The medieval Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi wrote of Jerusalem, "it is a golden goblet full of scorpions." On Tuesday, 18 November 2014, we learnt just what he meant. A sacred site in the holiest of cities was drenched with the blood of pious men.
The four men murdered inside the synagogue were scholars and teachers, untainted by violence of any kind. They were men of community and family, standing in solemn, reflective prayer in a place of worship.
The timing of the attack was calculated to coincide with morning prayers when the synagogues of the holy city overflow with the devout.
At the very moment when the attack began, the congregants in the synagogue were about to recite theAmidah, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy for the last 2,000 years. It calls on a merciful and compassionate God to forgive sins, heal the sick and bring an end to the exile of the Jewish people. It asks God to allow the ingathering of the Jewish exiles back to the land of Israel, rebuild Jerusalem and restore the Kingdom of David to usher in the period of the Messiah. It concludes with a prayer for universal peace. The Amidah is recited silently and while standing, preferably facing Jerusalem, or if one is in Jerusalem, facing the Temple Mount.
Upon entering the synagogue, the terrorists would have encountered at least ten men, being the quorum required for public worship, standing silently, with eyes closed. The worshippers were wrapped in tallit, the traditional Jewish prayer shawl, and some were wearing teffilin, a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah affixed to the forehead and upper arm with leather straps. These items symbolise the dedication of mind and body to God in observance of the commandment in Deuteronomy 6:5-9.
Silence and serenity would have enveloped that house of prayer as in synagogues throughout Jerusalem and the world, interrupted only by the sounds of whispered prayers and of the gentle, rhythmic swaying of upright men deep in meditative prayer.
The son of one of the murdered men, Rabbi Kalman Levine, described how his father was reciting the Shemaprayer when he was killed. The Shema is the holiest phrase in Judaism, is said twice daily, and in morning prayers it typically precedes the recital of the Amidah. "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one." It is a declaration of faith and Jewish identity.
The Austrian neurologist and survivor of Auschwitz Viktor Frankl wrote of the "beings who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips." They were also the final words on the lips of the four Rabbis in the Kehilat Yaakov synagogue in Har Nof.
A police officer attending the scene said that the murders were remarkable for their savagery. The victims were hacked to death with an axe and a meat cleaver and shot repeatedly from point blank range as the terrorists shouted "Alla hu'akbar" ("God is great" in Arabic). Witnesses outside told of survivors running out with "half their faces half missing."
The Rabbis all lived on the same street in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Har Nof where the massacre took place. Har Nof is in western Jerusalem within the pre-1967 territory of Israel. The murdered Rabbis leave behind a widow each and a total of twenty four children to be raised without fathers.
The most eminent of the four was Rabbi Moshe Twersky. A renowned teacher and scholar, Rabbi Twersky was the scion of a celebrated dynasty, the son of a Harvard professor of Hebrew literature and the grandson of the great Rabbi Soloveitchik, considered to be the greatest rabbinical scholar of the late twentieth century.
The last to die was Sergeant Major Zidan Saif, a thirty year old Israeli-Druze traffic policeman. Saif was the first officer on the scene of the attack and was shot in the head by one of the terrorists. Video footage of the final moments of the attack shows Saif's selflessness and heroism and the moment when one of the terrorists runs towards the policeman and shoots him in the face from close range. Saif leaves behind a young wife and a four-month-old daughter. At Saif's funeral, attended by the Israeli President and thousands of mourners of all denominations and faiths, Saif's father-in-law recalled a "heroic man who sacrificed himself for his homeland." A man who was "worried about his baby, wanted to be near her and would hug her for hours."
A reporter from the Israeli television network, Channel 2, went to the Arab neighbourhood of Jabel Mukaber in the south-eastern pocket of the city, where the two terrorists had lived, to gauge the reaction of the Palestinian residents to the atrocity. The reporter said he could not find a single person to condemn the attack. Instead, the murders were praised and celebrated.
The Jordanian parliament observed a minute's silence - in honour of the terrorists. Palestinian media was awash with cartoons and graphics lauding the slayings. Hamas called the attack "heroic." Several employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), employed as teachers by the U.N., praised the murders as "wonderful revenge" and prayed for the terrorists to be accepted in "paradise" as "martyrs." On the streets of Gaza and in the West Bank, sweets were handed out in celebration and loudspeakers used for calls to prayer were blaring words of praise for the murderers.
Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the murders, albeit in rather tepid language. Abbas's supporters - such as Palestinian Legislative Council member, Najat Abu-Bakr, and Fatah Central Committee member, Tawfiq Tirawi - declared that Abbas's condemnation of the murders was only for diplomatic purposes, and not sincere. United States Secretary of State John Kerry said that the attack was the "pure result of incitement" by Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, which for days before the attack had been declaring "days of rage" and urging resistance to "Jewish contamination" of Jerusalem.
