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  • The Return of Amalek: The Politics of Apocalypse and Contemporary Orthodox Jewry
  • Martin Jaffee (bio)

Introduction: The Puzzle of a Mass Murder in Hebron

One crisp February morning in 1994, a kind, public-spirited Jewish physician named Baruch Goldstein emptied the magazine of his Galil assault rifle into the bodies of some 150 Palestinian Arabs while they were at prayer in the mosque at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs.1 Twenty-nine were killed, in addition to the assailant. Quite a morning’s work. But this was not just any fine morning. It was the morning of Purim.

A fun-filled, high-spirited festival, Purim is as close to the spirit of Mardi Gras as it gets in Judaism.2 The festival celebrations include the sending of gifts of food to friends, charitable donations for the poor, parades of costumed children and adults wandering the streets, and the ritual synagogue reading of the biblical Scroll of Esther which describes, among other things, the massive retaliatory vengeance of Persian Jews against their Persian oppressors some 2500 years ago. In the midst of a festive, carnival atmosphere, the story of the righteous Jew, Mordecai, his virtuous niece, Esther, and the wicked vizier, Haman, is read aloud—to catcalls, the banging of pots, and the grinding of noisemakers at each mention of the hated Haman, son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the descendant of Amalek. [End Page 43]

Since that Purim morning, many have wondered: was it pure coincidence that sent Baruch Goldstein into Machpelah that day on his murderous mission? Or did the spirit of Purim somehow inspire him to his act of violence as an imitative rite of biblical revenge?3 It is hard to know for sure, since Goldstein offered no public accounting in the moments before the surviving worshipers in the mosque beat him to death. But it requires no stretch of the imagination to suppose that some connection between the fabled moment of Persian Jewry’s massacre of its ancient enemies and the historical moment of Purim in late-twentieth-century Hebron emboldened Dr. Goldstein—himself a deeply religious Jew involved for over a decade with a messianically-inspired community of settlers in historic Judea—as he planned his itinerary that festive morning.

It is more than likely that, when Dr. Goldstein opened fire, he believed that his targets were not simply local Arab neighbors, many of whom he probably knew from transactions in the Hebron shuk or as odd-jobbers in town. No doubt he regarded them all as potential (or as-yet-unpunished) terrorists. From this perspective (which is, of course, hypothetical, even if plausible), his right to murder these worshipers in cold blood was rooted in a mythic vision framed by a Purim narrative that itself depends upon the meta-narrative of biblical and rabbinic Judaism, the Torah of Moses. For the Esther Scroll4 points out that the wicked Haman was himself a descendant of Agag, the king of the Amalekite nation that, in the earliest days after Israel’s liberation from Egypt, had attacked her in an unprovoked, meretricious battle. As likely as not, then, when Dr. Goldstein opened fire, he was wiping out not merely some local Arabs whom he was convinced were complicit in terror attacks against Jews; most probably, he imagined himself wiping out as well the spawn of Amalek, the arch-enemy of the Jewish people, one Amalekite at a time.

And if he did not personally hold such a view, there can be no doubt that many Jews who celebrated his achievement as an “act of martyrdom” (kiddush hashem, sanctification of the divine name) undoubtedly did and do.5 The legend on his tombstone in Kiryat Arba reads:

Here lies the saint, Dr. Baruch Kappel Goldstein, blessed be the memory of the righteous and holy man, may the Lord avenge his blood, who devoted his soul to the Jews, Jewish religion, [End Page 44] and Jewish land. His hands are innocent and his heart is pure. He was killed as a martyr of God on the 14th of Adar, Purim, in the year 5754


Whence would Dr. Goldstein have drawn his understanding of Amalek? From what...