A question which is often asked in a democratic society is whether it is permitted for an individual to take the law into his own hands.

The short answer is NO!

In an ideal society the answer would ALWAYS be NO. An ideal society is one where a citizen would never have to worry that he would be physically harmed. The various Government authorities would always be in the right place immediately before a person could be physically harmed and thus could and would prevent the harm!

But we are not living in an ideal society. And thus the question is - what is an individual citizen to do, when his government does not live up to its duties and does not take the necessary steps to defend him and his fellow citizens from attack? What is a concerned citizen expected to do when he knows on the one hand that his family, friends and fellow citizens are likely to be massacred and on the other hand, that the “authorities’ helplessness”[263] will almost certainly result in this massacre taking place? Is he expected just to sit back with his arms folded and let such a massacre happen? Or, may an individual citizen then act? If the answer to this question is that he may act, what would one say about innocent people being killed during such a pre-emptive act? Would the same moral and ethical considerations be applicable as when a government takes pre-emptive measures?

On a number of occasions the Government of Israel has itself taken the law into its own hands.

The kidnapping of Eichmann from Argentina is a case in point. This was an infringement of Argentinian sovereignty and even Ben-Gurion in a letter to the President of Argentina admitted this. The matter reached the Security Council who passed a mild resolution against Israel for this violation.[264]

Another case of kidnapping by the State of Israel was that of Mordechai Vanunu. He was kidnapped from Italy, brought to Israel and found guilty of treason and spying for publishing photographs he had secretly taken on the Israel atomic reactor near Dimona. A picture of Vanunu’s open palm with the message that he “was hijacked in Rome”[265] appeared in newspapers all over the world - in some cases on the front page.[266] His kidnapping was clearly an infringement of Italian sovereignty.

After the massacre of eleven Israeli sportsmen at the Munich Olympics, the Prime Minister Golda Meir and a top secret “Committee-X” set up teams under the “Mossad” (Israel’s Secret Service). These teams went to mainly European cities in order to track down and then assassinate those directly or even indirectly involved in the planning or execution of this massacre (and in so doing they also killed by mistake a completely innocent person in Lillehammer, Norway). In most of the cases the objectives were achieved.[267] These assassinations are another example of the government of Israel taking the law in its own hands.

However, I am certain that most people in Israel would agree that all the above quoted cases were exceptional circumstances, and in such exceptional circumstances one may have no option but to take the law into one’s own hands.

In a Utopian society, “exceptional circumstances” would not exist. In such a society, a person would never have to act in self defense. When the self defense bill was being discussed in the Knesset, Member of Knesset Uriel Lynn, who was also Chairman of the Knesset Law Committee said: “He does this [the act of self defence] because the authorities do not give him the defense that they are required to give him.”[268]

Nearly 200 years ago, Abraham Lincoln, who was later President of the United States of America, wrote about such a situation which could come about in a country where, “good men, men who love tranquillity, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defence of their country; seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; being tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection.”[269]

What Abraham Lincoln wrote about is sadly at present not an academic discussion in Israel. It is a practical reality! This is not my assessment but the assessment of the Shamgar Commission.

As we have already quoted earlier, the Shamgar Commission wrote in their report (and it is important enough to quote again!): "Since the outbreak of the intifada, this [Jewish] population has lived under the shadow of constant physical threat, principally when driving on the roads, but also within the settlements themselves. In situations where an Israeli settler, for one reason or another, passes through densely populated Arab settlements, the physical threat is even greater, and a settler who does this unarmed puts his life at risk[270] ... life for Jews in the area has become unbearable... breaches in law and order by Arabs have become a permanent phenomenon.[271] ... The authorities' helplessness in enforcing the law is apt to make the residents feel abandoned and accordingly encourages them to take the law into their own hands.”[272]

The Report quoted the horrendous statistics (quoted earlier) from the beginning of the intifada until the beginning of April 1994 of those killed or injured by stabbing, hand grenades, firebombs or rocks. The Commission realised that such a situation must not be allowed to continue and thus stated: "It is necessary to end the attacks against Jews, from gunfire to stone throwing.”[273]

But years later the attacks are not only continuing - they have greatly intensified! People are now reluctant to use their private cars on certain roads - they prefer buses which are protected against bullets. The bus company, Egged, has therefore added a number of buses each day on the Jerusalem - Kiryat Arba route.

Let us now relate to the situation in the Cave of Machpelah at the time of the killings on the morning of Purim 1994. In the area of the Cave of Machpelah where the Jews were praying, there were very few soldiers! The army Commander of the Cave of Machpelah was in his bed (without his shoes) in another building.[274]

Dr. Goldstein, who, in his position as a medical doctor, had been asked to prepare for a massacre, knew from previous experience that the government would not act. The answer of Colonel Mofaz to Yirat Sharbaf “Stay indoors,” was, to say the least very disappointing. This might be an answer for a Jew who lived in a ghetto. When there were warnings in Eastern Europe of a pogrom, Jews would lock themselves in their houses, shutter the windows and barricade the doors. However, this is certainly not the answer to a Jew living in a Jewish State! The Government must provide security for everyone living in Israel and not tell them to “stay indoors.” Such an attitude tends to encourage further acts of terror against Jews.

We can only speculate on the reason for the inaction of the Israeli Government in the face of the threatened Arab attack. The following is similar to a theory put forward by Barry Chamish:[275] We know that at that period of time the very left wing Government of Israel had just recognised the PLO and was negotiating the handover to them of cities and areas populated by Arabs. One of these cities was Hebron. But in the centre of Hebron was Jewish settlement - Bet Hadassah, Bet Romano, the Avraham Avinu complex. Tel Romeida etc. The existence of such a settlement could torpedo any agreement. In 1929, in the Arab pogrom on the Jews in Hebron, nearly 70 Jews were massacred and this resulted in the removal of the entire Hebron Jewish community from the city. Likewise a similar massacre against the Jews in Hebron in 1994 could have produced similar results.

However this is only a theory. The truth may be hidden in the secret archives of the State of Israel. As a general rule, they are opened to the public after 30 years. However very sensitive material might remain closed for 50 or even 100 years and it is likely that we will have to wait a century to know the truth.

[Another conclusion by Chamish that Baruch Goldstein did not kill any Arabs, but that it was a sting operation of the “Shabak”,[276] is not accepted even by Goldstein’s family and friends.]

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Points for consideration

1. Did Baruch Goldstein act wearing his army uniform since he felt that he was taking preventive measures which the army should have been taking? It should be noted that he could just as easily have entered the Cave of Machpelah in civilian clothing. Jews regularly entered with guns over their shoulders but wearing civilian clothing.

2. Baruch Goldstein shot in the hall which was exclusively occupied by men. The Arab women were in an outer room, from which it would have been easier for him to escape, yet he did not shoot at all into this room.

3. In view of the Israeli “authorities’ helplessness in enforcing the law”, could the circumstances be considered exceptional to the extent that Baruch Goldstein realised that only two alternatives were before him: He could sit back with his arms folded and let possibly up to a hundred Jews be massacred or act to pre-empt the Arab attack.
(Here we are limited by the fact that we cannot read Dr. Goldstein’s thoughts and intentions at the moment of the killings, and now that he is dead he cannot be questioned. In addition, according to the conclusions of the Shamgar Commission, no-one including his wife knew of his plans in advance.[277] )

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