By: Michael Weiner  | 

The Rabin Assassination, 24 years later: Have We Learned Anything?

Nov. 4 marked the 24th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by Yigal Amir, an extremist from the dati leumi (national-religious) community who was convinced that Rabin’s signing of the Oslo Accords made him a rodef — a pursuer endangering the lives of others — and thus liable to be killed. This year, as always, the anniversary was widely commemorated in Israel, most notably with a memorial gathering at Rabin Square that drew tens of thousands of Israelis.     

1995 was a long time ago. The internet was in its infancy, Nirvana was in its heyday, and today’s college students were not even born. That being the case, it isn’t crazy to wonder why anyone still cares about this increasingly ancient event. Isn’t it time to move on? 

Judging from the state of Israeli politics today, I believe the answer is a resounding “no.” Despite it being so many years later, Israelis still feel deeply traumatized by this episode of political violence. Moreover, the stark division of Israeli society that it revealed continues to rock the country to this day. Just a month before the 24th anniversary, a controversial new Israeli movie — “Incitement” — was released, and has taken the country by storm. It provides extensive footage of interviews with Yigal Amir in prison, taking us on a psychological journey into the mind of a murderous zealot who continues to believe he did the right thing. “Incitement” will be Israel’s entry for the Oscars next year, showing the resonance and staying power of Rabin’s assassination in the collective consciousness of the Israeli public despite the passing of over 20 years.  

More disturbingly, a recent poll conducted by the Rushinek Research and Strategy institute in advance of the anniversary of the assassination — which got major coverage in the Israeli media — found that 20% of Israelis believe Yigal Amir should be pardoned from his life sentence in prison, and 40% believe there is a medium-to-high likelihood that there will be another political assassination in the coming years, with a plurality of that group predicting it would likely come from a right-winger. 

Buttressing this fear, a 2016 Pew poll found that 70% of self-identified dati leumi Israelis agree with the statement that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” It isn’t at all difficult to see how the popularity of these threatening, vaguely violent sentiments could lead an especially devout (or disturbed) dati individual to “take matters into his own hands” and kill a future Israeli leader who dismantles Jewish settlements in the West Bank as part of a peace agreement, unlikely as that is right now given current political realities.   

While some might wave off these red flags as fear-mongering or mere anti-dati prejudice, the ghosts of religious murderers past continue to haunt us. In August, Israel’s current Minister of Transportation, Bezalel Smotrich, attended an event in which an award was given to Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsbugh, a hardline rabbinic figure notorious for his emphatic praise of Baruch Goldstein, who carried out the 1993 Hebron Massacre, killing 29 Arabs at prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Facing backlash for his attendance, Smotrich defended himself in a tweet by saying, “you don’t have to agree with him on every single thing to believe he deserves an award.” 

Taking all of these facts together yields some disturbing conclusions. If a fifth of Israeli society today wants to pardon the unremorseful assassin of their own prime minister, if a supermajority of dati leumi Jews want all Arabs to be “transferred” from Israel and if a prominent Israeli politician in dati leumi circles has no qualms about honoring a rabbi who publicly supports the murder of innocent people, I am left feeling extremely concerned about the future of Israel. These numbers clearly demonstrate that dangerous rhetoric is not limited to a handful of “bad apples,” but is rather far more firmly entrenched in dati leumi culture, even if it is a minority position. The consequences of this reality are concerning: for one, as many Israelis correctly point out when it comes to terror by Islamic jihadists, violent beliefs and actions do not have to be accepted by a majority of the population in order for them to be lethal. Rather, all that is needed is for a non-negligible minority to support such actions, and for everyone else to turn a blind eye or deny its existence at all. Moreover, if non-religious Israelis perceive violent rhetoric or support for violence as being permanent, tolerated fixtures of the dati world, there will continue to be severe damage to the unity of the Jewish people. 

Days after the assassination in November 1995, R. Aharon Lichtenstein gave a sicha in the beit midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion in which he refused to take the easy way out and minimize the blame his own community ought to accept. Rather, he courageously exhorted his students to feel distraught, ashamed and yes — partially responsible — for the tragedy that was perpetrated by a member of their camp. To put it more crudely than R. Lichtenstein ever would have — if it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to murder a prime minister. 

In his remarks, R. Lichtenstein shared the following story:  “Last week I visited mori ve-rabi, Harav Aharon Soloveitchik, whose fierce opposition to the peace process is well-known. As soon as I walked in, he repeated over and over — a badge of shame, a badge of shame. We should feel deep shame that this method of supposedly solving conflicts has become part of our culture.” 

Rabbi Lichtenstein did not avert his eyes, deflect responsibility, or insist that it was all leftist propaganda. Instead, he was honest — brutally so — about the moral failure that his own ideological community had nourished and bred: “the self-confidence that arises from commitment and devotion to a world of values and eternal truths…sometimes has led to frightening levels of self-certainty and ultimately to arrogance. This arrogance has sometimes led us to act without sufficient responsibility towards other people, and at times even without responsibility to other values. We are good, we have values, and they are worthless - this attitude has seeped deeper and deeper into our consciousness.” 

I do not know what Rav Lichtenstein or his rebbe, Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, would say to us in our current moment of deep division and aggressive sentiments in the dati leumi camp. Even so, I feel the sharpness of his 24-year-old critique as if it were given today: indeed, as he wondered, can we “understand the importance of the Medina, to understand the historical process in which we live - without losing a sense of morality, of proportion, of right, of spirituality?” 

I do not know the answer to that question, but both recent events and long-simmering trends have convinced me that it is still profoundly pertinent to contemporary Israeli society and ought to be on the minds of all religious Zionists, lest we run the risk of losing everything we hold so dear. 

 It is 24 years later, and the badge of shame remains. 

Photo Caption: Israel mourns Rabin
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons