Jewish Terrorism, Christian Terrorism, Hindu Terrorism

In the twenty-first century, not only because of the hideous crime of September 11 but also because of several other incidents of especially Arab Muslim violence, terrorism has, in the eyes of many, become a crime associated with Muslims and Arabs. Muslims ostensibly motivated in part by religion were behind the September 11 attacks, the March 11 bombing of trains in Madrid, the 2005 London bombings of buses and trains and the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombs. Terrorism is of course, however, not the sole domain of Muslims–people of all faiths have been guilty of heinous acts against civilians, in order to terrorize, often in the name of religion. In this post, a reminder of (in part) religion-motivated terrorist acts throughout history by non-Muslims.

Jewish Terrorism

It is said by some that the first terrorists in history were a first century Jewish group opposing Roman rule called the Sicarii (“dagger men”), who directed attacks and assassinations of Jews, including priests, who were collaborating with Roman authorities.

Some of the most active and notorious terrorist groups in the 20th century were Jewish Zionist groups in now Israel: Irgun and Lehi.

Irgun was formed in the 1930s by Zionist Jews who believed that Jews had to be more aggressive in their self-defense in order to support the Jewish Zionist enterprise. In the 1930s, most Irgun actions were retaliatory–conducting “eye for an eye” type campaigns in response to Arab violence against Jews–but by the end of World War II Irgun had begun engaging in actions against the British authorities, who they believed were managing Palestine against Zionist interests, including by limiting Jewish immigration. Irgun attacks included bombings of British government buildings, such as the immigration, tax and police offices, the bombing of the British Embassy in Rome and a car bombing of a British officers’ club.

The three most infamous terrorist attacks by Irgun were the 1946 King David Hotel bombing, the 1947 Sergeants affair and the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre. On July 22, 1946, Irgun operatives bombed the King David Hotel, a luxury hotel in Jerusalem used by the British authorities as a headquarters, resulting in 91 deaths. It was one of the deadliest terrorist attacks of the 20th century, allegedly in part because warnings to evacuate the buliding were unheeded. In 1947, in retaliation for recent executions of Irgun operatives by the British administration, Irgun kidnapped and hanged two British sergeants. Their bodies were then booby-trapped with IEDs and hung up in trees, and a third British soldier was injured trying to recover the bodies.

The deadliest of the three, however, was the Deir Yassin massacre, an attack against an Arab Palestinian village. The attack was so heinous that prominent Jews in the west (including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt) wrote a letter to the New York Times condeming Irgun as a “terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization” and described how “terrorist bands attacked [the] peaceful village, which was not a military objective in the fighting, killed most of its inhabitants – 240 men, women and children – and kept a few of them alive to parade as captives through the streets of Jerusalem.” Orphans were left at Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Deir Yassin massacre was conducted by Irgun in coordination with a second Jewish terrorist group called the Lehi. Lehi’s politics were so confused that it actually proposed joining the Nazi cause in World War II in order to weaken British control of Palestine. A Lehi newsletter defended its acts thus:

Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes. We have before us the command of the Torah, whose morality surpasses that of any other body of laws in the world: “Ye shall blot them out to the last man.” But first and foremost, terrorism is for us a part of the political battle being conducted under the present circumstances, and it has a great part to play: speaking in a clear voice to the whole world, as well as to our wretched brethren outside this land, it proclaims our war against the occupier. We are particularly far from this sort of hesitation in regard to an enemy whose moral perversion is admitted by all.

Just as some Palestinian organizations have taken an ethno-national cause–the cessation of the occupation of Arab Palestine–and turned it into a religious conflict, with violence activated by faith, Lehi justified violence in the nationalist Zionist agenda with a virulent reading of Jewish religious texts. Lehi was also responsible for the assassination of a British minister in Cairo and a UN mediator in Jerusalem.

Leaders of Irgun and Lehi went on to powerful positions in the State of Israel. Menachem Begin, the sixth Prime Minister of Israel, was head of the Irgun from 1943 to 1948. Seventh Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was among Lehi’s leaders. Although both Irgun and Lehi have been labeled terrorist organizations by the State of Israel, in 2006, Natanyahu and former Irgun members celebrated the King David Hotel bombing’s 60th anniversary, and Lehi members have been honored by the Israeli government as martyrs of the state.

Christian Terrorism

There have been many Christian terrorists of various stripes, but the two groups that come to mind are anti-abortion terrorists in the United States and Serbian troops and their assistors in Bosnia.

Anti-abortion terrorists in the U.S., angry with the constitutionally protected (though circumscribed) right to abortion, have waged a terrorist campaign for decades against abortion clinics and doctors, justified by their own religious beliefs. Since 1977 in the U.S. and Canada, there have been 8 murders, 17 attempted murders and hundreds of death threats, as well as hundreds of bombings, arsons and bomb threats.

