A few weeks after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, the country is still swept by shame, shock, pain, guilt, remorse, and mutual accusation. Large crowds, mostly of young people, continue to gather at Rabin’s graveside in the National Cemetery on Mount Herzl outside Jerusalem. Day in day out, thousands of memorial candles spell out their sentiments at the tomb or near the municipal building where Rabin was slain or outside his house in north Tel Aviv.

The main question asked, and only partially answered, is “Why?” It dominates the Op-Ed pages. Talk shows on television and radio continue the debate from early in the morning until late into each night. The left, the supporters of the Labor coalition, accuse Likud and its allies of causing the catastrophe by their verbal violence against the government during the past two years—“Rabin Murderer,” “Rabin Traitor.” Likud leaders complain that the left originated this violent style during the Lebanon war. After the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, Begin and Sharon, too, were called murderers. The answer from the left has been, in effect, “Yes, but whom did we kill? The bullets in Israel are always shot from right to left.”

West Bank settlers—more isolated and anxious than ever before—claimed that the killer’s act was born of the despair among patriotic Jews caused by the government’s betrayal of Eretz Israel—“the Land of Israel.” The continuing debate must be understood as another episode in the long struggle over whether Israel is a civil-democratic or a tribal-messianic society.

The political leaders, sanctimonious as well as cynical, have their eye on the upcoming elections. The country remains deeply divided between supporters and opponents of peace with both Syria and the Palestinians in return for withdrawal from land occupied in 1967. Laborites are concerned that Peres may not be able to muster the same public support for peace that Rabin, the war hero, could have counted on had he lived. Likud leaders are on the defensive, but they are not likely to remain so for long. In other circumstances, the insistent appeals they have been making since the assassination for “unity” and “reconciliation” might have been widely welcomed; but at a time when so many Israelis—74 percent in the latest polls—feel they must stand up in favor of the peace settlement Rabin advocated, such rhetoric appears merely defensive. The police investigation of the self-confessed murderer and his alleged accomplices brought into the open the seedy underworld of ruthless terrorists informally allied with fairly prominent religious leaders, rabbis, mystagogues, kabbalists, and other salvation-mongers.

Everybody who follows public events knew of, or suspected, the existence of this underworld. For years its exponents had been talking their heads off to the local and foreign press. Yet in the past hardly anybody in power had been willing to deal with them seriously—perhaps because they had mostly threatened only Arabs in the Occupied Territories. To the extent that a few right-wing Jewish terrorists had been prosecuted in the past, they had, as a rule, been treated leniently by the courts and with something like “understanding” for their motives. When they were condemned to longer prison terms, their sentences were commuted by the president and they were set free. This happened to the different groups of terrorists who, in 1983, murdered three students at Hebron’s Islamic College, crippled two Arab mayors, and conspired to blow up the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount of Jerusalem. According to a report submitted to the Attorney General in the late 1980s, hundreds of suspected acts of aggression by settlers against Palestinians remained unresolved, including several killings and numerous instances in which Palestinians have been wounded or beaten. Since then, there have been many more.

The assassination also called attention to another smoldering issue in Israel—the theologically based fanaticism that increasingly has characterized the Orthodox synagogues since the Six Day War. Professor David Hartmann, himself an Orthodox rabbi and founding director of an institute in Jerusalem concerned with reinterpreting the authoritarian tradition of halacha, or religious law, in a way that is compatible with democratic morality, told me that in his view Rabin’s killer was “an innocent, straight kid who took his tradition seriously or too literally. Not only did he hear what secular politicians had to say about the peace process,” Hartmann said, “he heard from his Orthodox rabbis the powerful language of religious dogmatism. And it was often couched in the absolute formulas articulated in the halacha by rabbis under the radically different conditions prevailing during the third century AD.” (As Hartmann made clear, it is easy to pervert these dogmatic texts.)

“These texts the killer absorbed became his identity. They encouraged hate and destruction. Amir was no aberration. He was wholly within the normative tradition that has survived frozen through the ages to our own times. I am shocked at the irresponsibility of halacha teachers who afterward said: We use this language but we never thought people are going to act on it. They should have known better.”


Amir, Hartmann told me, “could think he was called upon by God to prevent another Holocaust. This thought would not have come as a revelation in the middle of the night. It was rather the culmination of a long process of indoctrination and so-called learning. The halacha is, of course, not as simple-minded as the killer thought. There are sufficient other resources in the tradition—humane and pacifist ones—to counterbalance the dogmatism. The tragedy is that a group of fanatical and politicized rabbis has in recent years become dominant over all other voices in Israel. They continue to block out opposing views. In America, too, most of the Orthodox community seems to have adopted the idea that returning the Land was endangering the Jewish future.”

