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Putting a Face on Hatred

A woman with a thirst for revenge comes face to face with the Palestinian who shot and wounded her father, a rabbi. But her heart takes a surprising turn.

April 10, 2002|LOUISE STEINMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Who would want to hurt him?" Laura Blumenfeld used to wonder, standing at the exact spot in the Jerusalem market where, in 1986, her father was shot and wounded by a Palestinian terrorist. After the shooting, Blumenfeld, reporting from Israel for the Washington Post, was repeatedly drawn to that same place and to that same question. Then the moment would pass, and she'd "go on writing about other people's lives."

On one particular day, however, standing again at the scene of the crime, she noticed a single word--REVENGE--spray-painted in black on a stone archway. At that moment, an idea lodged in her mind with unabating intensity: "What if I could really track down the shooter?"

Now, as the headlines bring their sad daily quota of deadly suicide bombings and retaliatory reprisals in the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, Blumenfeld's new book--"Revenge: A Story of Hope"--offers a welcome antidote. Part memoir, part cultural history of revenge, the book chronicles her obsession with her father's shooting, the actions she undertook to avenge it and the surprising results of what the New York Times called her "one-woman espionage plot."

Blumenfeld's ambition was large and her intentions numerous: She wanted to explore the origins of revenge, its rules, its motivations. Why do some people need to get even and others don't?

"I wanted to break it down and study it. I wanted to master revenge," she announces early in the narrative.

To study it was the easy part--she would interview people who had suffered from and acted on the revenge impulse. The hard part was the personal experiment: following her own dark fantasies. She acknowledged from the beginning that "the outcome was unclear, the effort self-absorbed, the process full of ethical compromise." How would she find an appropriate revenge, one that went "to the heart of the crime?"

How could she make the terrorist understand that it wasn't just "some Jew" he had shot--it was her father? Most of all, how could she make the shooter realize he had done something wrong?

Violent Act Spawns

a Daughter's Vow

Blumenfeld was in college when her father, a New York rabbi, was shot in Jerusalem. He was one of several tourists attacked by members of a rebel faction of the PLO. He was fortunate. The bullet only grazed his brain, leaving no lasting injuries. The same week as the incident, in a writing seminar at Harvard, Blumenfeld wrote a poem about the shooting that ended: "this hand will find you/I am his daughter." She had already made a vow to avenge her father--but didn't know yet what she meant by it.

Reached by phone at the Upper West Side apartment in New York she shares with her husband, a federal prosecutor, and her young son, Blumenfeld, 38, explained why she took on the role of family avenger. "I'm the kind of person who remembers things. I remind my husband, 'This is the fourth anniversary of our first date.'" She takes her family's history quite seriously. "You could say that I'm the person in charge of the 'Natural History of the Blumenfelds,'" she laughs. "Families need to stand up for each other. It's a way of saying, 'We're worthy of respect.'"

Blumenfeld dedicated a year in Israel, where the archaeology of revenge is "layered all the way back to the beginning of time," to her obsession with confronting the man who'd hurt her father. She was no stranger to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a teenager, she had joined Seeds for Peace, a program for Arab and Jewish youth that emphasizes tolerance. She is fluent in Hebrew and comfortable in Arabic. She covered the 1994 massacre at Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs for the Washington Post.

Not long after settling in Jerusalem, she was able to name the man who shot her father: Omar Khatib. She learned he was serving a 25-year sentence in a prison in Ashkelon for the shooting. His family, she discovered, lived in the West Bank village of Kalandia, and "on a fiery July afternoon" in 1998, she arrived unannounced on the family's doorstep. She did not tell family members she was David Blumenfeld's daughter. "I was just Laura the journalist, no last name."

Her ability to keep up the deception surprised her. "It made me wonder about myself," she says now. "I'd always thought of myself as very warm, impulsive. I didn't hide my feelings." As she scribbled notes in the living room of Khatib's family, she worried her body would betray her: sweaty palms, furrowed brow, a heart that literally skipped beats. One of the shooter's brother's thought he recognized her from somewhere, an observation that made her heart beat even faster. She had written about the reopening of homes in nearby Ramallah in 1994, during the first days of Palestinian self-rule. Had he seen her then? He wasn't sure.

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