And cursed be he who says: Revenge!

Revenge like this, revenge for the blood of a small child

Even the devil has not created…

Haim Nahman Bialik “On the Slaughter”

 

 

Chapter One: The Darkest Night

Ala Abu Dheim was a 20-year-old Jerusalem school-bus driver. He worked for his family’s company ferrying special education students to school. His father, a building engineer, had for years operated his mini-bus line, successfully bidding on municipal tenders for student transport, helping to build up the family fortune. On March 6, 2008, after a normal workday, Dheim the son parked his company van outside of a religious studies college, Merkav HaRav Yeshivah, and walked through its open gates. It was  nearly 8:10 pm. Carrying a large box in his arms, he set it down in the school’s courtyard, just across from the dormitory entrance. There he opened his package and began to make his last delivery. Out of the box came a Kalashnikov assault rifle. It had been purchased some time before in Dura, one of the small villages between Hebron and Be’er Sheva, for “criminal” use. In General Security Services lingo, this means intra-Arab crime—drugs, maybe some car theft. Although Abu Dheim still lived with his parents, he was engaged and probably needed to supplement the salary his father paid him. He had already done a few months in prison. On this day, though, his weapon would find a higher use—one that would make him a holy man, a holy martyr—a shahid—in the eyes of his Arab brethren who would dance in the streets when they heard what he had done.

 

Thursday night in the yeshivah is a busy time. The week’s study is drawing to a close. Most of the students stay up well past midnight studying, some don’t sleep at all—a custom called mishmar (“guard-duty” of a spiritual nature). Some want to review their week’s learning, some want to make one last push ahead before Shabbat—the day of rest. This particular Thursday was a bit different, however. It was the first day of the Jewish month of Adar. Adar is the last month of the Jewish calendar, but host to its most boisterously joyful holiday, Purim. The beginning of the month is marked in all yeshivahs with parties. “When Adar begins, we increase the happiness” says the Talmud. Traditionally, yeshivah students dance, sing and practical-joke their way through the two weeks from the first of Adar until Purim itself, when the festivities reach their apogee of often alcohol-aided celebration.

 

Students in the high school adjacent to the Merkaz HaRav campus were busy clearing tables and chairs from their study hall and stringing up decorations in anticipation of the party scheduled to begin after evening prayers. Some had gone to the Old City for a special monthly prayer rally held the day before each new moon and had not yet returned. Some were on a school trip and would be pulling up in a pair of buses a few minutes after Abu Dheim himself arrived.

 

Several students, though, including my son, Avraham David, had decided not to let any of these extracurricular activities interfere with their daily studies. Avraham David, together with one of his friends and study partners, Segev Avihail, both serious sixteen-year-olds in tenth grade, had decided to learn together in the Merkaz HaRav library. The library, home to one of Jerusalem’s better collections of opened-stacked sifre qodesh (Judaica, literally holy books) was accessible to the general public. On Thursdays especially, it was usually filled not only with the yeshivah’s college-aged students, but also with neighborhood residents who took advantage of its quiet and available desk space to study for part of the evening. 

 

A neighbor of mine studied on Thursdays in a rabbinic ordination class for older professionals in one of the yeshivah’s classrooms above the library. They were lacking a tenth man, needed to form a minyan (quorum) for the evening prayers. Somebody sent down to the library and asked one of the high-schoolers to come up and join them for the short fifteen-minute service. A dozen or so older students were in one of the two small classrooms at the eastern edge of the library waiting for a lesson to begin.

 

As it was a Thursday, my other son, eleven-year-old Elisha Dan, was with me. (He lives next door half of the week, with his mother, my ex-wife Rivkah, and half the week he lives with me). My two younger daughters from my second marriage were already asleep in bed. Elisha Dan and I were reviewing the Book of Joel together—reading about the coming of the “day of the Lord”—for an upcoming test. Since his brother had left the year before to a dormitory, we had been spending more time together, just the two of us. Whether it was studying gemara or playing tennis or a home fix-it project which I had saved to work on with him, once he arrived at my house for his half-week every Wednesday after school, we were usually involved in something mutual. We sat in my small work room, surrounded by books and bicycle tools (artifacts of my two main interests) with our Bibles open.

