So who, then, was responsible for the murder of Yitzhak Rabin? Yigal Amir, certainly. The General Security Services for their complacency, undoubtedly. But who else beyond the immediate participants of that black deed? At which point does the delineation between certain blame and political accusation become blurred? Indeed, the Brooklyn-based Jewish Press told its 350,000 ultra-orthodox readers in a half page headline: Labour Party Uses Rabin Murder to Stifle Dissent: Trying to Delegitimize Likud Party and All Religious People. This smokescreen approach to deliberately promote a state of ideological siege should not divert a reasoned analysis. As Moses and Aaron asked: ‘Should you be angry at the entire congregation because one man has sinned’ [Numbers 16:22].
The answer is ‘No’. Indeed, the discrimination against Amir’s university — ‘Bar-Ilan-Teheran’ — was lamentable. But where is the line drawn? Is there not a difference between responsibility for the actual murder and moral accountability for having created the conditions which allowed it to happen? Did Yigal Amir kill Rabin because he was deranged as Rabbi Alan Kimche implies? Was the smiling Amir a natural born killer? The writer Amos Elon was more incisive in his comments, ‘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’. What then pushed Yigal Amir over the edge? Eyal, the fringe group with which Amir was associated, inducts new members with a swearing-in ceremony by the graveside of Avraham Stern, the founder of Lehi — and better known as the leader of the ‘Stern Gang’. A mystic and an intellectual, Stern was the real ‘father’ of the revolt against the British in Palestine in the early 1940s. He was a student of revolutionary violence and had read many works ranging from the Irish republican movement to the Russian Anarchists. Indeed, he translated P. S. O’Hegarty’s classic ‘The Victory of Sinn Fein’ into Hebrew. Stern also looked to Biblical and Jewish historical sources. Indeed, he often referred to the idea that ‘the book and the sword came bound together from heaven’ [Midrash Vayikra Rabba 35:8] to justify his ideological approach. Stern defined the borders of the Land of Israel ‘from the River of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates’. [Genesis 15:18]. This quote prepared the ground for a modern-day Jewish Commonwealth stretching from Egypt to Iraq. Stern and his successors were prepared to implement individual terror to achieve their aim and this meant enacting a policy of hisul, elimination. Most students of Zionism will know that it was emptied in the assassinations of Lord Moyne  and Count Bernadotte , but it was also carried out against fellow Jews. Whilst both the Haganah and the Irgun occasionally carried out assassinations, Lehi carried out 71% of all political murders between 1940 and 1948. Significantly, 48% of Lehi’s killings were of fellow Jews who were either working for the British Intelligence or had passed information to hostile opponents. The idea that Jews actually do kill Jews is not new.
Although Menachem Begin did not accept Lehi’s approach — and especially assassination — he courted Lehi and the far Right and eulogised Stern as a martyr for the cause in order to make a grand coalition of the Right. He shrewdly pursued his goal in collecting right wing and anti-Labour fragments for thirty years until he finally achieved power in 1977. Although this alliance fell apart because of the Camp David Accord with Egypt, the Likud and the far Right historically possesses traditions of verbal violence through the leadership of Menachem Begin and of individual terror stretching back to Avraham Stern. Whilst the left has also been guilty of periodic misdemeanours, this mentality has governed the methods by which sections of the Likud and the far Right have projected themselves. As one journalist wrote ‘the bullets in Israel are always shot from right to left’. Many religious people were attracted to Stern’s mystical, messianic legacy of violence. Ten years ago, the machteret yehudit, the Jewish Underground of religious Zionists was highly influenced by the ultra-nationalist tradition of Avraham Stern and the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg. They progressed from a maiming of Palestinian mayors — individual terror — to an attempt to blow up five Arab buses and their passengers — indiscriminate mass violence.
Such historical conditioning does not hold out much hope for Jonathan Sacks’s well-intentioned appeal to those religious voices which uttered ‘the rhetoric of hate’. What is left unsaid is that an integration of a selective reading of the texts and the political heritage of the Right has produced a righteousness that admits no culpability except in the broadest, most general sense. Indeed, the non-Zionist ultra-orthodox are now in a great rush to crudely distance themselves from the religious Zionists — even to the point of rubbishing Amir’s yeshiva as an institution of superficial learning. Too many religious leaders have suggested a symmetry of blame between the Right and the Left. In an article in the New York Times, the writer, Thomas L. Friedman, effectively dismissed calls for reconciliation and stated that ‘this is a time for taking sides’. This provoked an aggressive response in the name of orthodoxy and Jewish unity from the Bostoner Rebbe amidst a diatribe against Shulamit Aloni and Peace Now. The contrast between the tone of the letter and its innate plea for unity symbolised the reality of the dysfunctional attitude of part of ultra-orthodoxy. While some unequivocally condemned Amir’s interpretation of halachah, others used Judaism to practise denial. Rabin’s death, it was suggested, was foretold and is embedded in a code in Genesis. A letter writer to the Jewish Tribune suggested that God’s motive for allowing the assassination to take place could be interpreted as — measure for measure — a matter of divine providence because nearly fifty years ago Yitzhak Rabin was the officer in charge who carried out Ben-Gurion’s order to fire on the Irgun arms ship, the Altalena, causing the deaths of several Jews on board.
This method of defence against criticism indicates that the dangerous cocktail of mystical obscurantism and ideological extremism is still a potent weapon to be utilised when necessary.
This inability to take history in its entirety into account — and to understand its significance for today — will continue to prevent civilised debate from taking place. When the Hadrianic persecution is used as a central source to analyse present-day problems, then the methods of those barbaric times become understandable and for some, acceptable. Rabbi David Hartman has spoken about ‘a deep disease in orthodoxy that wasn’t there in the past’. The soul-searching after Rabin’s murder could become a catalyst for the healing of rifts, but in the presence of denial and a shallow remorse, this tragedy is more likely to become the precursor of new assaults against those who carry the peace process forward. As Yossi S arid pointed out, ‘Amir acted alone, but many sent him’.
Judaism Today Winter 1995-1996