It seems it has finally happened. The thing we all feared. We appear to have entered into a religious war; a religious war that looks like it was inspired by the brutality of ISIS. This morning, a little before 7:00 AM, two terrorists entered into the Kehillat B’nei Torah Synagogue in the religious neighborhood of Har Nof, (located in the Western, pre-1967 part of Jerusalem.) The terrorist cousin duo, identified as Rassan and Adi Abu al-Jamal, from Jabal Mukaber neighborhood of East Jerusalem, entered the synagogue brandishing butchers knives, an axe and a pistol. They yelled “Allahu Akhbar” (God is great) and then started attacking and butchering those gathered praying.
One of the four murder victims was Rabbi Moshe Twersky, grandson of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and the son of Rabbi Dr. Isidore Twersky, founder of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies (and an acquaintance from my youth). Nine other people were wounded, a number of them critically. The two terrorists were killed on the spot, when the police responded to the attack. The pair of initial responders were a police technician and a traffic policeman, who together, were able to bring the slaughter to an end. One of the later responders to scene described it as “nothing we have seen since World War II – Jews wearing their Tallit and Tefillin (Phylacteries) lying dead on the ground, as the result of a brutal attack.”
Today’s attack represents a deterioration of the situation on several levels. First, today’s violence was not a random lone wolf-assault, along the dividing lines between Jewish and Arab Jerusalem. Today’s bloodbath was a premeditated attack in the western part of the city. It was a premeditated strike on a synagogue – a house of prayer – in the middle of morning prayers, designed to be as deadly as possible. Second, today’s incident targeted a neighborhood in which very few of the inhabitants serve in the army; in a place where it is impossible to claim the residents have any connection to the military.
What also makes today’s brutality unique is the method of attack; primarily executed with butcher knives and axes. There is something very personal and savage conjured up by an attack of this type. It seems like the vicious brutally we have seen exhibited by ISIS in Syria and Iraq has spread to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Murdering random victims with knives and axes reflects a new low in this conflict, and is directly influenced by religious extremism and ruthlessness emanating from the Islamic State.
A portion of the earlier violence in Jerusalem could have partially been explained by some of the incendiary statements made by a handful of right wing Israeli politicians. However, in the past week, the Israeli government has gotten its extremists under control. They have stopped making provocative visits to the Temple Mount. In addition, Prime Minister Netanyahu traveled to Amman to meet King Abdullah of Jordan and Secretary of State Kerry, where he publicly pledged that Israel would not change the status quo in Jerusalem. Despite this fact, the Palestinian Authority has continued to call on Muslims to defend the Temple Mount. Furthermore, yesterday an Arab-Israeli bus driver (for the Egged Israeli bus company) was found hung in the bus depot. The police ruled the driver’s death a suicide – in light of overwhelming evidence proving that to be true. Nonetheless, word was spread – including on Palestinian TV – alleging the driver was killed by settlers. The bus driver’s death had the obvious effect of ratcheting up tensions, and may have been the proximal cause of today’s attack.
World leaders, led by Secretary of State Kerry, condemned today’s attack in the strongest terms. After being called personally by Secretary of State Kerry to condemn today’s attack, President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority condemned “all attacks on all civilians, including those praying today in a synagogue”, while in the same breath calling on Israel to end provocations in Jerusalem. On the other hand, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad congratulated the assailants and called on others in Jerusalem to follow in their footsteps and kill Israelis.
Tonight Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the Israeli people. He stated that it was good that President Abbas condemned the attack, but stated that this was not nearly enough. He called on Abbas to stop the incitement by the Palestinian press. He made it clear that while Abbas was not directly supporting terrorism like Hamas, his recent statements on Jerusalem were inciting Palestinian hatred. Netanyahu stated that he would reinforce police and military presence in Jerusalem and take all other actions he could to stop the attacks. Israel and the Palestinian stand tonight the precipice of a religious war, without strong actions by both sides that war seems almost unstoppable. Neither leader seems willing to do