, with a handful of Jews getting ready for morning prayers. 

The doctor walked over to the green door that connects the Abraham hall to the Isaac Hall, where according to legend lies the locked door that leads to Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden. Typically, the door would be guarded. But that morning it wasn’t. The guards had likely assumed it was early in the morning and there was no need to guard the door now. The doctor walked up to the door and walked through it.

After walking through the door, he looked at the beautiful room in which 800 Palestinians were in the middle of their prayer. The doctor took out his rifle and began shooting.By the time security forces came into the Isaac Hall, they found a catastrophic scene, with rugs soaked in blood, and the bodies of 29 Muslim men, murdered while praying peacefully. Another 125 wounded. Then, in the corner of the room, lying dead with his head busted open by a fire extinguisher and a blood soaked yarmulke was the doctor, Baruch Goldstein.

But how did we arrive at this tragic moment? Who was Baruch Goldstein? Why did he do what he did? And most importantly, how did this affect Israel?

But before we get into the story and facts, I want to start with one word of caution and introduction:

Today’s podcast is NOT about Palestinian terrorism. I have no interest in giving a pass to Palestinian terrorism, or to equate Baruch Goldstein’s terrorism with Palestinian terrorism. Doing so is unnecessary and frankly defensive and apologist. So, let’s not do that whole thing. Of course, Palestinian terrorism will come up in this episode, but our focus will be on why the Baruch Goldstein massacre is so important. 

I also want to quickly pose one different question to think about throughout this episode: Do you think Baruch Goldstein is a “lone wolf,” a “bad apple” or was he produced in some sort of environment which could have led to his act. Think about it. It’s not an easy question. I myself go back and forth on it, but try to think about this throughout this episode.

What do we need to know about Baruch Goldstein?

For one, growing up, he was not known as Baruch, but as Benji. Baruch Goldstein was born in 1956, in Brooklyn, New York to an Orthodox Jewish family. He had a Jewish education and earned a medical degree from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx borough of New York City. He was known to speak softly and act piously.  

He joined the Jewish Defense League, or JDL, an organization founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane that was considered radical by many. Goldstein had known Kahane well since he was a child.  For many, The JDL’s purpose to fight anti-Semitism, to stand tall and proud as Jews was noble, and for others,their methods were considered violent and counter-productive.

Goldstein immigrated to Israel in 1982. After making aliyah, he served as an emergency physician in the Israeli army and lived in Kiryat Arba, a small Jewish community bordering Hevron.  He reconnected with Kahane in Israel, and the two developed a very close relationship.  

Kahane loved his doctor disciple: ‘There is no one like Baruch,’ he’d said, “no one so willing to sacrifice.” prophetic words…certainly depending on how you understand the word, “sacrifice.” 

Goldstein became involved in the Kach political party that Kahane had founded about a decade earlier. 

In Israel, Kahane developed a small but serious following of devotees. Noted author and former member of JDL, Yossi Klein Halevi describes Kach as “miniscule” and even marginal among the settlers, but in Kiryat Arba there were many devotees. Some Jewish Israelis were convinced that Palestinians and Arabs in the surrounding countries would never agree to live in peace with a Jewish state and with every act of Palestinian terrorism, their positions hardened. 

So, followers of Kahane appreciated his aggressive stance against territorial concessions and his plain-talking style. He also advocated for the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel and the West Bank once saying “I don’t say we have to do something about the Arabs. I say we have a problem and here’s my answer: throw them out.” Kahane preached that one of the main purposes of the Jewish people was to destroy Amalek, the biblical tribe that attacked the Israelites while in the desert and continued through each generation to try and destroy the Jews. Amalek represents the most reprehensible behavior possible, the most immoral violence, the act of vultures who prey on the weak. 

Naturally, Purim became a favorite Jewish holiday for followers of Kahane because as the Megillah points out, the antagonist Haman was a direct descendent of Agag, who was an Amalekite king. But for many in the Jewish and Israeli communities, his passion and style in achieving his goals by any means went too far. For example, he was implicated in conspiracies to kidnap a Soviet diplomat and bomb the Iraqi embassy in the US. He was also arrested dozens of times in Israel for a variety of offenses, including planning attacks against Palestinians in response to horrific terrorist assaults on Israelis. In 1990, an Egyptian-American terrorist, dressed as an Orthodox Jew assassinated Kahane after Kahane finished giving a speech at the Marriott Hotel in New York City. There is a lot more to say about the history of Kahane, but that is an episode for another time. 

