Rabin’s Killer Wasn’t a Jewish Extremist

Yigal Amir is a true son of the cultish, flattened and nationalist Judaism which has colonized traditional Jewish thought in Israel. He may die in prison – but savoring ‘his’ Judaism’s triumph.

Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai
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Yigal Amir, convicted murder of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in a Nazareth courtroom, February 4, 2010.
Yigal Amir, convicted murder of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in a Nazareth courtroom, February 4, 2010.Credit: Tomer Neuberg
Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai

Of all the troubling details of Yigal Amir’s murder of Yitzhak Rabin, twenty years ago today, perhaps the most revealing — anyway, the one I cannot get out of my mind — is that Amir attended synagogue on the morning of the assassination, where the chanted portion of Torah, mandated by the yearly cycle, was “Lekh Lekha,” translated as “Go forth!” Amir believed the portion was fitting, even portentous — so Dan Ephron reports in Killing a King — since it recounts God commanding Abraham to go to Canaan.

“In effect,” Ephron writes, repeating views Amir shared more or less openly with his interrogators, “it is the biblical moment when God promises the real estate that is now Israel (and the West Bank and Gaza and parts of Jordan) to the Jews.” Rabin was willing to abandon some of that promised land in the context of the Oslo Agreements, and, according to the precepts of Amir's rabbis, needed to be stopped by force, even killed. When the Sabbath ended, Amir climbed on a bus, and went to perform his awful ‘duty’.

It has become common to speak of Amir as a “religious extremist.” Ephron does — understandably so. Amir told interrogators that his slipping through Rabin’s security forces, and remaining alive, was proof of divine will. Polls show that rigorous Jewish observance is the clearest predictor of hard-right views in Israel today, and included in these is the belief that Amir should be pardoned and freed. (In 2006, about 30 percent of the Israeli public, roughly the same number who wanted Jewish halakhic law to replace democratic norms, supported Amir’s release; today, over half of self-identified “national-religious” Jews refuse to believe that Amir even killed Rabin.)

Still, I can’t get “Lekh Lekha” out of my mind, because it has been lodged there since I was a pupil in Montreal’s Talmud Torah school; its tales remain vivid and suggestive. I never quite knew what qualified as an observant Jew — and still don’t. But an observant reader is easier to rate. Amir’s failures on this score leave one wondering what kind of Torah he ever paid attention to and if his Judaism is “extreme” or of a different order.

What does “Lekh Lekha” really say? God does not tell Abram to go to Canaan (Abram does not become “Abraham” — literally, “exalted father” — until later). He tells Abram to leave his father’s house and go to “a land I shall show you”: “I will bless you and I will aggrandize your name, and you will be as a blessing.”

The obvious point here, disturbing and thrilling to a child, is that Abram’s grandeur begins with a mysterious courage: to break the bonds of home, treat a father’s comforts and wisdom as idols to be broken. (The Talmud later speaks of Abram as breaking the household idols of his father, Terah, who himself had left his father’s home.) It is true that this land will prove to be Canaan. And the text then has God “giving” the land Abram surveys there to his descendants. But Abram did not know any of this when he left. We know only that he was quickened by vison and ambition. And the plot thickens.

Abram goes to Egypt to escape famine. His wife Sarai is beautiful, so Abram, convinced of Egyptian depravity, is certain that his hosts will kill him to have her, so he tells her to pass as his sister. Sarai does indeed get the Pharaoh’s attentions. The Pharoah takes her — and is afflicted by plagues. He figures out that she must be married. But he does not kill Abram. Rather, he scolds Abram for bringing sin upon him, and releases him with generosity: Abram returns to his lands in Canaan heavy with cattle, silver and gold — also with an evolving humility.

Abram’s nephew Lot is also in the land, as are Canaanites and Perezites; Abram’s and Lot’s herdsmen begin to quarrel, apparently over grazing and watering. Abram, speaking the majestic line Amir seems to have willfully ignored, tells Lot: “Is not all the land before us? Please part from me. If you go right I will go left. If you go left I will go right.”

Later, when Lot is captured, Abram leads a party of fighters to free his kinsman. The King of Sodom offers Abram a tribute, but Abram swears he will never take “a thread or shoe-strap” that belongs to another. God then tells Abram that, in the future, his seed will serve another people as slaves and return to this land; but only once the “iniquity of the Amorites” will be complete — implying (though this seems rather obviously trumped up by later, apologetic redactors) that the new inhabitants will deserve to lose their patrimony on account of some vague wickedness, not because Abram’s descendants have a prior, superseding right; this was morally convenient for the descendants.

