Part 1 of this analysis focused on Georgetown University professor John Esposito's friendship with one particular terrorist, Sami al-Arian, a member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's Shura Council and professor of computer sciences at the University of South Florida. Part 2 details his more damaging, if metaphorical, friendship with Palestinian terrorism writ large.
Esposito's most damaging gift to Israel's terrorist enemies came when he planted the seed of a popular narrative that claims Palestinians were provoked into conducting suicide terrorism. In the aftermath of 9/11, he published two books that provided the template for the spurious claim that Palestinian suicide bombings began only after, and in response to, an attack at a mosque in Hebron in 1994 by the American Israeli physician, Baruch Goldstein.
First came What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam (2002) and shortly thereafter Unholy War, Terror in the Name of Islam (2002). Both were published by Oxford University Press, where Esposito is Series Editor of The Oxford Library of Islamic Studies and Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford History of Islam (2000), The Oxford Dictionary of Islam (2003), and The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics (2013).
What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam is one of Esposito's many Question-and-Answer books, written for a general readership, where he plays up his reputation as "the most influential Islamic scholar in the United States" (according to the book blurb) by posing questions he believes "everyone" is asking and then condescendingly answering them. In a chapter titled "Violence and Terrorism," he asks, "Does Islam permit suicide bombers?" and answers this way:
"On February 25, 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler who had emigrated to Israel from the United States, walked into the Mosque of the Patriarch in Hebron and opened fire, killing twenty-nine Muslim worshipers during their Friday congregational prayer. In response, Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) introduced a new type of warfare in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, suicide bombing."
Esposito's second post-9/11 book, also written "for the vast majority of people in the West," Unholy War, Terror in the Name of Islam, covers many of the same topics as the first, including suicide bombing. In Chapter 3, "The Armies of God," Esposito bemoans that "the accomplishments of Hamas as a social and political movement" are largely overshadowed by its terrorism, which he blames on "the Israeli occupation" and the "sense of oppression and victimhood" it forces on Palestinians. In words almost identical to those from the previous book, he claims:
"On February 25, 1994, a Jewish settler named Baruch Goldstein walked into the Mosque of the Patriarch in Hebron, opened fire, and killed 29 Muslim worshippers during their Friday congregational prayer. In response, Hamas introduced a new type of warfare, the suicide bombers."
Both versions falsely assert the novelty of the tactic and unambiguously state a causal relationship between Goldstein's attack and Palestinian suicide bombing. But the facts do not back up Esposito's fanciful narrative.
In 1994, suicide bombing was not "a new type of warfare" anywhere in the world. Iranians had been conducting suicide bombing attacks since 1980. Palestinians had been conducting suicide attacks since July 6, 1989 when a PIJ terrorist named Abed al-Hadi Ghaneim commandeered bus 405 from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and drove it off a cliff, killing 16. On October 30, 1989, a PFLP terrorist named Mahmoud al-Azour piloted a bomb-laden fishing boat into an IDF vessel. Hamas conducted at least 4 suicide attacks in 1993, and PIJ conducted one on December 12, 1993.
In spite of these easily-obtained facts, Esposito's Goldstein narrative is found throughout the literature on suicide bombing, often in his exact phrasing.
In Dying to Kill (2005) Mia Bloom, professor of communications and Middle East studies at Georgia State University, gives credence to a "school of thought [that] traces Palestinian suicide bombings to Israeli provocations beginning with the Hebron Massacre by Baruch Goldstein in 1994" (p. 20).
In Making Sense of Suicide Missions (2005), political science professors Stathis Kalyvas (Yale) and Ignacio Sanchez-Cuenca (Madrid) nonchalantly claim that "the first Hamas SM [suicide mission] in 1994 was a response to the killing of twenty-nine Palestinians by the Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein" (p. 230).
In The Looming Tower (2011), historian/journalist Lawrence Wright doesn't mention Goldstein by name, but he claims that, "On April 6, 1994, the first Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a bus in Afula, Israel" (p. 186).
