The ghost of Baruch Goldstein

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THERE ARE people in whose minds religion and nationalism fuse into one blazing passion, leaving no room for pity and consuming even the instinct of self-preservation. Fortunately, such people are quite rare, but their capacity to enmesh and destroy the lives of others is incalculable. They deal out death directly to those whom they hate, but they also bring death down on those whom, in their own weird way, they love.

One such person was Dr Baruch Goldstein. Goldstein was not mad. He carefully planned his atrocious act. He planned it in full awareness of its consequences, both certain and probable, both immediate and in the long term. He chose the place and the time and the act with precision, as an engineer might plant an explosive charge, for an exactly calculated effect. The time: a Friday during Ramadan. The place: the mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, on the West Bank.

Goldstein had two strategic objects in view. The first was to provoke such a wave of elemental anger among Arabs and Muslims generally, and especially among Palestinians, as would make it impossible for the peace process between the government of Israel and Arafat's PLO to be sustained. Goldstein's second and ultimate objective was to drive all the Palestinians out of the occupied territories, as a result of the war between Jews and Arabs that he hoped his horrendous act would ignite.

Goldstein certainly knew that his act would take the lives of many Jews also, as a result of the Arab reprisals which are an essential part of his apocalyptic plan. He saw those Jewish lives as expendable, for a great Jewish cause.

No doubt he felt he had a right to do so, since he was treating his own life as expendable. He aimed at martyrdom. He died horribly in the hands of those whom he had horribly enraged. He must have known, when he stepped with his weapon into the mosque at the tomb, that that is how his life would end, within little more than a minute.

I am not seeking to elicit sympathy for Baruch Goldstein or to extenuate his act. What I am trying to do is to convey some sense of the momentous doom-laden character of this blood sacrifice on the altars of religion and nationalism. It is futile to trivialise this fateful deed - by dismissing the man as 'crazed' or 'degenerate' - and dangerous to underestimate its consequences. For a critical period, of indefinite duration, both Jews and Arabs in Israel and the territories will be dancing to Goldstein's tune, even though almost all of them, on both sides, reject him. And this dance of death is exactly what he intended.

Hebron is a place that has long seemed to be waiting - indeed almost thirsting - for some such transaction, some dark deed of blood. I have known only one other place on earth where hatred hangs so palpably in the air, even on a 'normal' day. That place is Amritsar, in the Punjab, in the vicinity of the Golden Temple. It is not fortuitous that both Hebron and Amritsar are ancient certified holy places, abodes of powerful religious and national attachments and resentments.

In Latin the word sacer (sacra, sacrum) has two meanings. It means 'holy' and it also means 'accursed', and places which are reputed to be holy are often accursed as well. If, as with Hebron, two different faiths, historically in conflict, claim the same place is holy, that constitutes a curse. Muslims were horrified - as Goldstein intended that they should be - by Goldstein's desecration of the Hebron mosque. But he - with an intensity of revulsion at desecration equivalent to that of the most pious Muslim - felt that the actual presence of a mosque on the site of Abraham's tomb was a desecration of one of the holiest places of Judaism.

Hebron was the scene, in 1929, of one of the worst massacres of Jews by Muslims. Goldstein, as he set out for Hebron last Friday, undoubtedly had 1929 in mind. And Muslims of equivalent fanaticism, setting out on comparable missions in the future will have in mind Hebron, 25 February 1994.

The peace process was already in poor shape, as I noted a few weeks ago, before this dire event. The process has now almost no chance of success. The only chance that exists - if it still does - would have to be along the lines that might have worked before. That is, for Rabin and Arafat to hold together, and for each of them to clamp down on their own extremists. If this could be done, Rabin would put all the militant settlers into preventive detention, while Arafat would do the same by Hamas and the PLO rejectionists.

Only through such conjoint action of the centre against the two extremes might the self-government interim agreement be sustained. But for the moment at least, these things simply cannot be done.

After the Hebron massacre, and for probably a long time in its wake, there is no point in asking Arafat to lock up Hamas and the PLO rejectionists. His orders would not be obeyed, and he would probably be overthrown. The mood of Arafat's own personal following - the Palestinian 'moderates' - in the wake of the massacre at the mosque, is evident from a leaflet being distributed by Arafat's faction, Fatah, in Hebron this week. Fatah's activists, according to the leaflet, 'will resume attacks against the Zionist enemy with all their strength . . . mere talks about negotiations and agreement do not require us to stop acts of struggle before the withdrawal of the Zionist enemy'.

It is probably true that Rabin can get away with giving a lead by interning militant settlers (not 'disarming' them, which would mean that they would be lynched by Arabs). But Western governments should refrain from urging drastic actions on him. Rabin is vulnerable. If the cycle of violence intensifies, as now seems too probable, both Arafat and Rabin may soon be replaced by more hardline leaders, and the agreement negotiated at Oslo will collapse.

The collapse of this agreement, the return of Fatah to terrorism, and some spectacular attacks on Jews could easily lead the government of Israel to resort to massive repression, leading to a massive flight of population, whether intended or not. Palestinians believe that the international community would not allow this. They are likely to find that the idea of rescue by the international community is a fatal mirage.

It may be that the rise in the levels of violence will lead to revulsion, on both sides, which could have constructive results. But the reality, I fear, is that Baruch Goldstein's sinister calculations were only too well founded, and that his ghost, and all the other ghosts of Hebron, are now in charge of events.

(Photograph omitted)