I asked Hartmann whether, from our knowledge of them, he thought that these American rabbis would justify the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.

“In some way,” he said, “I am afraid, they would not only justify it. Some would even celebrate it. There is a deep disease in Orthodoxy that wasn’t there in the past.”

Like other national movements that arose during the second half of the last century, Zionism was originally a secular, even anti-clerical movement. Its aims were to establish a safe haven for Jews in their ancient homeland, to change the social and occupational patterns of ghetto Jews, and to resurrect the Hebrew language. The early Zionists bluntly dismissed the possibility of a theocracy. Steeped in the liberalism of nineteenth-century nationalism, Herzl wrote, “If faith keeps us united, science makes us free.” He promised to “keep the theocrats in their temples, just as we shall confine our professional soldiers to their barracks.” Herzl would be proven right about the soldiers, and tragically wrong about the theocrats. He underestimated not only the nationalism of the Arabs but also the latent forces of ethnocentricity released by the Zionist revival; he also overestimated the liberalism of Jews in an age of universal selfishness.

The rise of “religious Zionism,” especially after the Six Day War put the West Bank under Israeli control in 1967, complicated matters considerably. Almost immediately, many of the Orthodox rabbis and teachers started to sanctify the conquered land so as to make it the principal object of religious passion in Israel. Once this sanctification became the central tenet of religious Zionism, it followed that anyone who threatened the religious commitment to the Land, anyone who was ready to give parts of it away, as Rabin and Peres were, was seen as an enemy.

In this sense Rabin’s murder was a “religious murder.” Abraham Burg, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency and himself an Orthodox Jew (and one of the victims of a hand grenade thrown in 1983 by a Jewish terrorist at a Peace Now parade), insisted on saying this soon after it became known that Yigal Amir was a student at Bar-Ilan, the Orthodox religious university outside Tel Aviv, which was founded in 1955 and has long been a citadel of right-wing sentiment. (Burg calls the institution “Bar-Ilan-Teheran.”) Amir confessed that he murdered Rabin in order to derail the peace process because the agreement with the Palestinians contradicted sacred religious principles. He said in court that according to halacha, a Jew who, like Rabin, “gives over his people and his land to the enemy, he must be killed. My whole life has been studying the halacha and I have all the data.” He held Rabin personally responsible for the killing of Jews by Palestinian terrorists. Their blood was on Rabin’s hands, he claimed. Rabin was the terrorists’ ally.

To say, as is often said in such cases, that the killer was a lunatic implies that he was incoherent. But Amir was not. The graduate of a yeshiva which included military training in its curriculum, he was a third-year honor student at the Bar-Ilan law school. Bar-Ilan first achieved political notoriety in the early Eighties when the campus rabbi, Israel Hess, published a treatise entitled “Mitzvat genocide batorah“—the mitzvah, or commandment, of genocide in the Torah. All who declare war on “God’s people” were, he declared, “Amalekites”—referring to the aboriginal people of Canaan who were decimated by Saul. In defense “God declares a counter-jihad,” Hess wrote. In such a war the “Amalekites” must be wiped out, as in the Bible, down to their last woman and child. To reassure readers that this was not a purely historical matter he added: “The day will come when all of us will be summoned to conclude this holy war to destroy Amalek.” Hess is still on the staff at Bar-Ilan. It is a university where, until recently, followers of the late Meir Kahane could with impunity put up racist or otherwise inflammatory posters (one showed Rabin washing the blood off his hands), but a student who hugs his girlfriend on campus risks being expelled.


Amir’s teachers at the university describe him as “serious,” “sensitive,” an “intellectual”; a brilliant young man, dedicated to his studies. (“He spent the whole day at the library.”) On the day after the murder, one of Amir’s teachers confessed on the radio that he had lain awake all night wondering where he had gone too far. The university suspended all teaching for three days and held memorial and prayer meetings. A student who announced on the Internet “The witch is dead” was promptly kicked out of Bar-Ilan. But I have heard nothing of any steps taken there to identify teachers who might have thought the same.

Amir also attended an Orthodox kolel, or Talmud seminar, affiliated with the university. Many of the students in it, and some of the instructors, are known to be fanatical opponents of the peace process and advocates of the claims of settlers. When he was not taking courses in civil and company law and in computer studies, the assassin not only organized support groups for the settlements but falsely registered as a resident in one of them. On the basis of having that address, he was issued a permit to carry the pistol he used to kill Yitzhak Rabin.