Professor Meir Hatina, head of the Department of Islamic Studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told an interviewer in August 2016 that, "The massacre carried out by Goldstein provided cause and incentive to start using suicide attacks."
Gus Martin, professor of criminal justice administration at the California State University, Dominguez Hills, is one of the most prolific authors of college textbooks on terrorism, including Essentials of Terrorism: Concepts and Controversies which I began using in 2014 for my class when it was in its 3rd edition. Martin repeats, almost verbatim, Esposito's Goldstein narrative in Chapter 7, "Religious Terrorism," which cites the facts of the Hebron attack as Esposito does and then adds, "In reprisal for the Hebron massacre, the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist movement Hamas launched a bombing campaign that included the first wave of human suicide bombers" (p. 150). The 4th edition has the same passage, except that HAMAS appears in all capital letters (p. 142).
I wrote to Sage Publications of Los Angeles, California, before the 5th edition came out, hoping to get the error corrected. The editors seemed interested and asked me for details, which I supplied. When the 5th edition came out with the same passage, I wrote again before the 6th edition came out. This time, the Sage editors suggested I contact Martin directly, so I did, but he never responded. The same passage appears in the 6th edition. I didn't bother writing prior to the release of the 7th edition, and, not surprisingly, it too has the same passage. So too does another of Martin's books on the topic: Understanding Terrorism, Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues, 6thedition, (Sage, 2018), p. 140. Thousands of college students likely believe Esposito's narrative because they read it in one of Martin's books and their instructor didn't explain that it is wrong.
Naturally, the most flagrantly anti-Israel media sources like The Electronic Intifada and Al-Jazeera are fond of the Goldstein narrative, but it has also appeared in mainstream media outlets. In 2007, when The Economist wrote that Goldstein's attack "prompted Hamas to begin the tactic of suicide-bombings against Israeli civilians," the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) pointed out the error, eliciting a rare correction. Editors substituted the word "exacerbate" for "begin" to come up with "prompted Hamas to exacerbate." But even this partial correction still implies a causal relationship when, in fact, both the Hamas and PIJ suicide campaigns had begun before 1994.
When the Times of London repeated the Goldstein narrative in May of 2018, UK Media Watch was up to the task of pointing it out and demanding a correction, but this one important victory pales compared to the countless people who blame Israel for Hamas's suicide bombing.
From the cumulative and exponential effect of popular textbooks on terrorism, specialist academic writing about suicide terrorism, and media repetition, an echo chamber has emerged, rewriting history and leading people to believe that Hamas began its most feared tactic of suicide bombings, "in response to the killing of twenty-nine Palestinians" (Kalyvas and Sanchez-Cuenca) by Baruch Goldstein, the seminal event that, "provided cause and incentive" (Hatina) for revenge, and subsequently "prompted Hamas to begin" (The Economist) "a new type of warfare, the suicide bombers" (Esposito).
Blaming Baruch Goldstein for Palestinian suicide bombing was not an accident, and it did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, it was an early chapter in a larger narrative that blames Israel for all Middle East violence. Palestinian terrorism used to be downplayed as part of a larger "cycle of violence" that had politicians urging "both sides" to deescalate. But now, when rockets fly from Gaza into Israel, academia and most of the media ignore those rockets and focus exclusively on Israeli counterterrorism measures to take out the rocket launchers and their operators. They accuse Israel of fighting back unfairly and disproportionately, and they issue statements "in solidarity" with the Palestinians and even overlook when Hamas and PIJ missiles fall short and kill Gazans.
John Esposito is largely responsible for the erroneous belief that suicide bombing began after and in response to Baruch Goldstein's attack. And he is partly responsible for the sad fact that, in 2023, Palestinian violence is almost entirely ignored except when it can be used to blame Israel for causing it.
A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is also a Ginsburg/Milstein fellow.