An American Jew Goes Postal in Eilat: Who’s to Blame for William Hershkowitz?

So how do you tell the difference between a guy like the one on my program who is merely troubled or odd, maybe even has a touch of racism running through his Zionism - from a potential killer?

Many of us who first came to Israel on an educational program when we were in high school, college, or as a 20-something - can remember a fellow participant who seemed a little off-kilter.

There was one such young man in my group when I came to Israel in my junior year of college in the U.S. to study for a year. He was passionately right-wing in his political orientation, openly anti-Arab and - this was the disturbing part - rather unhealthily over-interested in anything having to do with weapons or warfare. When we students were on buses for our ‘getting to know Israel’ trips, instead of complaining about classes or trying to hook up with girls like everyone else, he would pepper our guides with questions about Israel’s wars, with lots of interest in detail. The highlight of his time in Israel was getting the opportunity to participate in Gadna, the IDF pre-military program, during the university breaks, when he got the chance to handle actual guns. Decades later, I don’t remember his name, but I clearly remember his face, and the glassy gleam in his eye whenever he got excited talking guns or politics. I remember feeling a little worried around him, and after a few initial conversations, found myself avoiding him when possible.

My concern, it seems, was unnecessary. Like 99.9 percent of college students and 20-somethings who come to Israel on the long list of programs, this kid turned out to be perfectly harmless and his stay was without incident.

I couldn’t help thinking about my former classmate when I heard the news of last week's shooting in the south on Twitter. In typically brief social media-ese, I was told that:  “An American Jew has gone postal in Eilat.”  

By now, we all know the story of William Hershkowitz, a 23-year-old from Poughkeepsie, New York, was enrolled in a Jewish Agency-supported Masa program combining Hebrew study, travel and a job in an Eilat hotel, when he wrestled a gun away from the hotel security guard and murdered Abed Armando Shukhallah a Christian Arab chef with whom he had worked in the Leonardo Club hotel. After killing Shukhallah, Hershkowitz barricaded himself at the hotel, and after shooting at IDF commandos attempting to apprehend him, he was killed at the scene. It was widely reported in Israel that this was a workplace dispute - that Hershkowitz blamed Shukhallah for having gotten him fired from his job. But Shukhallah’s grieving family  told reporters that they believed it was a terrorist attack, and certainly a hate crime, after other program participants said that Hershkowitz had said that he hated Arabs.

Immediately, the Jewish Agency announced it would look into the process that Hershkowitz was accepted into the program.

So far, Hershkowitz’s criminal record and medical record has come up clean - nothing, it appears, was staring them in the face. The coverage from his hometown newspaper in Poughkeepsie also turned up nothing pointing to potential tragedy. It appears he fit the perfect profile for the kind of programs like Birthright and Masa: the young disenfranchised Jew trying to find himself:

“Hershkowitz was a young man searching for answers and looking to reconnect with the Jewish faith, said Rabbi Yacov Borenstein, co-chair of Chabad of the Mid-Hudson Valley “At the time we met him, he was looking for something more,” Borenstein said. “The feeling I had was he was searching and trying to rekindle the faith.”

….Borenstein met Hershkowitz last summer at the Shalom! on Grand festival hosted by the Dutchess County Jewish Community Center. Feeling connected to the faith, Hershkowitz wanted to experience his overdue bar mitzvah and don the religious tefillin.

The rabbi performed the ceremony and Hershkowitz welcomed his new community.
Borenstein said the Hyde Park man was eager to learn about Judaism.”
Hershkowitz traveled to Israel to continue his spiritual experience and connect with people his age, Borenstein said. The rabbi’s wife, Hindy Borenstein, said Hershkowitz’s mother was hopeful the trip would be a good experience for her son.”

The story, however hardly gels with the description of Hershkowitz the Poughkeepsie newspaper heard from his fellow participants, once he was in Israel. One said there “was something strange in his smile.” Others had worse things to say:

“A participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was afraid of repercussions from the program, said Hershkowitz had issued death threats to other members, but program coordinators ignored repeated complaints.