He was not a loner who wanted his name to go down in history, like Lee Harvey Oswald. He was sociable, good-looking, and well-liked, the son of Orthodox immigrants from Yemen who live comfortably in a lower-middle-class suburb outside Tel Aviv. His mother runs a popular nursery school. Amir was the proverbial nice boy next door. He was a locally born and bred killer, not a weird American cowboy, like Baruch Goldstein, in search of a Wild West where whites were allowed to fire at Indians. After Amir did his military service in a crack army unit, the Jewish Agency sent him to Russia to give Hebrew lessons to Jews planning to emigrate to Israel. In his own use of language one finds a mixture, typical of his Bar-Ilan classmates, of military and Talmudic jargon. He was, in the words of the author Ze’ev Chafetz, “as Israeli as hummuspie. He was trained by his rabbis, and as far as I am concerned, he pulled the trigger for them.”

He was sure he had wide support and he may have been right in thinking so. In his own eyes, the ultimate sanction for his act was religious, as it had been for nearly all the other acts of terror by Jews in Israel and in the Occupied Territories. In many cases, the terrorists first consulted their rabbis, seeking what they called “spiritual authority.” (Some were ordained rabbis themselves.) The names of these rabbinical consultants were often mentioned in the press. The former Likud government refrained from investigating, let alone prosecuting them, and the Rabin government never did much about them.

Amir was born in 1970, a time of triumphal, messianic fervor generated by the Six Day War, which the prophets of salvation at the country’s leading rabbinical seminaries were widely interpreting as a milchemet mitzva, a kind of “holy war” or Jewish jihad, heralding the dawn of Redemption and the beginning of a new chiliastic age, the End of Days. Some Jews abroad have never grasped that for Orthodox Jews in Israel and in America, the “Land of Israel” was not a territorial but a theological concept, one linked to salvation. The Jewish tradition known as halacha is a many-layered body of argument and counter-argument, exegesis and exegesis-of- exegesis. It is an inherently manipulable compilation of sacred texts. Not since the rise of the self-styled messiah Sabbatai Zevi in the seventeenth century have those texts been so evocatively, so successfully manipulated as they have been, since 1967, by radical right-wing Israeli rabbis.

They have had a free hand because Judaism is a highly decentralized religion. The office of chief rabbi is purely administrative. The lack of a hierarchy allows every ordained (and some unordained) rabbis to issue so-called halachic rulings, however contradictory they may be. Traditional exegetes insist that any literal reading of the sacred texts can be highly misleading, or at least controversial, a view that opens the way for drawing extreme conclusions.

One halachic injunction, for example, has been to settle the Land. This could refer to one among many obligations; but some of the more radical exegetes considered it more binding than any other, including even the Ten Commandments. Among the more militant, this created a peculiar dilemma about democracy and the rule of law. When “democracy” or secular state law were seen as contradicting the metaphysical authority of halacha, democracy and state law were condemned as memshelet sadon (the “reign of iniquity”) and therefore could be legitimately disregarded or contravened. “There are more important things than majority rule,” the militants said, especially when, as in Israel today, the government’s majority in the Knesset is narrow and is maintained with the help of Arab votes. (“Hitler was also elected in democratic elections,” I heard one religious militant say.) Rabin’s agreement with the PLO ceding parts of the Land to the Palestinians was seen as “delaying the messianic process.”

Furthermore, by leaving the settlers of Judea and Samaria in territory to be controlled by Arafat (“another Hitler”), the government was said to be comparable to a Judenrat cooperating with the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Europe. Rabin was shouted down as a quisling, accused of being a collaborator with evil, his hands dripping with the blood of Jews killed by Hamas terrorists. In leaflets distributed by the opposition parties he was shown wearing a Nazi uniform with a swastika on the left sleeve. Rabin was guilty of being what the halacha in the third century AD had called a rodef—“persecutor”—a crime punishable by death. (The term rodef originally referred to the right of a citizen to intervene when he sees a crime being committed and, if need be, to kill the criminal. Rabin is said to be a rodef because of his alleged complicity with Palestinian killers.)

A few weeks before Rabin’s death, twelve kabbalists gathered outside Rabin’s official residence in Jerusalem calling on “the angels of destruction” to kill Rabin. They intoned all sorts of ancient Jewish oaths, curses, and other voodoo-like incantations designed to bring about Rabin’s death. The weird rites were reported in the press. Shortly afterward, by a strange coincidence, an international conference on “Magic and Magia in Judaism” took place in Jerusalem. The scholars who attended it could not have picked a more fitting place or moment. Moshe Idel, the most prominent Israeli scholar in this field since Gershom Scholem and a professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University, was one of the organizers of the conference. He informed the participants of the kabbalist invocation outside Rabin’s house. It happened, he said, “in the heart of Jerusalem, in fairly normal times. No one in the religious world cried out to protest. Nobody said it’s all nonsense. In other words, they believe [these invocations of black magic] actually work. Perhaps some were sorry that it’s done to a prime minister or a Jew—but nobody doubts that it works.” The decline in rationality, Idel concluded, expresses itself in the “introduction of magic into politics.”