What’s important is that Goldstein viewed him as his teacher and rabbi who shared similar visions about what Israel should be. 

The year before Goldstein’s rampage, 1993, saw twenty-six terror attacks against Israelis, the largest number in almost fifteen years and the second highest total in the history of the state up until that point in time! 1994 was even more deadly, with a record forty-two terror attacks recorded against Israelis. This was supposed to be during the peace process of Oslo. Instead of peace, fear and terror gripped Israeli society.

As a medical doctor, Goldstein was exposed to the trauma of these attacks firsthand, and witnessed a close friend murdered in 1993. Goldstein referred to the enemy as the new Amalek and as “Arab Nazis”.

The night before he killed the 29 Arab worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs, Goldstein himself prayed in the cave, a regular prayer place for him, on the Jewish side of the holy site.  The holiday of Purim began that evening.  According to those who were there with him, Palestinians on the other side of the partition began to taunt the Jews, interrupting their prayers and screaming that the Jews should be slaughtered.  Multiple witnesses said Goldstein appeared distraught.

On the morning of February 25, 1994, Goldstein wasn’t just carrying his Galil assault rifle. He was also carrying with him “accumulated humiliations of Hebron.” Yossi Klein Halevi says it best. He was carrying with him: “The Jewish pilgrims confined by Muslim rulers to the seventh step of the building. The massacre of the Jews in 1929. The terrorist attacks that embittered the Jewish return after 1967.” This is what he carried. 
The political climate and terror gripping the country would only have reinforced his beliefs in Kahane’s more radical ideas. Let’s be clear and this is where there is good debate on both sides. Say what you will about Meir Kahane. His name will surely bring out one’s passions. One side says it was his extremist teachings that laid the groundwork for this heinous terrorist behavior. I can wrap my head around that. On the other side, the argument goes, Kahane DID NOT advocate for Baruch Goldstein to do this. As a former teacher, I can also empathize with this. Do I deserve all the blame for when my students do something bad or the praise when they do something good? Chew on that question.

So, that is the story of the shooting. What was the reaction?

Immediately after the shooting, there was widespread rioting and protests by Palestinians.  

Youth at the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem threw rocks at police stationed below.  Hundreds of rioters attempted to attack Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets to push back the crowd. In the larger Arab world, many leaders called for revenge attacks against Jews and terror organizations perpetrated a series of attacks against Israeli civilians, including the death of a 79-year old Israeli axed to death in Kfar Saba. 

After the attack on the Cave of the Patriarchs, many left wing Israelis blamed Goldstein for provoking Palestinian revenge, while many right wing Israelis responded by arguing that Hamas needed no motivation to kill Jews. They were already quite happy to do this.

So, how did the Israeli government and religious community react to something so horrible? Did they applaud the moment or condemn it?

Immediately following the attack, the Israeli government condemned it. IMMEDIATELY. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin called Goldstein an “embarrassment to Judaism,” and in a telephone call to PLO leader Yasser Arafat he referred to the attack as a “loathsome, criminal act of murder.”  Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called the murders, “a frightening expression of cruelty devoid of human morality” and a “horrifying act which stands out in shocking contrast to our basic Jewish values.”

The government also took swift and decisive action against Jewish extremist groups in the West Bank: it arrested followers of Kahane, issued detention orders against individuals deemed threats to public security, demanded that certain settlers turn in their weapons, and barred those same settlers from entering Arab towns.  

Among the Jewish religious community as well, the overwhelming response was one of condemnation, revulsion, and shame. Dozens of Israeli rabbis – many from the settlement communities – signed a letter saying that “there can be…no forgiveness for the murder of people at prayer.”  

Moreover, the rabbinic establishment around the world came down hard against Goldstein’s act. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain at the time, said:

‘Such an act is an obscenity and a travesty of Jewish values. That it should have been perpetrated against worshippers in a house of prayer at a holy time makes it a blasphemy as well… Violence is evil. Violence committed in the name of God is doubly evil. Violence against those engaged in worshipping God is unspeakably evil.’ 

