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December 1998 - Volume 30 Issue 12

Death of a PeaceMaker
Yitzhak Rabin's murder revealed a lethal rift
in Israeli society

by Joshua A. Brook

The Plot to Kill Yitzhak Rabin

By Michael Karpin and Ina Friedman

Metropolitan Books, $24.95
In October 1995, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, a group of Israelis led by Avigdor Eskin gathered outside the home of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Wrapped in prayer shawls, they intoned the ancient Aramaic chant Pulsa da-Nura ("Lashes of Fire"), a Kabbalistic curse: "I deliver to you, the angels of wrath and ire, Yitzhak, the son of Rosa Rabin, that you may smother him and the specter of him, and cast him into bed, and dry up his wealth, and plague his thoughts, and scatter his mind that he may be steadily diminished until he reaches his death. Put to death the cursed Yitzhak. May [he] be damned, damned, damned!" After Rabin's assassination one month later - as Israel and the world mourned a great statesman - Eskin boasted of his prowess on Israeli television. The curse worked.

The "lethal potential of words" is the foremost theme of Murder in the Name of God, an account of the Rabin assassination, its aftermath, and the campaign of incitement that precipitated it. Israeli journalists Michael Karpin and Ina Friedman paint a chilling portrait of the killer, Yigal Amir, and the ideology of radical religious nationalism that motivated him. They elucidate the twisted logic of rabbis in Israel and the United States who distorted ancient Jewish legal concepts to give religious sanction to political murder; and they recount how the mainstream opponents of the Oslo accords collaborated with violent extremists in a campaign to wreck the peace process by vilifying Rabin.

While the signing of the Wye Memorandum by Rabin's nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu, on the third anniversary of the assassination, is an ironic vindication of Rabin's policy of territorial compromise, the bitter right-wing protests that greeted the agreement were sad reminders that violent rhetoric still poisons Israeli political debate. (One public opinion poll indicated that 60 percent of Israelis consider another assassination to be a distinct possibility.) And the divisions seen at the memorial ceremonies for Rabin reveal Israelis' inability to establish a shared collective memory. Some commentators noted the paucity of Orthodox Israelis at memorial events; while another right-wing commentator deplored the left for expropriating Rabin's memory, "as if only they were capable of mourning his tragic death." Karpin and Friedman are unabashed partisans in Israel's ongoing Kulturkampf and sometimes indulge in the irresponsible rhetoric of the far left - referring, for instance, to the Six-Day War as a "blitzkrieg" (technically correct in the sense of "lightning war" but evoking a morally odious parallel). Also problematic is the authors' technique of reconstructing conversations to which they could not possibly have been privy, without adequate footnotes or other documentation. While faithful to the facts, Karpin and Friedman sometimes omit information unhelpful to their case. For example, their portrayal of Orthodoxy as almost monolithically opposed to the peace process belies a more complicated reality. Despite these flaws, Murder in the Name of God will ensure that the history of one of Israel's greatest tragedies will not fall victim to willful nationalist revisionism.

While the authors debunk the many conspiracy theories surrounding the Rabin assassination, they conclude that Yigal Amir did not act alone. Rabin's murder by a religious nationalist extremist was the natural result of a long-standing sickness in the Israeli body politic. The penultimate chapter, titled simply, "Failure," decries the decision by the Shamgar Commission, which conducted Israel's official inquiry into the assassination, not to examine the campaign of anti-Rabin incitement. "Failure" could just as easily be the title of the entire book: a catalogue of failure on the part of virtually every segment of Israeli society to check the rising legitimacy and violent tendencies of religio-nationalist extremism.

With their party demoralized and indebted after losing the 1992 election, Likud leaders were incapable of mobilizing opposition to Oslo. To mount an effective campaign, the Likud affiliated itself with an ad-hoc umbrella group coordinating the activities of right-wing politicians, radical activists, and settler leaders. The coalition linked establishment figures such as Knesset members and prominent settlers with a motley crew of cranks and racists. Israel's political leaders - never known for their reasoned tones - failed to halt the escalation of vitriolic rhetoric and physical violence by the most radical foes of Rabin's Oslo policy.

Early in the anti-Oslo campaign, organizers abandoned the strategy of exposing the perceived flaws of the agreement itself, in favor of a personal attack on the Prime Minister. They sought to break him psychologically and drive him from office, just as, in their view, the left had done to Menachem Begin during the Lebanon war. One participant recalls a planning session at which a "select group of psychologists, public opinion analysts, an advertising executive, and a public relations expert [participated] in a closed, professional, detailed discussion [entitled] 'How to Break Yitzhak Rabin.' " Anti-Oslo rallies soon featured large photomontages of Rabin wearing Yasser Arafat's headdress or Adolf Eichmann's Gestapo uniform.

These incendiary tactics were not confined to Israel. Opponents of the peace process in the United States participated in rallies at which shouts of "Rabin should be killed" were heard and reported on in the press. Israeli Consul General Colette Avital received death threats and was warned not to visit ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in New York City lest her safety be imperiled. Brooklyn Rabbi Abraham Hecht pronounced of Rabin that "one who intentionally hands over [the] bodies [or] property ... of the Jewish people to an alien people is guilty of the sin for which the penalty is death ... If a man kills him, he has done a good deed."