 

Inside the Jerusalem Boy’s Yeshivah (affectionately known by its cute-sounding Hebrew acronym Yashlatz) some of the high school students heard what they took to be the popping of fire-crackers—a usual accompaniment to Purim festivities. The yeshivah’s head-master, the even-tempered, sixty-something-year-old Rabbi Yerahmiel Weiss heard them too. In his daily ten minutes of study and announcements to the entire school after morning prayer, he had recently mentioned, as he had for the past twenty years before Adar, the need for restraint in the coming days of merry-making. An avuncular, yet busy man (he was responsible for the spiritual growth and physical well-being of 250 teenage Israeli boys), he had steered the Yashlatz ship long enough to greet as students the children of some of his original charges.

 

Year in and year out he had taught his students, watching each class grow and move on to bigger and better, as he built up his high school in the shadow of one of religious Zionism’s elite institutions, Merkaz HaRav. By now his school was also one of this sector’s top institutions. The students, boisterous Israelis, were expected to devote hours a day to Torah study. Many learned late into the night, mastering another page, another tractate, another book devoted to Jewish thought and practice. The beit midrash (study hall) was the school’s center. Here, sitting on well-worn benches, with their books resting on wooden stenders (mini-desks that look like sturdier than usual music stands) day in and day out, these high school boys diligently argued over the points of laws recorded in their oversized folio Talmuds. They took the opportunity to rest during their secular studies. Then, these same boys could be found fast asleep, either in their dorm beds or at their classroom desks. Some found ways to relax by exploring Jerusalem’s many (kosher) treasures—wandering her alleyways, hiking in her hills. The even more serious students were often excused from time-consuming secular subjects like advanced math and English, with the understanding that they would make use of their freed-up time to further their religious study.

 

Pop-pop-pop. Rabbi Weiss quickly realized that these weren’t the sounds of Purim fireworks. These were shots ringing out from somewhere close by. He yelled at the students nearby to run for cover, as he did the same.

 

Pop-pop-pop. My neighbor’s class, upstairs from the library, had just finished their evening prayers. These were shots! My neighbor, Moise, usually carried a pistol. Tonight he had left it at home. He and his classmates quickly barricaded the door with the room’s tables, setting one upside down against the door then sitting against the wall opposite. This way they could keep it pressed to the door by pushing on it with their legs.

 

Pop-pop-pop. The dozen students in the class room off the library slammed the door shut. In shock, they held the door shut while fervently whispering psalms. Twice, they would quickly open the door to admit other students who had crawled across the library floor seeking somewhere, anywhere, to hide. Once, they would hold their collective breaths as the door handle to their small room rattled in the hands of Abu Dheim as he tried to open it.

 

Pop-pop-pop. Captain David Shapiro was at home, on leave from duty as a combat officer with the paratroopers. The twenty-nine year old rents a small apartment across the street from Merkaz HaRav. He had spent his high-school years in Yashlatz. His pregnant wife had just put one of his two boys to bed. “Fireworks?” he thought for a minute. “No, this is gun fire!” he grabbed his rifle, jammed in a magazine and ran out the door.

 

Yonadav Haim Hirshfeld had just graduated the previous year from Yashlatz. He had decided to continue his yeshivah studies right next door, in Merkaz HaRav. On this Thursday he had returned from the Old City prayer rally early. He stood talking with two friends outside of the yeshiva’s dormitories, his backpack holding his beloved flute and well-worn Mishnah. His friends, Tsvi and Shimon, noticed the man carrying a large box just as he set it down. They joked, “Who ordered the TV?”

 

Abu Dheim had drilled with his Kalashnikov in the valleys south of Hebron—target practice, how to quickly switch magazines. As he lifted his rifle out of his box and brought the stock up to his shoulder, his training paid off. There, right in front of him stood three Jews. Pop-pop-pop. But they didn’t fall. At point blank range—he hit them, but they didn’t fall. They ran off, into the building. He turned to his right, there was another. Pop-pop-pop. At last, a dead Jew. This was Ro’ee Roth—a squarely built 18-year-old who held a brown belt in ju-jitsu. It was his first year at Merkaz. Ro’ee collapsed in a bloody puddle on the white hewn-stone pavement.

 

Yonaton Yitshak Eldar, a tenth-grader, heard the shots. As he turned to run, Abu Dheim shot him in the back. He fell dead, not far from where  Ro’ee lay.

 

Abu Dheim somehow managed to miss Tzvi completely. Even though they were wounded, Shimon and Yonadav Haim managed to run inside. Making a left, heading down the stairs, bleeding, Yonadav collapsed. Before Abu Dheim had emptied his first magazine, Yonadav Haim, the first Jew he shot that night, was already dead. Abu Dheim didn’t follow them inside. Instead, he turned to his right. Now on his left were the large plate glass windows of the library. A little further on there was the door. He made a left and entered.