In America, multiple Jewish organizations planned joint memorial observances with Muslim communities.

In the city of Hevron itself, a policy was enacted in which the small Jewish Israeli community who lived in the city were separated from the rest of the 120,000 Palestinian residents, a policy still in place today.  The Israeli government also paid compensation to Goldstein’s victims and passed administrative detention orders against people seen as threats to public security. They disarmed any Jewish settlers suspected of using their weapons for purposes other than self-defense, and outlawed what they viewed as two extremist organizations, Kach and Kahane Chai. Authorities even denied the Goldstein family and supporters the permission to bury him in the Hevron Jewish cemetery. 

One prominent Rabbi who lived across the green line in Judea and Samaria, to give you some context, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, someone who I’ve always admired: wrote that  “there should be a clear protest which expresses not just disassociation, but also disgust and shock. We must do so, not to protect our public image, but to preserve our self-image.” 

In other words, it’s not about how others will think of us after this horrific attack. It’s about our own conception of who and what we are — and more importantly, what we are not.  That thought sticks with me to this day. At the end of the day, we have to live with ourselves, our choices, our communities and our values. 

The response to Goldstein’s attack also revealed an uncomfortable divide in the religious Jewish world.  Although the overwhelming majority condemned Goldstein’s actions, there were still a thousand people who attended his funeral.  And the heads of the yeshivas in Kiryat Arba eulogized him with full honors.  A small minority of Jews even treated Goldstein as a hero, arguing that “Palestinians had been planning a massacre of Jews and Goldstein had preempted them.”

It also brought up some other points of tension in Israeli society. For many years, it has been customary that in the aftermath of Palestinian terror attacks, the homes of families are often destroyed by the Israeli government. No such punishment was meted out to the Goldstein family. Should it have been? Proponents argue, “of course! Terrorism is terrorism!” Opponents say, “slow down. Demolishing houses is not meant to be a punishment, but a deterrent, and while we can all agree that Goldstein should be condemned in the clearest of terms, we should also agree that Jewish terrorism is not something that requires deterrence…” It simply is not that prevalent.

It’s also important to point out that there were and still remain some supporters of Baruch Goldstein’s actions within Israeli society.

Michael Ben-Horin, edited a book about Goldstein called “Baruch HaGever”, a play on words based on the line from Jeremiah chapter 17 in the Tanach referencing “blessed is the man that trusts in G-d and whose hope the Lord is” but is also a Hebrew pun referencing that Baruch was HaGever, or,  “the man”.  Ben-Horin is convinced of what he and many others in his community see as Baruch’s virtue: “He prevented a large massacre in Hebron’s Jewish settlement, and we visit his grave in order to implicitly say – Jewish lives are not disposable.”

In fact, this is a crazy story. When I was a high school principal, I took the seniors to Poland and Israel each year. One year, I decided to take the students to Hevron. On the tour of the city, two students needed to use the restroom, but there was nowhere to go. The tour guide told us about the kindness of the residents and that we can just knock on a door. And so we did. As my two students scurried to the bathroom, I noticed a gigantic portrait of a man I recognized. He had the sidelocks, long beard and was handsome. Could it be? Baruch Goldstein? I summoned the courage (or chutzpah) and asked the woman why she had a gigantic portrait of this man in her house. She said to me, “He was a tzaddik and kadosh.” I stood there silently, almost frozen. I’d like to think I was being a good listener, but I think I was just so taken aback that all my words were stuck. 

(You can imagine the awkward silence as I waited for my students to finish up.)  

But, anyway, no matter what precipitated it, the massacre was a crime beyond comprehension. And both the memory and the legacy of this event have proven to be enduring.  

In the short term, there were more terror attacks against Israel in response. Little more than a month after the Hevron massacre, a Palestinian drove a vehicle filled with explosives next to a crowded bus stop in Afula, Israel. As the passengers began to board the bus, he detonated an explosive device, killing himself and eight others.  Suicide bombing carried out by Palestinian terrorists against Israeli civilians in Israel was becoming a real thing…the first of many. Hamas claimed responsibility, calling it retaliation for what they called “the Hevron massacre.”

