IT WASN'T the first Hebron Massacre. It wasn't the second, or even the third.
When Dr. Baruch Goldstein opened fire in a mosque packed with kneeling worshipers, killing approximately 22 and wounding dozens more, he committed an act of shattering and horrifying evil. But Hebron has known bloodbaths before. Why is the world registering such shock at this one? Why does it dominate the front pages and the newscasts, consume the Security Council's attention, and trigger worldwide demands to "disarm the settlers?"
Because this time Hebron has witnessed a massacre by a Jew instead of a massacre of Jews.
There was a Muslim pogrom against Hebron's Jews at least as far back as 1517, soon after the Ottoman conquest of the Holy Land. There was a slaughter in 1980, when Arabs gunned down a group of Jewish students walking home from Friday-night prayers.
The most dreadful massacre of all took place in 1929.
Baruch Goldstein's massacre of Muslims in Hebron was an unspeakable crime. So were the many previous massacres in the city, none of which were committed by Jews.
Bloody riots begun in Jerusalem that year, incited by the grand mufti, Haj Amin el-Husseini, soon spread throughout the country. Jewish homes in Hebron were stormed by organized Arab gangs; their goal was to wipe out a community that had existed since antiquity. The British, who then ruled Palestine, let the terror rage for more than two days before dispatching police. In the end, 67 defenseless Jews were killed and 60 were wounded, many of them women, children and the aged. Synagogues were destroyed, Torah scrolls burned.
"The community slowly began to rebuild itself," records the Encyclopaedia Judaica, "but everything was again destroyed in the upheavals of 1936. . . . The Jewish settlement of Hebron thus ended."
The point in resurrecting 1929 (and 1517, 1936, and 1980) isn't, God forbid, to justify what happened last Friday. That was monstrous and unforgivable. But it was also a freakish aberration. Terror attacks by Israelis are about as typical as NASA space shuttle explosions. And apart from the microscopic lunatic fringe -- which the American networks and wire services promptly sought out -- Goldstein's atrocity was instantly condemned across Israeli society.
"A loathsome, criminal act of murder was committed today" -- Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin didn't mince words or make excuses. He telephoned Yasser Arafat immediately with a heartfelt apology: "As an Israeli, I am ashamed of this act."
No, 1929 is relevant not because it excuses last week's terror but because it reminds us of the difference between an exception and a rule.
The exception is what an armed Israeli did in Hebron's mosque on Friday. The rule is why the Israelis have to arm themselves in the first place.
The rule is Tzipporah Sasson, visibly pregnant, fatally shot in the head and belly by Arab terrorists a few days ago.
The rule is David Masrati, 32-year-old father of three, shot dead by an Arab while riding a bus in Holon last December.
The rule is Moshe Becker, 64, hacked to death by two Palestinians in his Ness Ziona orange grove four weeks ago.
The rule is Russian immigrant Mordechai Lapid and his four children, fired on by drive-by terrorists in Kiryat Arba. The father and his oldest son bled to death in the arms of the doctor who answered the emergency call -- Baruch Goldstein.
There has been an avalanche of menacing threats and deadly attacks by Arabs against Jews since that handshake at the White House. Not one of them has evoked from Arafat or any other Arab leader the heartsick anguish that Goldstein's mayhem elicited from Israelis; or launched a wave of censorious editorials in the world's newspapers; or troubled the UN's sleep.
But then, anti-Jewish brutality has been a feature of the Mideast landscape since the rise of Arab nationalism a century ago. The same Husseini who incited the riots in 1929 urged the Nazis in 1941 to solve "the problem of the Jewish elements in Palestine and other Arab countries by the same method that the question is now being settled in the Axis countries."
Fifty-three years later, the much-quoted Palestinian "moderate," Faisal Husseini -- the mufti's great-nephew -- tells young Arabs not to read too much into the Israel-PLO accord: "Everything you see and hear today is just for tactical and strategic reasons. We have not given up the rifle. We still have armed gangs in the areas."
Disarm the settlers? They're not the danger.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --