How the Rabin Assassination Exposed Two Israels

While one Israel lost a leader, the other spawned his killer.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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The memorial for Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv, November 3, 2005.
The memorial for Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv, November 3, 2005.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

“I was with him in high school!”

“I was with him in the army!”

“Wait, wait, I’ve got a better one. He went out with my sister!”

This was the bizarre water-cooler conversation I heard on the Sunday morning after Rabin’s murder just 12 hours earlier in Tel Aviv. Outside the beit midrash (study center) I attended at the time, my fellow yeshiva students were reminiscing about Yigal Amir. I had never heard of Amir before his name was first broadcast on the radio as the suspected assassin, shortly before midnight and I was still trying to get over the shock that the prime minister had been murdered by a fellow-Israeli, and not as I had been certain at first, a foreign terrorist.

Normally I would have been eager to hear more details about the man of the hour, but their total bemusement at what had transpired was overwhelming. I don’t think any of them, if asked, would have supported the murder. The difference between us wasn’t political. At the time I was also opposed to the Oslo Accords and had taken part in demonstrations in Jerusalem against them, but naively, I hadn’t grasped how for so many people around me, Rabin had become so much more than a political rival, but the leader of an alien and dangerous cult. So distant from them that even on the morning after his death, they felt closer to his murderer.

Not everyone. Many of us went to the funeral that week and returned to visit the grave. But there were those who refused to stand during the moment of silence and argued that while not supporting the murder, they didn’t see why they had to respect a man whose policies were leading us to disaster. I heard from friends in other yeshivas that there were places where people had danced at the news while others mourned. One of the rabbis I was close to at the time was accused of somehow inspiring or advising Amir. Since I knew his views well and had seen how vehemently had had denounced the murder, I knew it was ludicrous and after a short session of questioning by police, he was released and no further steps taken.

It didn’t strike me then, and wouldn’t for a long while, that in many ways I belonged to the community of the murderer, much more than to the community of Rabin. I had never met Amir but had we grown up in the same town, gone to the same yeshiva or been of the same age, I most likely would have. We moved in similar circles. A few years later, when my brother went to law school, he was told one day he was sitting at Amir’s desk. But it never made sense to me that I could have belonged to the same community.

But I had felt that estrangement from my surroundings even before then.

The first time a decision by Rabin impacted on me personally was two and a half years earlier. Our unit had been training in the north for five weeks for a major operation in south Lebanon. Our armored vehicles were already at the starting points, loaded down with ammunition and boxes of grenades, when his cabinet decided to cancel at the last moment. Packed into platoon tents, our officers passed on the news and immediately hundreds of voices began chanting “Rabin ben zona (son of a whore).” It was months before the secret negotiations with the PLO emerged, it wasn’t really about politics. It was the men of Battalion 13 (the unit where incidentally Amir had served four years earlier), predominantly Sephardi residents of development towns and poor neighborhoods, venting their frustration at an old Ashkenazi man who had robbed them of their moment of glory. It didn’t matter that Rabin was the prime minister and defense minister and that before any of them were born, had commanded this army in the Six-Day War. To them he was the embodiment of a hostile and separate elite. I couldn’t join in, as much as I was proud to be a soldier in the battalion, because I had spent the last 10 years since emigrating to Israel trying be a part of it all. I couldn’t conceive then that there was more than one Israel and I was in a different one than my comrades from Battalion 13. Though that is obvious now.

I didn’t realize then how thin the veneer of unity in Israel really is and how great the power of alienation and anger to tear any society to shreds. In many ways, I don’t think that it has been addressed since the murder. Instead the public debate has been waylaid in to dead-end alleys of what Rabin was trying to achieve with Oslo and how the right wing incited against him.

A year and a half after the assassination, when I started working as a journalist, a colleague, who like me was just starting out in our profession, said that his greatest regret was he hadn’t begun working earlier, as he could have done something to reveal the plans to murder Rabin. I began to say to him that there were no such plans that even the finest investigative reporter could have uncovered, but stopped myself because he couldn’t grasp that it had happened in a different Israel than the one he inhabited. I had lived there too, but could barely explain it to myself. There were just people who felt that Rabin was so distant from them, that one of them could see him as an enemy to be eliminated.

In any other country where a leader has been murdered in such a fashion, we would have had by now half a dozen biographies of his murderer, trying to seriously understand his motivations and how he had reached the point of pressing the trigger. Instead, the books which have been written on Rabin’s assassination are embarrassingly shallow and describe Amir as if he was a cartoon villain. No one will write the book which seriously analyzes Amir the man, his beliefs and reasoning – it won’t sell and could well be a career-ender. And I’m no more willing to commit professional suicide than the next writer.

The real Yigal Amir and the full story of how a soldier in Golani and emissary of Nativ (a government body that aided Jews in the Former Soviet Union), became the assassin of the prime minister remains a black hole in Israeli history. Perhaps in a decade or two, a brave historian who has nothing to fear from public opinion no worries about future employment will carry out the necessary research. Maybe then a more accurate version of different Israels will emerge.

Meanwhile, though I haven’t got conclusive proof of this, I would say, based on all the research I have done on the assassination and the people I spoke to who were around Amir and came into contact with him, that I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a mysterious cabal of rabbis directing his actions or authorizing them, at least not knowingly. Today’s rabbis haven’t got the guts to make relatively simple rulings on allowing a woman to hold a Torah scroll; ordering a hit is beyond them. Yes, some rabbis were approached with the theoretical question of whether din rodef (the halakhic definition of an immediate mortal threat which must be removed by any means) applied to Rabin, and we should know who they are. But I don’t believe Amir needed their opinions to carry out his deed and even though he said in his trial that din rodef was the reason he murdered Rabin, I don’t believe him. Thousands of Israelis considered Rabin a mortal threat and could have reached the same halakhic conclusion; only Amir actually acted. And I am certain it had nothing to do with the “incitement” that preceded the murder.

No matter what you think about the substance of Benjamin Netanyahu’s and other politicians’ arguments against the Oslo Accords, they were carrying out their duties as leaders of the opposition. If Netanyahu and his allies truly believed that Rabin’s policies and decisions were dangerous, it would have been wrong of them not to say so in the most forceful manner. If anything, we should regret that the Israeli left is too civil to attack Prime Minister Netanyahu today in the same fierce fashion he once lambasted Rabin. Israel’s problems are not to be addressed by civil debate. Bibi knew what a leader of the opposition should do. If only Isaac Herzog would do the same today.

I doubt Amir feels much closer to Netanyahu than he did to Rabin. Both prime ministers, despite their political differences, belonged to a secular elite that was a different Israel than the one in which Amir grew up and lived. By all accounts he is a highly intelligent independent thinker. I don’t think he needed any rabbi or Bibi to launch him on the long months of preparation and three assassination attempts that preceded the one that succeeded.

By coincidence, on the twentieth anniversary this week, I found myself driving up north past Shita Prison where Amir whiles away his days, some say in Torah study. I’d like to ask him the question that bothers me most – why of all the other people I knew in that other Israel, he was the one who had travelled the furthest? I probably will never get that chance.

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