Goldstein’s actions also challenged those who said that the problem of terrorism was exclusively on the Palestinian side. There is a certain naivete to such a notion. No religion, faith, or people is impervious to butchering and bastardizing what they learned. One year later, Yigal Amir, another Orthodox Jew who – like Goldstein – was also identified with the Religious Zionist movement, assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Don’t worry, we’re gonna unpack this moment in another episode. 

Jewish terrorism as a phenomenon is very rare, and typically a reaction to some major external threat – such as waves of terror attacks against Israel.  Thankfully, it has been effectively stopped in most cases by the work of Israeli intelligence services, but it has been a subject of interest for many. There are actually a few examples of Jewish extremism or terror in the last decade. Just this past year the hit show “Our Boys” was one of the hottest shows available on HBO…at least in the Jewish community. The show tells the story of the 2014 kidnapping and murder of young Palestinian boy Mohammed Abu-Khdeir by three Jewish extremists and the investigation into the incident.. The religious Jewish men responsible for the murder said it was in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali, that same summer. 

Interestingly enough, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu referred to the show as antisemitic propaganda in the way it portrayed the Israeli side. I’m not here to debate Bibi (he is a much better debater than me, so I’d lose anyway), but I can tell you that from my perspective, the way Israeli society dealt with its challenges is something to praise, not hide from. The healthiest of families don’t bury their problems under the rugs. That’s why, I can say, when a Jew carries out an act of terror, Israeli officials condemn it in the strongest terms, and most Israelis are ashamed, if not outraged. The Israeli and Jewish communities as a whole don’t make the terrorist a martyr. They don’t call for more attacks. We need to be able to own responsibility “When it begins to rain” and not just when the sun is shining. I like that about my people.

At the outset of this podcast, I said this episode is really not about comparing Jewish and Palestinian terrorism. I do, however, think there is value in considering a stark contrast between the response to terrorism amongst Israelis and Palestinians. Of course, Israelis and Palestinians are in different positions, but when a Jew carries out an act of terror, Israeli officials typically condemn it in the strongest terms, and most Israelis are ashamed, if not outraged. In contrast, in the past, the Palestinian leadership has too often been known to celebrate and hand out candies when a terrorist commits a crime, even hailing the terrorist as a martyr and calling for more attacks, in addition to giving financial support to terrorist’s families. 

Ultimately, this episode is about us listening to the story of Baruch Goldstein. We need to be able to learn, listen and hear about these darker events and moments in Israeli history as well, so we can commit to understanding why they happened and what we can do to prevent them from happening again. With that, let’s try to summarize this episode with five fast facts:

Five Fast Facts

  1. Jewish extremism exists and unfortunately at times has manifested into violent terror.
  2. Baruch Goldstein who was born, raised and educated in New York, was a medical doctor living in Kiryat Arba
  3. The actions taken by Baruch Goldstein were condemned by Israeli politicians, religious leaders and the general public.
  4. Until today, there is a very small minority group of Jews who see Baruch Goldstein as a hero and make pilgrimage visits to his grave.
  5. After Goldstein’s actions, both “Kach” and “Od Kahane Chai”, extremist political groups connected to Rabbi Kahane were outlawed and numerous practical steps were taken to curb Jewish extremism in Israel

Those are the facts, but here is one enduring lesson as I see it. Abraham Lincoln said something like, “the philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the behavior of the next generation.” Who knows if this is empirically true, but intuitively it makes sense. The aftermath of the horrific attack on worshippers by Baruch Goldstein raised questions that caused Israelis and Jews around the world to do some deep soul searching. Is there something the Jewish community could have done to prevent this? It caused real “cheshbon nefesh”, or accounting of the soul. 

Who are we? What do we stand for? And how do we promote the values that we hold so dearly throughout our nation?  When events like this massacre occur, how do we deal with them? 

If you haven’t listened to our episode on Deir Yassin, go back and give it a listen. We talk about some similar themes in that episode, too. So, while I don’t think it’s my place to answer the question of whether Goldstein was just a bad apple or a result of dangerous philosophy, I do want to say that the Lincoln quote is something we all ought to internalize. A better tomorrow starts today.

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