Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, will celebrate his 50th birthday on May 23, according to the English date. He will have spent almost half his life in prison and has not shown a scintilla of remorse for his act.
Coming from a devout Yemenite family, his primary and secondary schools were charedi but he unusually wished to serve in the army. He switched to a national religious yeshiva where he could combine army service with religious study. He was noted for his aggressive behaviour towards Arabs during the first Intifada and subsequently identified with nationalist groups such as Zo Artzeinu, led by Moshe Feiglin, a future Likud Knesset member.
Yitzhak Rabin’s election in 1992 and the Oslo Accords redrew the lines of what was permissible in political debate. The rapprochement with the PLO and the return of territory to the Palestinians created the mantra of ‘Israel is in danger’ on the right. In this country, Jews who had criticised Likud government policy were periodically labelled as ‘self-hating Jews’. Now the right to a different opinion was suddenly permitted — the new leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, even sent several aides to Capitol Hill to permanently lobby against the Rabin government.
The notion of ‘Israel is in danger’ feverishly permeated the nationalist right in Israel and its enthusiasm was seen as an important tool in Netanyahu’s arsenal to oppose Oslo, but also to secure his shaky position as the leader of the Likud. Netanyahu turned a blind eye to its incitement — at one protest in October 1995, Likud luminaries, David Levy and Dan Meridor left the rally early, shocked at the behaviour of the demonstrators. The gruff Rabin did not mince his words about the nationalist right and the West Bank settlers — and stated that his responsibility was to ‘the 98% of Israelis who lived within the Green Line’.
For Yigal Amir, his brother Hagai and a few friends, Rabin morphed into the personification of absolute evil — not because the Amir brothers were anti-Arab but because they feared that the return of territory would lead to the loss of Jewish lives. They began to talk openly about killing Rabin, which most took as breast-beating bravado. Amir’s close friend was the explosive Avishai Raviv who doubled as an informant for the Shin Bet. Its head, Carmi Gillon, regarded the employment of Raviv as the equivalent of using a drug addict to entrap dealers. In his investigation into Rabin’s assassination, Judge Meir Shamgar noted that it was strange that Raviv did not mention Amir in his reports to the Shin Bet.
Amir attended the funeral of Baruch Goldstein, who killed Muslim worshippers at the al Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron during Purim 1994. The laudatory book Baruch Ha’Gever, attributed to the teachings of the Lubavitch rabbi, Yitzhak Ginsburgh, was later found on Amir’s bookshelf.
The storming of the militant Rabbi Uzi Meshulam’s home in 1994 also affected him. Meshulam had campaigned on the issue of disappeared Yemenite children and instructed his followers to prepare Molotov cocktails to throw at the police. Finally a rejection by a girlfriend brought the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi issue to the fore.
Amir wanted rabbinical approval that Rabin qualified as a ‘rodef’ (an assailant) who should be killed before he caused the deaths of countless others. It seems that there was no clear and direct instruction from a rabbi on the matter — the meaning of any utterance was left to the interpretation of the hearer.
The Amir brothers felt that they were acting according to halachic principles. The late Rabbi Louis Jacobs pointed out that traditional thinkers such as Avraham Yitzhak Kook and the Hazon Ish believed “rabbinic statements that an epikoros has to be lowered into a pit to die have no application, since present day unbelievers are not really rebels against God but simply misguided.” Rabbi Jacobs argued that the only rodef in this situation was Amir himself.
In prison Hagai Amir entered into dialogue with Islamist militants such as Ibrahim Hamed who similarly felt driven to act through adherence to faith. Hamed is serving 45 life sentences for the killing of Israelis by suicide bombers. Hagai was released after spending almost 17 years in prison in 2012 and began to associate with Kahanists such as Bentzi Gopstein.
In the recent election, the Mishpat Tzedek party ran on a platform of release and retrial for Yigal Amir — it received a paltry 1,375 votes.
Yaron Zilberman’s current film, Incitement, about the killing is pointedly called Yomim Noraim in Hebrew — the days of reflection before the atonement of Yom Kippur. Like the ripples when a stone is thrown into a pond, the tragedy of Rabin’s murder is unending and continues to reach down to us across the years.