To be sure, not all on the right endorsed such tactics. In Israel, Likud stalwarts such as Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and David Levy deplored them. Begin and Meridor walked out of demonstrations when they spotted signs reading "Rabin is a traitor" and "Rabin is a murderer." Levy placed the blame for such excesses squarely on the Likud chairman. In 1994, he told a journalist that "Netanyahu feels comfortable with extremists. He whips them up and incites them. Netanyahu and his people are the ones who turned [a protest rally] into a dangerous fascist extravaganza." Nevertheless, all three men subsumed outrage to ambition and joined Netanyahu's government after the 1996 election.

For its part, the left failed to respond adequately to what Karpin and Friedman call "the largest and most effective popular coalition ever to operate in the Jewish state." Labor's leaders failed to mobilize their cadres to counter the opposition until late in 1995. By then it was too late. At the left's first pro-peace rally, Rabin was assassinated by a young law student who believed his act was justified by halacha, Jewish religious law.

Many (though by no means all) Orthodox Israelis believed that the Oslo policy of territorial compromise contradicted the religious imperative to maintain Jewish control over the land that God promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Some reasoned that government policy should be resisted through civil disobedience. A more sinister interpretation held that Jewish law (the Sixth Commandment notwithstanding) permitted the assassination of leaders who relinquished territory. According to another view, Rabin was a rodef (pursuer), one who should be killed to prevent him from murdering others.

By 1995, the question of whether Rabin and Peres merited death had acquired widespread currency. One ultra-Orthodox newspaper published a symposium on whether Rabin deserved to die and the appropriate means of executing him. Later, the newspaper answered its own question with an editorial stating that Rabin and Peres "must be placed before a firing squad." As one moderate settler leader later lamented, "Hundreds of people heard the word rodef used in connection with the late prime minister months before the murder."

The lethal wedding of religion with illiberal nationalism might have astounded Israel's founders, for whom Zionism promised not only the physical liberation of Jews from oppressive surroundings but also the psychological emancipation of the Jew from the "mentality of the ghetto." The secular socialists and nationalists who founded Israel were confident that Orthodox Judaism - a vestige of a vanished world - would whither in the rugged soil of the new pioneer state. The religious community of Israel was divided over theological implications of the modern state: the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) viewed as heretical the establishment of a Jewish state before the coming of the Messiah (although this did not preclude their acceptance of state funds for their institutions); the modern Orthodox interpreted the founding of the state of Israel as a stage in God's promised redemption of the Jews from exile.

The conquest of the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank ("Judea and Samaria") in 1967 electrified many modern Orthodox Zionists who saw the hand of God in Israel's lightning six-day (evocative of the creation story in Genesis) victory. Following the election of Menachem Begin's Likud government in 1977, many settled in the West Bank to permanently weld the Israeli state to the territory of its Biblical antecedent. Settler ideology came to regard maintaining Jewish control over the Biblical "Land of Israel" as the supreme religious value - one that brooked no compromise.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the 1990s precipitated a collision between classical Zionism and religious Zionism: "Most of secular Israel regarded the peace process as the crowning stage of the Zionist quest to accord the Jews physical security, as prerequisite to developing a new national and cultural life; most of the religious community perceived it as a plot to destroy Israel's essential Jewishness ... [But the secular community] sees the rejection of modernism, pluralism, and pragmatism as a throwback to the ills that Zionism emerged to cure."

The use of religion as a cover for political violence increased throughout the 1980s as religious Zionism (whose original motto had been "Torah and respect") assumed a more messianic, illiberal character. Influenced by the ideology of the American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated theocratic rule and ethnic cleansing of Israel's non-Jewish population, terrorists planned and carried out attacks against Palestinians - including the car-bombing of three Arab mayors. Mainstream political leaders urged leniency for the perpetrators, while the religious establishment failed to unambiguously condemn the ideology that justified such actions. At Kahane's funeral in 1990, no less a figure than then-Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel Mordechai Eliyahu delivered the eulogy.

One student at Bar-Ilan University, the leading Orthodox university, recalled that after the 1994 massacre of Muslim worshippers by settler Baruch Goldstein in Hebron, "cries of joy were heard on the campus ... The majority [of students and faculty] said they were against the murder but that they understood Goldstein." (For Yigal Amir, the Hebron massacre became a litmus test: "To get to know a girl I ask her one question: 'What do you think of Goldstein?'") With the signing of the Oslo accords, extremist religious authorities extended the theological justification for violence against the Arab foe to the leaders of the Israeli government.

After Rabin's assasination, Shimon Peres and the Labor establishment failed to expose the extent to which mainstream leaders and institutions lent tacit or overt support to violent zealots. Obviously, the government that came to power in 1996 has had no incentive to do so - although Benjamin Netanyahu has discovered that the extremism he once stoked for partisan advantage is not so easily contained. He now wears a bullet-proof vest when visiting Jewish settlements in Hebron.

Murder in the Name of God tries to set the record straight. But one wonders whether such an exposé can help build a national community in a society divided into hostile blocs committed to mutually exclusive visions of what that society should be. Lacking such consensus, Israel may receive a critical examination of recent history as merely another installment in the Kulturkampf, rather than an opportunity to transcend it. Polls conducted after the assassination showed approximately one out of six Jewish Israelis either condoned or would not condemn the murder. For Orthodox youth, the figure was one in four.

There is a Yiddish proverb: "Truth never dies.... But it leads a wretched life." Murder in the Name of God will ensure that the events surrounding the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin are sealed in the historical record. But it may be a long time before all Israel can remember and mourn together.

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