The Ground Zero Synagogue
Should Jews build a synagogue near a site of Jewish terrorism?
Imagine a place where Muslims were the victims, not the perpetrators, of the worst terrorist massacre in recent memory. Imagine, for example, that the killer was Jewish and that in the wake of his attack, on the very ground from which he had plotted it, Jews built a synagogue. How would today's opponents of the "Ground Zero mosque" react? Would they condemn, with equal vigor, the "Ground Zero synagogue"?
We already know the answer, because the place I'm talking about isn't imaginary. It's Hebron, a city in the West Bank. The reason you haven't heard about its new synagogue is that there has been no outcry. Apparently, the rule about keeping houses of worship at a respectful distance from scenes of terrorism is for Muslims only.
Hebron lies south of Jerusalem in the middle of Palestinian territory. Its holiest ground is the Cave of the Patriarchs, believed to be the burial site of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In 1929, Muslims slaughtered 67 Jews in Hebron. Just a month ago, they murdered four more. But the city's worst terrorist attack in recent years took place in 1994, when Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler, went to the Cave of the Patriarchs, gunned down 29 Muslims who were praying there, and wounded more than 100 others.
Every sane Israeli has condemned Goldstein. But many settlers still admire him. They claim he was standing up for Jews, just as 9/11 apologists claim the hijackers were standing up for Muslims. A few months ago, some Jews in east Jerusalem were caught on video praising him. "Dr. Goldstein, we all love you," they sang. "He aimed at terrorists' heads, squeezed the trigger hard, and shot bullets, and shot, and shot."
Kiryat Arba, the settlement from which Goldstein set out on that terrible day, lies about 1,500 feet from the scene of the massacre. That's about twice the distance from Ground Zero to the site of the proposed Islamic community center in Manhattan. But unlike the community center, which is avowedly ecumenical with a memorial to the victims of 9/11, Kiryat Arba erected a monument to Goldstein. Every year, settlers assemble at his grave to thank him for smiting "the enemies of the Jews."
The Israeli government reviles Goldstein's crime. But it funds settlers more generously in Hebron than in any other city, and Kiryat Arba ranks third among all settlements in subsidies per capita. In February, around the anniversary of the 1994 tragedy, Israeli police and soldiers cleared a path so settlers could march in a Purim parade from Kiryat Arba to the Cave of the Patriarchs. A month ago, at Kiryat Arba's request, Israel opened the holy site for Jewish worship 24 hours a day.
This year, over Palestinian objections, Israel added the Cave to a list of "heritage" sites that will be spruced up to solidify the Jewish people's "connection to the land." Twenty thousand Israelis showed up to celebrate the site's inclusion. At the rally, an Israeli deputy minister urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resume construction of West Bank settlements in defiance of "Barack Hussein Obama." A Cabinet minister helped lay the cornerstone for a settlement enclave about two miles from the Cave of the Patriarchs. In May, the minister of housing and construction attended the inauguration of a synagogue at Kiryat Arba.
Let me say that again: The settlement from which Goldstein launched his horrific attack, and where he continues to be venerated, has just built a new house of worship within sight of the scene of his crime. The settlers inaugurated their synagogue on Hebron Day to commemorate Israel's capture of the city in 1967. And Israel's housing minister showed up to congratulate them. He called for further building in Hebron and promised to help them expand their community.
A month ago, settlers laid the foundation for another new structure at Kiryat Arba, allegedly encroaching on Palestinian land. This week, as Israel's temporary freeze on settlements expired, the country's transportation minister reaffirmed the right of settlers to build in Hebron, and the vice prime minister went to a Hebron settlement to lay the cornerstone for a new Jewish school. The vice prime minister also visited Kiryat Arba and the Cave of the Patriarchs, telling a crowd of 15,000 that settlement construction should never have stopped.
There are obvious differences between the two cases. Goldstein's crime was much smaller than 9/11, and the Kiryat Arba synagogue is tiny compared to the proposed Islamic community center. But in other respects, by the standards of those who oppose the Islamic center, the synagogue is worse. It occupies legally disputed land. It serves a local community directly implicated in a terrorist act. Its builders openly preach conquest. And they're achieving it, bit by bit, with the material and military aid of a religiously defined state.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Baruch Goldstein by AFP/Getty Images.