The Bosnian War was to a large extent an ethnic war among the different ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia, but it took a decidedly religion-based terrorist slant in the massacres of Muslim Bosnians in Srebrenica, where about 8000 defenseless Bosnians were slaughtered by Serbians and other Christian “volunteers” from countries such as Russia and Greece.

Hindu Terrorism

The most widely publicized terrorist attacks in India have been those in Bombay by Muslim groups, but there has also been substantial violence by Hindus against Muslims, as in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which almost 800 Muslim Indians (and 200 Hindu Indians) were killed, aided by local Hindu authorities and political leaders. (Hindu-on-Muslim violence was memorialized in the movie Slumdog Millionaire.) Some Muslim-targeted bombs have also been attributed by some to Hindu “Saffron terror.”

Although the Tamil Tigers primarily represented an ethnic struggle rather than a religious one–the Tamils were both ethnically and religiously distinctive from the majority Sinhalese–some of the attacks of the Tamil Tigers against Tamil-speaking Muslims could be said to be religious terrorism perpetrated by the Hindu Tamils. As far as I am aware, however, the attacks were not justified on religious grounds.

Buddhist Cave Art

Buddhist Cave Art

Today we may think of Buddhism as an east Asian or southeast Asian religion, but of course Buddhism originated in now India, where Siddhartha Gautama received enlightenment in the 6th century BC. Buddhism spread relatively rapidly in India and became a dominant religion by the time of the Mauryan Empire of Ashoka, who reigned from 273 to 232 BC. Starting from around the time of Christ to the seventh century, Buddhism followed the Silk Road through Central Asia into China. While Buddhism has largely receded from the Indian subcontinent itself, it remains the dominant religious force in much of the rest of Asia, from the Himalayas to Japan, and from Sri Lanka to Taiwan.

The principal theme of our trip is the Islamic world, but by first visiting India and then entering China through the Silk Road we traveled on the same path as Buddhism, and I thought that a post on the marvelous Buddhist caves that we have visited was in order.

Retreat from the everyday, material world is a principal aim of Buddhism, and some of the monks of ancient India sought their refuge in a small river-cut cliff near now Aurangabad. From the second century BC to the sixth century AD, the monks of Ajanta carved small monasteries and shrines into the face of the cliff itself and decorated the rock-cut interiors with monumental sculptures and beautiful murals, creating a masterpiece of sacred art that has not been equaled many times since.

The Ajanta caves, set in a bend in the Waghur River, a day’s travel east of Bombay

The Ajanta caves are cut out of the cliff itself, with rock chiseled away to form spectacular interiors of monasteries and shrines.

Merely creating such structures into a cliff face would have been impressive, but the marvel of Ajanta is the level of ornamentation. Nearly every surface in the caves is decorated either with sculptural relief or painting.

High relief composition at Ajanta

Paintings at Ajanta

The rock-cut cave temples of Ajanta were imitated by later Buddhists as well as Hindus and Jains at a nearby site now called Ellora. The Ellora caves, dating from fifth to tenth centuries AD, are in some ways less impressive than Ajanta, but the art of rock-cut/monolithic construction reached a pinnacle with the Hindu Kailasanatha Temple, which clearly surpasses not only the caves of Ajanta but also the churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia and, although we have not yet seen them in person, the Nabatean structures of Petra in Jordan. Seen from inside the structure or from above, the massive and complex task of carving such a building from one rock is simply awesome.

Ellora Caves

Statuary, Ellora

The idea of the Buddhist cave-temple, along with the styles of art first developed at Ajanta, followed the Buddhist religion into China through the Silk Road. There are numerous such Buddhist cave complexes in China, from the Kizil Caves of Xinjiang to the Longmen Grottoes of Henan, but the most famous are the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang in Gansu Province.

The Mogao Caves were begun in the 4th century AD, well after Ajanta. While as rock-cut structures they are not comparable to the caves of Ajanta or Ellora, Mogao surpasses the Indian caves in scale, with over 400 caves (compared to around 30 at each of Ajanta and Ellora).

Paintings at Mogao. The Mogao Caves were developed into the 14th century, and so represent a wide range of styles, showing the development of Buddhism and Buddhist art in China. The styles of some of the paintings are similar to those found in India, perhaps in part because Indian artists themselves may have been imported to do some of the work.


Buddhism is no longer a significant presence in mainland South Asia, but Sri Lanka remains a majority Buddhist country. The 5th century AD ruins of Sigiriya in central Sri Lanka, which we visited in 2005, preserve a style of painting that is remarkably similar to that at both Ajanta and Mogao.