From habitual Israel-haters elsewhere there was silence, or else the usual weasel words about "the cycle of violence," which drew a false moral equivalence between the measures Israel is forced to take to protect its people against armed, violent terrorists and the murder of holy men in a house of prayer.
Israel is no stranger to terrorist attacks against civilian targets, but this particular attack was especially abhorrent. The victims were killed as Jews and for being Jews. They were selected to die because they were the most Jewish, while doing the most Jewish thing - praying in a synagogue.
The attack targeting a place of sanctuary has again exposed the vulnerability of Israeli society. The murderers were sending a message that they plan the same fate for Jews as has been suffered by Christian and other non-Muslim religious communities throughout the Arab Middle East.
Jews outside Israel, including in Australia, have grown accustomed to heavily guarded Jewish communal centres and places of worship. But Israel was supposed to be different. Israel was the safe haven where Jews could pray and congregate in peace and security. Even the Guardian for once overcame its generally hyper-critical attitude towards Israel to state in an editorial: "The sight of prayer shawls drenched in blood stirs the bitterest memories. They are the images of a pogrom. The floor of a house of prayer was turned red."
Indeed, this attack must be understood as an assault on the freedom to practice one's faith freely and peacefully access sacred holy sites. This is a right that Israel has been fighting to secure since its creation.
In November 1947, the Palestinian Arab leadership responded to U.N. General Assembly resolution 181 (II) - calling for the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine into two States for two peoples - by declaring and commencing a civil war against the country's Jewish population. This was followed by a full-scale military invasion of the country by the armies of neighbouring Arab states. Against the expectations of most, the Jews prevailed. Egypt, Syria and Jordan signed armistice agreements with the new Jewish state of Israel.
Under the agreement with Jordan, the city of Jerusalem, which resolution 181 had recommended become acorpus separatum (separate body) under international control, became another of the post-war world's divided cities. Jews and Arabs both rejected the idea of an internationalised Jerusalem. Israel was recognised as the controlling authority of the western part of the city and the Jordanians occupied the eastern part, including the walled Old City and within it, the holy basin.
The Jordanians guaranteed freedom of access for all faiths throughout the Old City and its holy sites. This commitment was violated from the beginning. The Jordanians denied all access to Jerusalem's holy sites to the Jews. 55 synagogues and seminaries in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City were either sacked, desecrated or entirely destroyed by the Arab Legion. The entire Jewish population was ethnically cleansed from the area. Free access to Jerusalem's holy sites for all people was only achieved after the Old City was captured by Israel in the 1967 war following yet another attempt by Israel's Arab neighbours to wipe it off the map.
On 19 June 1967, Israel's foreign minister, Abba Eban told the U.N. General Assembly that while for the period of Jordanian occupation of Jerusalem, "there has not been free access by men of all faiths to the shrines which they hold in unique reverence ... Israel is resolved to give effective expression, in cooperation with the world's great religions, to the immunity and sanctity of all the Holy Places."
Just weeks after the conclusion of the war, Israel passed legislation to guarantee freedom of access to all holy places and to protect them from "desecration and any other violation or anything likely to violate the freedom of access of members of the different religions to the places sacred to them."
Israel had control over all of Jerusalem and the West Bank and was free to administer the Old City and the spiritual treasures within it as it saw fit. Yet in an extraordinary act of good faith demonstrating its commitment to free and open worship, Israel agreed that the administration of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque would remain with the Waqf (Islamic religious authority). Surrendering effective control of Judaism's most sacred site was a truly remarkable gesture, contrasting starkly with the gross abuses that had been committed by the Jordanians.
Currently, the only impediment to free worship in Jerusalem, except during riots and other disturbances, is the prohibition on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, the site of the First and Second Temples within which were located the Foundation Stone and the Holy of Holies. Freedom of access and worship has endured unaltered since 1967 and despite the existence of a fringe movement in Israel which calls for a lifting of the prohibition on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, a sentiment that cannot be suppressed in a free society, the status quo established in 1967 has not changed and Israeli leaders have consistently refused to alter the current arrangement.
The great tragedy of the Jerusalem synagogue terrorist attack will not soon be forgotten. It was felt by Jewish people well beyond the municipal borders of Jerusalem. It was an attack on the ability of Jews to access their holy places and to pray freely in their holy city. The murders at Har Nof have transformed Jerusalem. The intrusive apparatus of security will once again constrict the city as new measures are introduced to protect the lives of civilians.
Herein lies yet another tragedy. The murders are a blow to the very possibility of any kind of negotiated peace. Israel has on three separate occasions made offers to the Palestinians which would have included Israel and a Palestinian State sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem without physically redividing the city. The predominantly Arab neighbourhoods of the city and the surface of the Temple Mount were proposed as a part of the Palestinian State. It is unlikely that Israel will ever renew that proposal. Such an arrangement presupposes that both Jews and Palestinians in the city could be safe and secure without being physically separated. That prospect now seems more distant than ever.