Vengeance is Mined

Blumenfeld’s search for the assailant is the core narrative behind Revenge: A Story of Hope, but the detective story is only one part of this meandering, intermittently fascinating book. For Blumenfeld isn’t interested merely in finding the terrorist who fired the bullet; she has an equally obsessive need to understand her own motivations, and to confront the universal human impulse for revenge. This quest leads her through the blood-soaked Middle East, where she interviews Mossad agents, Holocaust survivors, and the then Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu about collective and personal vengeance. She also tracks down family members of victims of the 1986 terrorist shooting spree to find out how they coped with the loss or injury of their loved ones. And she takes the reader on a Cook’s Tour of vengeance “experts” around the world, from black-veiled widows in Mafia country in Sicily to imams in the Iranian spiritual center of Qom to peasants in the dusty mountain hamlets of northern Albania. “I was looking for the shooter, but I also was looking for some kind of wisdom,” she writes. “So much of life’s turmoil comes from individuals or groups trying to settle a score. For years, from my perch at the Post, I had written about some dramatic examples . . . Now I wanted to break it down and study it. I wanted to master revenge.”

Her excursions far afield yield some gut-wrenching stories and some interesting anthropological detail: In Albanian villages ruled by a medieval set of laws known as the canon, for example, she meets families who for decades have never ventured beyond their doorstep to avoid being killed by descendants of murder victims. And there’s an emotional conversation with a Mossad agent named Rafi Eitain who helped kidnap Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 and describes the great satisfaction of carrying the captured Nazi by the head as he’s hauled off to a waiting car. “I felt I should touch his head, to show him, You tried to destroy us—we’re still alive. And your head is in my hands’,” he tells her. But mostly her adventures result in a series of all too familiar epiphanies. “In all the simple justice stories I had heard . . . the weak become strong, the strong became weak,” she writes. “That was what made their revenge a success.”

Much of this chronicle feels bloated and adrift, as if the author were straining mightily to flesh out to book length what should have made, at best, a long magazine article. We are treated to endless ruminations between her and her husband Baruch, a New York assistant district attorney who, during Blumenfeld’s sojourn in Israel, is called away to prosecute boxing promoter Don King for fraud (thus providing Blumenfeld with an opportunity to pad her narrative with some irrelevant trial detail.) There are lengthy and self-indulgent excursions into Blumenfeld family dynamics, as well as trivial events that Blumenfeld strains to elevate to moments of grand significance, such as a half-dozen pages in which the author tries to trick her father into eating a plate of sugar wafers prepared by the family of the “mastermind” of the terrorist attacks.

Revenge works best when it sticks to its core narrative, the pursuer drawing ever closer to her prey. Blumenfeld’s search to discover the identity of the assailant leads her to the West Bank city of Ramallah, where she insinuates herself into the lives of the terrorist’s unsuspecting family. (One feels a frisson of discomfort at Blumenfeld’s decision not to reveal her true identity.) After an unsuccessful attempt to sneak into a prison in Ashkelon, Blumenfeld embarks upon an intriguing correspondence with the man that leads to a face-to-face encounter in court—the climactic moment that offers the paradoxical “hope” in the book’s title. (I won’t give away the ending.)

Still, undermining Blumenfeld’s tale throughout is the nature of her father’s injury: One is thankful that David Blumenfeld incurred no greater harm than a grazed scalp, but the minor wound drains the book of much of its potential potency. We never really grasp why Blumenfeld’s need for vengeance is so consuming, and why she feels so driven to confront her father’s assailant, who has been locked in an Israeli jail cell for a decade. Blumenfeld explains that the very insignificance of her father’s wound accounts for her obsession: “If my father had been murdered, I would have been too broken to do anything except, perhaps, believe that God would take care of his killer,” she writes. That sounds a little disingenuous. Lurking behind Blumenfeld’s protestations, one suspects, is the yearning of an ambitious journalist searching for a book subject. Blumenfeld labors hard to dispel that impression, but it lingers.

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Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign corespondent based in Berlin, now working on a book about German colonialism in Africa.