New Movie Looks Through the Eyes of the Man Who Killed Israel's Prime Minister

Made from the perspective of Yigal Amir, ‘Yamim Noraim’ (‘Incitement’) sheds new light on the man who also killed Israeli democracy and asks viewers to search their own souls

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Amir, portrayed well by Yehuda Nahari Halevi (pictured), is a law student, who participates with his friends in stormy demonstrations against the Oslo Accords.
Amir, portrayed well by Yehuda Nahari Halevi (pictured), is a law student, who participates with his friends in stormy demonstrations against the Oslo Accords.Credit: Amit Yasur
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

At the core of “Incitement” (“Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew) is an artistic decision that will cause the Israeli viewer’s heart to skip a beat: The decision to turn Yigal Amir, the man who murdered former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, into a cinematic hero. This is a choice that appears, at least at first, to be completely unreasonable if not outright mad. After all, Amir, in the eyes of most Israelis, is the number one enemy of the Jews – not a national hero. He is the man who crossed the line that nobody crossed before him. We thought that a Jew doesn’t kill a Jew. But Amir did. And he even found a justification based on halakha (Jewish religious law) for it.

Is it ethical to discuss Yigal Amir’s motives? Is it ethical to decipher his personality, to give him volume and feelings?

Twenty-four years after he committed murder, Amir has become the hero of a full-length feature film which was screened earlier this week at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released in the coming weeks in Israeli movie theaters. The very idea of watching such a film causes great unease. We have become accustomed to loathing him, to regarding him as an abomination.

What happens when we suddenly see him as a well-rounded character, like the medium of cinema requires? Is it ethical to discuss Yigal Amir’s motives? Is it ethical to decipher his personality, to give him volume and feelings? What happens if we identify with him? What happens if the sharp and clear boundary we have drawn between ourselves and the murderer for the past 24 years begins to fade? Will we find ourselves understanding Yigal Amir?

The plot of “Yamim Noraim,” directed by Yaron Zilberman (who also wrote the script with Ron Leshem) begins about two years before the assassination. Amir, portrayed well by Yehuda Nahari Halevi, is a law student at Bar-Ilan University, who participates with his friends in stormy demonstrations against the Oslo Accords and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. When American-Israeli physicist and extremist Baruch Goldstein murders Muslim worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron on Purim in 1994, Amir travels in the middle of the night and in the pouring rain to attend his funeral.

Yehuda Nahari Halevi, right, is portraying Yigal Amir in ‘Yamim Noraim’ (‘Incitement’).Credit: United King films

From the very outset of the film, viewers immediately get a picture of a determined and ideologically motivated young man, the son of a domineering and tempestuous mother (played by Anat Ravnitski) and a gentle and peace-loving father (Amitay Yaish Benuosilio in a very moving role).

Out of profound political involvement and opposition to granting autonomy and military capabilities to the Palestinians, Amir aspires to form a militia to replace the Israeli army everywhere in occupied Palestinian territories from which the military might withdraw.

Amir believes that he has already made progress from talk to action, so he tries to find partners. But while his brother Hagai (portrayed by Yoav Levi) and friend Dror Adani (played by Dolev Ohana) are interested, his friends from law school are less enthusiastic.

As a young and religious man, Amir is also in pursuit of a suitable romantic match for himself. He gets close to Nava (a lesser-known figure whose presence is unveiled for the first time in this film; her character is played by Daniela Kertesz), a young woman who studies with him. Nava, who is the daughter of a well-to-do, Ashkenazi settler family, hears from Amir about his aspirations to become an influential figure like the second-century military hero Bar Kokhba. She isn’t sure that his plans, which could include Amir sacrificing his life, suit her. But what ultimately puts an end to their relationship is his meeting with her condescending family, which is not enthusiastic about Amir’s family background and his extremist statements regarding the leadership of the country. After he realizes that Nava isn’t interested in him, he abandons the idea of the militia and decides to go it alone – and not against the Arabs.

The script offers the Freudian explanation to Amir's motives: His mother sees her son as the one who is supposed to redeem the Jewish people, which is why she chose to name him Yigal (which means in Hebrew 'he will redeem')

The rules of the genre required Leshem and Zilberman to try to sketch out various psychological motives that may have driven Amir’s act, because every protagonist needs a will, inhibition, a conflict and so on.

The writers describe, somewhat crudely, a specific sociological environment in which Amir as the son of a family of modest means and of Yemenite origin, has a tense relationship with the elite of his sector – the Ashkenazi settlers – and aspires to prove that he can succeed where they failed.