 

Pop-pop-pop. Inside the library, the boys who were learning stopped for a moment, wondering what the noise was. It took them a few moments to realize that it wasn’t just Purim fireworks. As the realization that they were hearing gun shots took hold, Abu Dheim approached the door.

 

The library is a rectangular room faced with large windows on its south side, with a framed glass door at the eastern edge. Walking into the library, through the magnetic theft-detection gate, one is directly across from the librarian’s desk, situated about half-way into the room’s depth. A bit to the right, there are some rather well-worn computers. In line with the desk, to its left, and filling much of the library’s space, are the open stacks of books. On simple brown metal shelving sit thousands of Hebrew books, ranging from Talmudic texts to contemporary Jewish law. In front of the stacks, to the left of the doorway, are tables and chairs. Some are set together, forming islands in the middle of the space; some are set against the windows fronting the library.

 

As Abu Dheim entered the room, these Jews were already scattering. No matter. His rifle came up and he hit one who hadn’t even looked up from his studies. A nigger-Jew!! Doron Maharate, born in Ethiopia, had come to Merkaz HaRav to study, leaving high-school in the 11th-grade to do so. He dreamed of ordination, he longed to become a religious leader for other Ethiopian Jews, whose place in Israeli society was not easy. Quickly, Abu Dheim ended his dreams.

 

The others had fled like so many mice into the stacks. Methodically, though, Abu Dheim began to hunt them down. Lying on the floor in the classroom to the right of the door, holding the door closed with all their strength, were the students who had been waiting for their rabbi to begin his class. One dialed Magen David Adom – the Israeli Red Cross—and whispered into his cell phone that they were under attack. Outside the door, they could hear shots ringing out. Suddenly, they heard a piercing scream, an animal-like cry, a wailing which continued for seconds which felt like hours followed by an even more terrifying silence. Then, another round of shots rang out.

 

Segev had called to his friend who remained seated. It took Avraham David, blessed with high intelligence, but an often frustrating deliberateness, a moment to register what was happening. “Moses! Moses! Move!” He followed the other fleeing students to the narrow spaces between the crowded shelves. Abu Dheim walked slowly through the stacks. Crouching between them were the Jews. He emptied magazine after magazine into them. His shots passed through the bodies of my son and his friend Segev, scarring the hard stone floor. In all, he would kill five in the library.

 

As the blood ran across the stone tile, suddenly a small boy jumped up into Abu Dheim’s line of vision. This was Elhanan Cohen, a sixteen-year-old tenth grader. Abu Dheim squeezed the trigger. Shit! His rifle, bought with his hard-earned money, that he cared for so well, jammed. In the second that Abu Dheim’s right hand left the trigger to pull back on the bolt to clear it, Elhanan grabbed the barrel (it was hot enough to sear his palm’s flesh) and pushed past him. Elhanan’s younger cousin, Neriah, was already dead, the blood running out of his lifeless body and across the floor tiles. Yochai Lifshitz, tall and skinny like both of his parents, was due to graduate from high school in a few months time. He too lay dead in the library stacks.

 

Abu Dheim walked backed towards the entranceway. He reached for the door handle of what looked like a closet. Inside, the students didn’t dare breath. They silently strained against the door, watching as the handle was shaken, the door rattled. They envisioned their end—the angle of death bursting through the inch of wood that stood between them and the man doing all the shooting and killing they had been listening to these past minutes. Then … nothing. The door fell silent.

 

Captain David Shapiro ran toward the yeshivah, his eyes searching for movement, his rifle held in his practiced hands, swinging back and forth across his chest. A patrol car was already outside the yeshivah gate when he arrived. A rookie team of a patrolman and -woman had been just down the street when the call that an attack was taking place came over the radio. They made a u-turn and jumped out of the car. The policewoman ran down the street in the direction they had just come in order to stop a bus that was pulling up from getting any closer to the yeshivah, where shots could be heard. The policeman was crouched down, trying to decide what to do. Unbeknownst to either, a married Merkaz student, Rabbi Yitshak Dadon, armed with a pistol, had crawled out onto a small balcony which covered the yeshivah entrance on the eastern edge of the courtyard. The balcony ran parallel to the glass fronting of the library.

 

As Dadon lay waiting, trying to peer through the glass of the library for a clear shot at Abu Dheim, he suddenly spotted movement below him. This was Shapiro who had left the rookie policeman behind and was advancing towards the shooting, trying to stay as low as possible. Dadon was worried that the figure below him might mistake him for a terrorist and shoot at him. He called out his own name in Hebrew.

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Read the rest when you purchase Mourning Under Glass.