With God on His Side : LETTERS FROM TEL MOND PRISON: An Israeli Settler Defends His Act of Terror. By Era Rapaport, edited and introduced by William B. Helmreich . The Free Press: 280 pp., $23

Jonathan Kirsch is the author of "The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible" to be published by Ballantine in May

"Vengeance is a fundamental principle of Judaism," the late Meir Kahane once said, "and I will debate any rabbi on Wilshire Boulevard on that point."

Kahane, ironically enough, was silenced by an assassin's bullet, but his credo of Bible-based violence has found a whole generation of new advocates, including a man named Era Rapaport, whose "Letters From Tel Mond Prison" comes as an unsettling reminder of why peace in the Middle East is such a remote and elusive prospect.

Rapaport planted a car bomb that blew off the legs of the Arab mayor of Nablus in 1982, and he served time in an Israeli prison for his crime. Today, Rapaport is the mayor of a Jewish settlement built on the site of biblical Shilo in the West Bank, and "Letters From Tel Mond Prison" is his elaborate and disturbing apologia for the use of terror as an instrument of vengeance.

His book is half-memoir, half-manifesto, much of it embodied in the letters that he wrote to friends and loved ones from an Israeli prison cell in the late '80s. Rapaport does his best to come across as a sentimental and sensitive guy, frank and plain-spoken, but he always burns hot with the flame of true belief--Rapaport is a zealot for whom Holy Writ matters more than realpolitik, and he regards the bombing that he carried out as a "mitzvah," a religious duty and a good deed.

"How does a nice Jewish boy from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, a gifted social worker, a marcher for civil rights, a loving husband and father, end up blowing off the legs of the PLO mayor of Nablus?" muses William B. Helmreich, a college chum of Rapaport, in his introduction.

Rapaport answers the question by describing his decision to immigrate to Israel and his drift toward fundamentalism in religion and radicalism in politics. Eventually, Rapaport joined other religious settlers who sought to establish a Jewish presence amid the Arab majority in the West Bank.

As he experienced the vitriolic and often violent response of the Arab community to the settler movement, Rapaport drifted into what Israeli security dubbed "the Underground," an informal group of Jewish settlers and their sympathizers who resolved to conduct their own campaign of terror. These self-appointed vigilantes contemplated attacks on buses, mosques and Arab officials--and, thanks to Rapaport, they succeeded in maiming Bassam Shaka, a PLO member who served as the mayor of the West Bank town of Nablus.

Significantly, Rapaport insists on calling the modern Arab town of Nablus by the name of a nearby biblical site, Shechem. He refers to the West Bank as "Judea and Samaria," another set of biblical place names, or their Hebrew acronym, YOSH. When he writes about the territory that historians call Palestine, Rapaport uses the biblical phrase "Eretz Yisrael," the Land of Israel, a term freighted with the aspiration for Jewish sovereignty over the entirety of what is known in the Bible as the Promised Land. A highly selective reading of the Bible provides Rapaport and the settler movement with a spiritual rationale for their political activism. The passages in Genesis where God promises the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants are regarded by Rapaport and his fellow settlers as divine sanction for exercising Jewish rule in all of Palestine. "The Biblical record," Rapaport writes, "is our eternal deed."

For Rapaport, like other fanatics in the Middle East, the sacred texts of his religion outweigh any other fact of world history or world politics. The notion that Arabs--who, after all, are also descendants of Abraham--might have some legitimate aspirations of their own in Palestine never seems to occur to Rapaport. The Arabs who live in the West Bank, he argues, are better off under Israeli administration than they were when Jordan ruled the same territory--and he insists that the more sensible Arabs actually prefer to be governed by the Jewish state: "You are better for us than we are for ourselves," one friendly Arab is quoted as saying to Rapaport.

The conflict between Arabs and Jews, Rapaport argues, can be solved by exiling a few PLO agitators, excluding the press from the West Bank and coming down hard on rock-throwers and bomb-throwers, both of which he regards with evenhanded rancor as "terrorists." According to the world as seen by Rapaport, it is only the faintheartedness of recent Israeli governments, both the dovish Labor Party and the hawkish Likud, that has prolonged the agony--and forced him to take the initiative of planting a bomb.

"If our government would throw out about 30 of the PLO leaders here, the situation would be totally different," Rapaport mused in the years when the sputtering fuse of a terrorist's bomb was already burning in his own imagination. "I'm feeling that if my government doesn't do something to curb the PLO actions, then we'll have to do so ourselves."

Rapaport really does not make much of an effort to persuade us that theocracy is preferable to democracy or that armed vigilance is preferable to peacemaking--he is merely witnessing his own powerful faith and his own calling to do God's work in the Holy Land: "The future is me," writes Rapaport in a passage that illustrates how much he favors first-person pronouns. "Judaism tells me I must keep the land of Israel."

The last few letters in the book were written as recently as the beginning of 1996, but nothing that Rapaport experienced in prison or afterward has changed his mind in the slightest. Responding to a friend who asks if he regrets the bombing that sent him to prison, Rapaport shrugs off his crime: "I'd be a hypocrite if I told you I did because I really don't," he insists. "At the time it was a necessity, 100%."

Indeed, the scariest thing about "Letters From Tel Mond Prison" is the fact that Rapaport sets himself against the peace process that is going on around him.

The peace process is "a sham," Rapaport insists, and he refers to Shimon Peres, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at making peace with the PLO, as "a snake." While he does not endorse outright the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Rapaport slyly suggests that Rabin had Jewish blood on his hands: "The bottom line," he writes, "is a Jew has no right to give away Eretz Yisrael."

As I read "Letters," I was tempted to respond to Rapaport's assertions by citing chapter and verse of the Bible in rebuttal to his selective reading of Scripture. The Book of Leviticus, for example, offers a divine commandment that is very much at odds with Rapaport's understanding of the Bible: "The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be as the home-born among you," goes Lev. 19:34, "and thou shalt love him as thyself. . . ."

But any political discourse that relies on biblical tit for tat is doomed from the first word. That's why Rapaport's book is so sterile: He is unwilling to entertain the kind of compromise that is essential to the workings of a democracy and, especially, the making of peace with one's enemies. God is on his side, Rapaport believes, and the Bible tells him so. What else is left to say?

Indeed, the only real value of "Letters From Tel Mond Prison" is as a kind of curiosity--it is an artifact of dogma and doctrine, a work of confessional literature that is essentially medieval in its assumptions and arguments, a glimpse into the heart and soul of one human who was (and is) proud to maim another human being in service to his cause.

The bitter irony, of course, is that Rapaport has much in common with his worst enemies--the fundamentalists of the Islamic world who also embrace terrorism--and he speaks a language that is more likely to be understood in theocratic Iran, for example, than in democracies like the United States and Israel. What we learn from Rapaport and his book is that peace in the Middle East is caught between an irresistible force and an immovable object, the true believer and his holy books.

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