Israeli PM Yizhak Rabin's murderer Yigal Amir. Credit: Tomer Neuberg

The script also offers the Freudian explanation to the motives that inspire Amir: His domineering mother sees her son as the one who is supposed to redeem the Jewish people, which is why she chose to name him Yigal (which means in Hebrew “he will redeem”). Meanwhile, his weakened and introverted father is scorned by Amir. The writers shape the world in which Amir lives and operates in a manner that is at times successful, and at other times falls into clichés both in the script and in the acting (mainly in the characters of the settlers, who are all more or less messianic).

Eventually the writers were unable to find a convincing explanation for Amir’s act, and that’s a good thing. This failure works in favor of the film, which would have been less effective if its bottom line had been that Yigal Amir murdered Yitzhak Rabin because of an Ashkenazi girl who humiliated him, or because of an Oedipus complex.

In other words, even if these things are apparently true of him, they were not what determined the fate of the State of Israel. The conclusion that emerges from the film is far more interesting, since Amir is portrayed as the only rational person in a clearly irrational environment. His acts were not based on craziness or confusion, but rather on a cold and clear realization that the only way to stop the Oslo Accords was to neutralize the leader who was spearheading the efforts to sign them.

Incitement by religious figures

There are quite a few similarities between Amir’s film and the HBO miniseries “Our Boys” by Hagai Levy, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu Wael. The show, which tells the story of the 2014 murder of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir by young Jewish men, has sparked angered reactions – including an inciting post by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the Keshet 12 TV franchise, which co-produced the series.

Director Yaron Zilberman. From the very outset of the film, viewers immediately get a picture of a determined and ideologically motivated young man.Credit: David Bachar

It’s interesting that these two works were created so similarly and came out around the same time. In terms of style, both works include cinematic and documentary materials and use archival footage that was filmed at the time of the events. But the process of using the documentary material as opposed to reenactments differs.

In “Our Boys,” the documentary footage includes reports of mass prayers, statements by the mothers of the three kidnapped Jewish boys, declarations by Netanyahu, demonstrations and calls for revenge for the murder of the boys – all help describe the public atmosphere that preceded the murder of Abu Khdeir.

The archival material appears mainly in the first episode of the series, and from there the plot leaves behind the archive materials and reality. Although this work is based on meticulous research and real events, the episodes dealing with the investigation and trial of the murderers are conducted by an imaginary protagonist.

In the case of “Yamim Noraim,” the archival footage only appears in the beginning as part of the radio and television broadcasts that Amir and his family watch, and through them a specific moment in history is clarified: The period in which the Oslo Accords were signed and terror attacks prevailed.

Gradually, the character of Amir, along with his brother Hagai, his friend and partner Dror Adani, the undercover Shin Bet security service agent Avishai Raviv (Raanan Paz) and later Margalit Har-Shefi (Sivan Mast), are increasingly part of the news events.

The plot of “Yamim Noraim,” directed by Yaron Zilberman (who also wrote the script with Ron Leshem) begins about two years before the assassination.Credit: United King films

The editors used horrifying images from scenes of terror attacks and the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, parts of interviews with Rabin and with then-opposition leader Netanyahu as well as appearances by Netanyahu at the infamous demonstrations – which are all broadcast on television. But when the editors got to archival footage from the wild demonstrations against the Oslo Accords and against Rabin, they combined scripted scenes with footage filmed in real time.

This combination seems very organic, until it’s almost impossible to distinguish between the archive and the reenactment. Within the incited and furious mass we suddenly recognize familiar faces. In the last scene of the murderer himself (insert a macabre joke about spoiler alerts), the reenactment totally blends with the documentary until the familiar final frame of the shaking camera and the sound of the three shots. That’s how the humanized, fully-fleshed figure of Amir, the character we have followed so intimately for two hours, returns to its place as part of history, to its familiar status as a person who has become a despicable and infamous concept.

Another important similarity between “Our Boys” and “Yamim Noraim” is the intensive preoccupation with the incitement mechanisms that preceded the assassination of Rabin and the murder of Abu Khdeir, which are described in both works by means of the stormy demonstrations, but also through the words and actions of religious figures.

Israeli youths gather Thursday Oct 24 1996 at the site in Tel Aviv where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered Nov. 4, 1995.Credit: NATI HARNIK / Associated Press

The sociological affiliation of the murderers in both cases is quite similar: Amir and the murderers of Abu Khdeir came from religious Mizrahi families who suffered from condescension on the part of the religious Ashkenazi elite.