"He would talk to himself, share dreams that he'd had about random killings and mutilations that he did, he would have statements against Arabs or Nazis or terrorist type movements," the participant added.

So how do you tell the difference between a guy like the one on my program who is merely troubled or odd, maybe even has a touch of racism running through his Zionism - from a potential killer?

It’s the same "why" question that America asks itself when there is a senseless shooting by a murderously disturbed young man. Such shootings have been sadly, too familiar in recent years.

Why should American Jewish youth be immune from the ills of the rest of their society? Frankly, with the huge numbers of young people that Israel programs have brought in, the number of violent incidents has been blessedly low.  Last year, a Birthright Israel participant was sentenced  for viciously assaulting a fellow participant when she rebuffed his advances, but for nearly all of its history, Birthright has been relatively free of serious criminal incidents.

The inherent dilemma in tightening up the screening process is this: Birthright and Masa are all about giving as many American Jewish youth as possible, the opportunity to experience Israel on a short or long-term basis. Hundreds of thousands have experience Birthright, tens of thousands have participated in Masa programs. When you are casting such a wide net, aiming for such high numbers, how stringent can the screening process be?

The investigation of the Hershkowitz case is complicated by the fact that Oranim is one of a number of for-profit companies subcontracted to the Jewish Agency’s Masa program for Israel programming. Masa is funded both by the Agency and the Israeli government.

Oranim has a colorful history. The company was founded by a charismatic and legendary owner Shlomo ‘Momo’ Lifshitz, who helped launch the Birthright Israel trips, but whose ties with the program ended in 2009. Whether he quit or was fired from running Birthright trips, after a decade of close association, Oranim and Birthright parted ways. At the time, Lifshitz said he was quitting after having had been instructed by the funders of the program to curb his blunt talk – encouraging program participants to ‘find Jewish love’ and ‘make Jewish babies.’ He also said he was told he was no longer permitted to offer a gift of a free honeymoon for Birthright participants who wed after meeting on his program. The conflict took place after Birthright reportedly received complaints about Lifshitz from program participants with intermarried  parents or who were dating non-Jews and didn’t appreciate the message.

Two years after the split with Birthright, Lifshitz sold Oranim to Egged Tours, an arm of the national bus company, which merged it into Israel Way, a new division of the company it created in 2010. Egged has long dominated the local Israeli market when it comes to ‘educational tourism’ taking advantage of its fleet of buses to take schoolkids and scouts on trips around the country. Its acquisition of Oranim was a major step for the company into the market for ‘educational tourism’ abroad.

What the Jewish Agency will have to examine in the wake of the Hershkowitz incident is whether the bus company’s inexperience in the field of long-term Israel education programming played a role in what may – or may not - have been a failure to properly screen and supervise the American youth in Hershkowitz’s program, and whether the funders - the Israeli government and JAFI were keeping a close enough eye on the for-profit companies they were subsidizing. It could be - or the Hershkowitz case could be simply a case of bad luck.

Hopefully, the probe’s report will also clarify some inconsistencies in the organization’s report of what happened to Hershkowitz in his final days of the program. Initially, the head of the program, Ofer Gutman, the director of Long Term Israel Programs for the Israel Way/Oranim Project told the media the shooting happened after Hershkowitz was being transferred to another workplace within the framework of the program. But Yuval Arad, a program spokesman, told reporters a different story - he said that Hershkowitz was being expelled from the program and had been informed that he would be sent home to the US the following week.

It appears that at least one head has rolled in the aftermath of the shooting - Gutman’s. Four day after the shooting, the official announced he was stepping down after three years on the job. Though he said he had been planning to leave for a month, it’s difficult to believe that the timing of the announcement - if not the departure itself - is purely coincidental.

Could further investigation of what happened in Eilat really help prevent such an incident in the future? My gut instinct is to say no, but I really hope it might.

If the thousands of participants in Israel programs are more closely scrutinized during their stay for signs that they are struggling, suffering, or dangerous to themselves or others, then at least some good will have come out of an incident that otherwise seems so utterly tragic and senseless.