A decade earlier, in an essay on the rise of Meir Kahane, Leon Wieseltier wrote that the Jews must attend to their demons as well as to their enemies. One by one the enemies have since fallen away. But the demons remain.

The police are convinced that Rabin’s killer, too, received some kind of support from a rabbinical authority for his lethal interpretation of halacha as authorizing a rabbinic fatwa. They are believed to be on the trail of a man they say was a “spiritual adviser” to Amir and his accomplices. The police assume that a believer like Amir would not have shot the prime minister without some rabbinical consent given in the name of halacha. Before he set out to kill Rabin, he may have offered to a spiritual adviser what is described as a “confession in synagogue.” At this stage there are only speculations about the possible identity of such a person. A prominent West Bank dissident, a rabbi named Yoel Bin-Nun, issued an ultimatum to Amir’s so-called “spiritual” advisers. They had issued halachic rulings, he claimed, that Rabin was indeed a rodef and deserved to be killed. Bin-Nun announced that he knew their identity. He immediately received telephone threats and was given round-the-clock protection. He made it clear he was referring to important names, revered rabbinical authorities. He would fight them, Bin-Nun announced in the now fashionable style, if need be “unto death.” He threatened to make the names public unless they immediately resigned their posts.

At his arraignment in court, the killer was articulate, concise, and to the point when he announced his interpretation of halacha. But this was the smaller part of his monologue detailing Rabin’s halachic crimes. The rest echoed almost sentence by sentence remarks made in recent months by the Likud leaders Benyamin Netanyahu, Uzi Landau, and Ariel Sharon, or by leaders of the two smaller right-wing opposition parties, former General Raphael Eytan and former General Rehabam Zeevy.

Their vehement personal attacks on Rabin during the past few months brought Israeli political discourse to the lowest point I can remember. In a carefully concocted strategy, moreover, Rabin was heckled and roughly harangued almost everywhere he went in the past six months. Likud spokesmen said openly they wanted to break him psychologically, to damage his self-confidence. At a meeting of normally well-behaved immigrants from the US and the UK organized by the right-wing Jerusalem Post he was met with shouts of “here comes the bloody dog.” Rabin was accused, indirectly, of having encouraged Palestinian terror. “You, Mr. Prime Minister,” Netanyahu said in the Knesset on April 18, 1994, “will enter history as a prime minister who established an army of Palestinian terrorists.” And a few days later, Netanyahu said at a press conference: “One hour from now Rabin will be able to announce: ‘I have founded the terrorist state of Palestine.’ ” A year later, after a passenger bus was blown up in Tel Aviv by a Palestinian suicide terrorist, Netanyahu went further. “You, Yitzhak Rabin.” he said, “I accuse you of direct responsibility for stirring up Arab terror and for the horror of this massacre in Tel Aviv. You are guilty. This blood is on your head.”

Israeli politics are habitually rough but no Israeli government has ever been denied legitimacy as deliberately and systematically as Rabin’s was. He was stabbing the country in its back. He was groveling before foreign statesmen. He was willing to withdraw to “Auschwitz borders.” His effigy, dressed in a Nazi uniform or wearing a checked headdress à la Arafat, was prominently displayed at opposition rallies. Netanyahu himself addressed such a rally in October in downtown Jerusalem. While prominent rabbis, including two former chief rabbis, were calling on Israeli soldiers, in the name of halacha, to disobey any orders to evacuate parts of the West Bank, leading spokesmen of the opposition were saying that Rabin had “no mandate” for his policies. His majority in parliament was said to depend on “non-Jewish Knesset members” who received their orders from Arafat.

Repeated warnings by the police, among others, that this language might lead to attempts on the lives of Rabin and Peres were ignored. Sharon dismissed the warnings as “Stalinist” or as “provocations by the media.” An American rabbi named Avraham Hecht announced on Israeli television that Rabin deserved to die, invoking the authority of Maimonides. In another country, such threats could lead to criminal charges. In Israel, during the past few weeks, they usually led to another talk show. Netanyahu from time to time would mildly admonish his followers for their rough manners, while he and his allies were riding the tigers they had unleashed.

With remarkable candor, a veteran politician of the National Religious Party observed in public last week: “It is an undeniable fact that nearly all violent right-wing extremists in Israel today are wearing skullcaps and are graduates of religious educational institutions. We must ask ourselves where we have gone wrong.” In downtown Jerusalem, an old bearded man wearing a yarmulke was seen last week carrying a sign that said: “I am ashamed.” It is far from clear that Likud, too, will show any such signs of remorse.

November 16, 1995

This Issue

December 21, 1995