As for the seed that will inherit him, “Lekh Lekha” continues largely with the story of Ishmael’s birth, whom Abram initiates into the covenant with circumcision, and to whom land and aggrandizement are also promised. It is only after Ishmael is born, in fact, that Abram becomes Abraham, and is assured he will become “father of a multitude of nations.” (Later still, in other chapters, Ishmael will be subordinated to Isaac in the family circle, but both sons’ lives are saved by divine grace; and they bury their father together at the Cave of Machpelah.)

The Torah portion introduces us to a promised land, but this is arguably a footnote to traits and imperatives of conduct suggesting a promising life: iconoclasm, restlessness, ambition — extend the benefit of the doubt, choose peace over avoidable contention, respect others’ property. Most important, since the claim to the land by divine right might clash with divine precepts, a sober reader would conclude that no one sentence is sacred but that the privilege of interpreting sentences is sacred. That privilege has been valorized by the Talmud since the second century.

In his Varieties of Religious Experience, the 19th century philosopher William James speaks of two types of religious people. The first assume a just order designed and enforced by transcendent power. He calls such people, with graceful irony (and barely concealed disgust), “healthy-minded.” The second type, with whom he clearly identified, were “sick-souled”: People “of tender conscience,” prone to “moral remorse and compunction,” who can’t stop wondering if matter matters — people feeling “inwardly vile and wrong, and of standing in false relations to the author of one’s being and appointer of one’s spiritual fate.”

It is the latter people, James thought, who were candidates for genuine religious faith, accepting blessing in the face of oblivion. (James quoted from Ecclesiastes, included by ancient rabbinic genius in the Jewish canon: “However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many.”) The healthy-minded, in contrast, were stunted, dangerous, inclined to a disquieting, naive piety, providing them “passports beyond the bounds of conventional morality.”

Rabin’s murder, in this sense, was not the act of a Jewish extremist, but, in a way, a Jewish minimalist. “National-religious Zionism,” the pathetically “healthy-minded” community that produced Amir, has been growing since the 1967 war, when the settler movement, Gush Emunim, displaced the old guard of the National Religious Party. Their flattened Judaism, inspired by the fiery Rabbi Tzi Yehuda Kook, turned Jerusalem into an idolatry, incubated in institutions indirectly (and naively) supported by the state: the yeshivot of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, and the campus of Bar-Ilan University, where Amir attended law school. Little by little, in many subtle ways, the cult colonized, not just the West Bank, but the Judaism of my childhood.

The saddest, most common losses are often hardest to discern. The traditional blessing after the meal, for example, the Birkat hamazon, has a famous coda, taken from Proverbs, which Isaiah Berlin once called the “harshest lie in world.” This goes: “I was a youth, and I have become aged, and I have never seen a righteous man deserted, and his children begging for bread.” (Na’ar hayiti, gam zakanti, ve-lo ra’iti tzadik ne’ezav, vezaro mevakesh lahem.) Even as a child in Talmud Torah, I thought those words fatuous. But the melody that accompanied the words — as sung by my father, aunts, uncles — was in a minor key and among the most mournful, lovely melodies I had yet heard. I could not articulate my feelings at the time, but the blessing’s claim, accompanied by that music, seemed deliciously ironic to me. They suggested, at once, a principle of justice and a lugubrious skepticism which, I dare say, made my little soul a little sick.

But when I first moved to Jerusalem in 1972, I noticed that something had gone awry with the prayer. Its haunting melody had been superseded by a new one — which had come, so I was told, from Bnei Akiva — a catchy triumphal tune in four-four time, reminiscent of the University of Michigan’s fight song. With that rhythm, and in that register, the harsh lie at the end of the blessing could only be taken as a kind of promised fate. I have often been offended by this melody, but could not spoil the warmth of somebody’s Sabbath table. I fear that the failure of traditional Jews to confront these simplifications now carries a heavy price.

President Reuven Rivlin announced that he would never pardon Amir, though the soccer fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, which Rivlin once helped manage, now cheer Amir’s name from the stands. (Yigal Amir’s brother, and now released accomplice, Hagai, recently threatened Rivlin’s life.) Yet Rivlin, like many decent Israelis, may despise Amir’s crime but seems helpless to convict Amir’s “Judaism”: The veneration of the land, the “unity” of Jerusalem, the sacred isolation of Jewish law. Amir may die in prison, but as Ephron suggests, he may die savoring his real triumph, which is not simply stopping the Oslo peace process.

Jews once thought of holiness as ineffable, unapproachable. Now when Jews say, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” or more likely “in rebuilt Jerusalem,” many seem to think they can book a room next to God. Holiness is thought to be so physical for Jews that mainstream fact-checkers seem confident about mapping it. Last month, correcting a story about frictions on the Temple Mount, America’s National Public Radio issued this apology: “[The] story mischaracterized the Western Wall as the holiest site in Judaism. It is the holiest site for Jewish prayer, while the adjacent Temple Mount is considered the holiest site.” Amir, no doubt, would be pleased that this was cleared up.

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