People like [Yigal Amir] emerge in many social movements, people who regard protest within the bounds of democratic process as insufficient, people who want to take it to the next level, people who want to do the deed.
Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel by Daniel Ephron. Illustrated. W.W. Norton & Company, 290 pages,$27.95.
By Harvey Blume
On November 4 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appeared at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, which, given his initial anxiety that it would be embarrassingly small, surprised him with its size—some 100,000 people—and energy. Rabin’s address was memorable. “Violence is undermining the foundation of Israeli democracy,” he said. “I was a military man for twenty-seven years. I fought as long as there was no chance for peace. I believe there is a chance now, a great chance, and we must take advantage of it.”
Minutes later, as he was entering a recently acquired armored Cadillac to be driven home—he despised this ostentatious vehicle, usually opting for a Chevrolet—Rabin was gunned down by Yigal Amir, a 25 year-old religious nationalist who had been stalking him for months. Amir, armed, as always, with a Beretta, loaded with both hollow point and regular bullets, had come within striking distance of Rabin before, but felt, according to Daniel Ephron’s timely and compelling account, that he needed to “build his inner readiness.”
He was ready now, having quietly recited the vidui, a Hebrew prayer said by those about to die. He made an effort to blend into the throng, pocketing the woolen skullcap that might have drawn attention in this largely secular crowd. Amir’s refrain had long been: “If God wants a person to commit an act, He lets him commit the act.” God did not get in his way, and neither did the security detail assigned to shepherd Rabin safely to his car. Amir fired three shots at point blank range, killing Rabin and injuring a bodyguard.
Rabin, for his part, had refused to wear a bulletproof vest to the rally, declaring of the new, lightweight variety urged on him by Shabak, the Israeli security service, that: “I’ll never wear a bullet proof vest in my own country, no matter what it’s made of.” This was oddly, even inexcusably naive, and at variance with Rabin’s own assessment of the violence threatening to tear Israel apart.
The violence, from both Arabs and Jews, was aimed at derailing the Oslo process that seemed so full of promise when, with President Clinton joining them, Rabin shook hands with Arafat on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.
For Hamas that handshake signaled surrender, since it came with Arafat’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist securely as a Jewish state and his renunciation of terrorism. To religious nationalists like Amir, it was no less an act of capitulation, proclaiming that the Rabin government was willing to restrain and ultimately roll back the settler movement, with the goal, possibly, of authorizing a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza.
For the likes of Amir this was less a geopolitical miscalculation on Rabin’s part, less a question pertaining to fraught issues of Israeli security, than it was purely and simply blasphemy. God, as he and many like him felt, had clearly promised all of the West Bank—in religious parlance, Judea and Samaria—to the children of Abraham; so it said and said again in the Torah, the holy document containing God’s word that had been completed and sealed some 2,500 years before. Nothing had changed since God signed off on Torah, except that over time there were more Jews—”Hellenizers” in the parlance of the Orthodox—who chose to depart from its essential, stringent commandments, high among them being the ban on giving up divinely promised land.
Amir was an agitator and an organizer, a regular at rallies denouncing Oslo. To get an idea of the ferocity of these protests, see The Gatekeepers (2012), a documentary in which the wizened veterans of Israel’s security divisions—all skilled, bloodied, and unapologetic about their role in countering terrorism—confer about the need for a political solution, an Oslo-like approach, without which, in their view, no security could ever be enough security. The most frightening aspect of the film, to my mind, shows the demonstrations in which thousand of religious Jews denounce Rabin as the second coming of Hitler.
Rabin, who fought in the war for Israel’s Independence in 1948, Rabin who led Israel in defeating the Arab nations who attacked it in 1967—Rabin, as Hitler.
Still, rallies and protests are one thing, no matter how misconceived or incendiary. Yigal Amir was something else. People like him emerge in many social movements, people who regard protest within the bounds of democratic process as insufficient, people who want to take it to the next level, people who want to do the deed.
Amir’s precursor in doing the deed was Baruch Goldstein, who stepped into a mosque in Hebron in 1994 and murdered 29 Muslim worshippers, before being killed by survivors of the massacre. Amir admired Goldstein, though, as per Ephron, thought this martyr might have chosen a better target, “one with lasting impact.” Like Rabin.
Amir was not a lone gunman in the sense that we, in the United States, apply that term to Lee Harvey Oswald. True, it was Amir, and only Amir, who fired the gun, though conspiracy theories claiming otherwise, of necessity, arose. But Amir had a sizable, coherent, and enduring, even swelling, portion of Israeli public and clerical opinion behind him when he struck, as Oswald did not. Oswald was a lonelier lone gunman, by far. Well-known rabbis furnished Amir with esoteric, and finally, nonsensical Talmudic rationales for killing Israel’s duly elected leader. Today, 25 to 30 percent of Israelis think Amir’s sentence of life imprisonment should be commuted. It is doubtful that much of the American public would have welcomed Oswald back into the fold.
As for Amir, in letters from prison to friends and family he’s written that it’s tough to oppose the peace process (assuming any still survives) in Israel these days, since the Jewish state is “not a democracy any more.” There’s humor to this, if you care to find it, given that Amir thought democracy itself an alien thing, a function of the Hellenizers, with no importance as compared to life governed by his interpretation of Jewish law.
I want to end this review of Killing a King with a reference to a non-Jewish source. I refer here to the Iliad, in its portrayal of Achilles, at the moment when, out of all the warriors in the epic, he turns and becomes sickened by the art of war in which he excelled:
I wish that strife would perish from among gods and humans,
and anger that drives a man mad, though he is wise.
Much sweeter is anger than honey. It drips down into the hearts
of men and it swells there like smoke.
(Achilles, The Iliad, Barry S. Powell translation)
Rabin seems to me, more than anything, a Hebrew Achilles. I hope it’s not tedious to note that Achilles was slain by an enemy, Rabin by an enemy within.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.