In both works, the murderers, or some of them – Amir and one of the boys who killed Abu Khdeir – are described as Mizrahi students who were accepted against all odds to a prestigious Ashkenazi yeshiva, to which “maybe two Mizrahi students” are admitted, a comment that appears both in Zilberman’s film and in the series by Levi & Co. The ethnic issue is presented as a central motive for unconventional behavior and as an impetus for the murderous act that will leave a mark on history. The protagonists in both cases feel that they are outcasts, and perceive the act of murder as an opportunity to become heroes, even in the eyes of those who scorned them.

The main question that arises from watching these two oeuvres, as well as works from other places that deal with historical events, is what could actually be the point in a work that recreates with almost total precision an event from the not-so-distant past, whose details are known and that has been etched deep in our memory? It’s true that there are several details that are less known that are revealed in the film, such as Amir’s courting of Nava, which ends in bitter disappointment.

There are also other, better known details that are given a renewed emphasis, like Amir’s intensive search for halakhic justification for the act of murder, and his attempt to obtain a clear statement from rabbis who harshly criticized Rabin’s actions. But new information here and there is not sufficient to justify such a complex project.

The answer to the question regarding what the point of this film is may actually be subjective. In the course of watching, one main insight became clear, to me at least: Israel underwent a revolution on the night of November 4, 1995 and in effect stopped being a liberal democracy. Although Amir operated on his own, he carried out the wishes of many people. This fact was not necessarily understood in real time. Yigal Amir executed a one-man putsch, or perhaps a one-man civil war, a fraternal duel.

He didn’t want the power for himself. In a narrow interpretation of concepts such as benefit and gain, Yigal Amir didn’t gain a thing and didn’t benefit from the fruits of the political revolution that he carried out, because since then he has been behind bars. But in the broader sense he achieved his goal: To change the course of events and get rid of the peace process as well as secular and liberal democracy.

We can assume that at present he is satisfied. The people who are now heading the State of Israel to a great extent owe their place to Yigal Amir, even if they never asked him to do what he did. He fulfilled their unconcealed wish to stop the peace process, and changed the political map by the most undemocratic means possible.

The film enables anyone who came late to this realization, or who found it difficult to look straight into the eyes of the devil, to try to deal with the trauma. “Yamim Noraim,” as its name implies, brings back those terrible days that preceded the assassination. It brings back those events, because in real time their significance was not properly appreciated. The film gives us a magnifying glass and forces us to look into the face of the murderer, forces us to delve deeply into it, against all the healthy instincts that guide us to try and flee from this frightening place.

A screenshot from ‘Yamim Noraim’ (‘Incitement’). Is it ethical to discuss Yigal Amir’s motives? Credit: Tuli Chen / United King Films

The use of archival material brings us back to the moment when the trauma was created. In other words, we are not only forced to look carefully at the face of the murderer, but also at the face of the desires and emotions of large parts of Israeli society that stood behind him, even if not always openly.

In real time, insufficient attention was paid to the fact that there was then, and there still is now, a very tough internal conflict in Israel between those who are not interested in any attempt to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, out of fear, hatred or both, and those who are interested in ceasing to live by the sword. It goes even deeper than that – some members of the camp that opposes the attempts to achieve peace also see less and less importance in the values of democracy, and openly prefer other values. That was the situation then too, but we failed to see it.

The power of the opposition and of the rift was not taken into account, and therefore the assassination caused such shock. We were unable to understand that in real time, and if we continue to fail to understand it, this lack of understanding will be repeatedly renewed, and we will repeatedly be amazed.

That is why lovers of democracy and peace must now look at this thing that is so hard to look at. Will we, by means of this return to the past, achieve an ability to restore our control over these things? When we connect emotionally to Yigal Amir, despite our disgust, will we be better able to deal with his act and its results? I don’t know. But maybe we will have a better understanding of where we are living.

The name of the film evokes another important association: The Days of Awe before Yom Kippur, days of soul searching. Who is supposed to conduct the soul searching? Is it all of Israeli society, or the peace camp that at the time was still significant and who knows what is left of it today? Is it the left, which can now understand that the assassination of Rabin led to the fulfillment of a political aspiration shared by a very large stratum of the nation, which meanwhile has become the majority?

Even Amir did not necessarily want to murder Rabin. He didn’t hate Rabin. He only wanted to neutralize Rabin, as a key figure. It wasn’t personal. But he realized, as in a chess game, that this was the piece that had to be removed from the board in order to win. It will be interesting to see whether the film will arouse the same emotional reactions as “Our Boys,” and whether in this case too there will be calls to boycott it. If it receives the Ophir Award for the best film in the Israel Academy of Film and Television competition, which is now taking place, it will also be sent as Israel’s representative to the Academy Awards competition. We can easily guess what will happen then.

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