Yigal Amir and Israeli Society

Yigal Amir and Israeli Society

It was 21 years ago last week, at the end of a peace rally in the heart of Tel Aviv, that a young Jewish man clasped his gun, confidently aimed it at prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s back and fired three bullets.

There is no person or topic that disturbs Israeli society more than Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin.

Published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine November 10th, 2016

Indeed, while the Israeli public can apparently stomach a play written by a Palestinian terrorist in jail – as it recently has – screening of a well-reviewed documentary film called Beyond the Fear about Amir’s wife Larisa was blocked by Culture Minister Miri Regev, who threatened to cut support to the recent Jerusalem Film Festival, if the movie were shown.

Many hate Amir because they think that he violently imposed his right-wing nationalist vision on the rest of the country’s citizens by murdering a serving prime minister. But the untold story of Yigal Amir is actually much more interesting.

Unlike what many seem to think, Amir was not what we usually refer to as “a nationalist.” He was not even so much of a Zionist, as most people understand this term. But his radical messianic and anarchistic views are key to understanding some of the transformations Israeli society is experiencing and trying to face today.

YIGAL AMIR was born on May 31, 1970 to Geula and Shlomo Amir. His parents still live in the same apartment where Yigal grew up, in Herzliya. Geula managed a private kindergarten in their home and Shlomo was a sofer stam (scribe), transcribing holy Jewish texts onto parchment. The neighborhood was inhabited by both religious and non-religious Jews, but the Amirs stood out as particularly devout. Amir’s father left the house at dawn for morning prayers wearing full black Orthodox attire, and when he returned he would meet mothers wearing tank tops and shorts, who entrusted his wife with their children’s education.

Young Amir looked up to his father and admired his uncompromising religious devotion. He was a quiet, studious and ambitious child.

Independently, he decided to study at the New Yishuv Yeshiva, a prestigious institution that produced a long list of rabbis, academics and politicians, including serving Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and MK Moshe Gafni of the haredi United Torah Judaism Party.

This was not a simple transition for Amir. He was the youngest boy in the yeshiva, he commuted alone to Tel Aviv and the studies were challenging. Also, unlike the majority of the students, who were of Ashkenazi origin, Amir was Mizrahi, of Yemenite descent.

Tension between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews began at the end of the 19th century, and the “ethnic demon” is still a controversial topic today. The Amir family experienced the tensions between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim throughout their lives. Both parents, despite their ethnic origin, were educated in Ashkenazi institutions. Amir and his brother attended mostly Ashkenazi elementary schools, high schools and yeshivot.

Nevertheless, Amir stood out as only partly belonging among his peers, and in the army he was nicknamed “Leader of the Yemenite Gang.”

Indeed, one of the most notorious mysteries in the early history of Israel, the Yemenite children affair, hit close to home for the Amir family, where it was believed that an infant from Amir’s extended family was abducted by the state and never returned. Last year, Amir’s brother, Hagai, who was involved in planning Rabin’s assassination, shared a status on Facebook of a fellow Yemenite Jew narrating his grandparents’ tragedy of losing two children to the State of Israel. The post concluded with the following words: “Damned State of Israel, you were born in blood and die in oblivion.” Just this week, Hagai referred to Israel as “The Forth Reich.”

IN 1988, Amir enlisted in the infantry Golani Brigade, in a special program that allowed cadets to combine their studies at yeshiva with military service while maintaining their lifestyle, which included intensive Torah study. Even within a platoon of religious soldiers, Amir was considered pious and strict and would rise early and wake his friends for the morning prayers.

Those were the days of the first intifada, when infantry soldiers experienced heated friction with the civilian population. Later, after he was imprisoned, Amir’s parents, wife and brother tried to tone down his racism.

However, a testimony of one of his peers in the army who spoke with Maariv a few days after the assassination suggests that, at least when he was 20, he had violent and racist inclinations.

“In Golani everyone beat up [Palestinians]. I wasn’t clean myself...

But Yigal was something different, a whole new level. I remember that when we were regularly working in Jabaliya, the officer told us before entering a house to give the people ‘a thorough treatment.’ Yigal Amir was the executor.

The Executor. He would go hard on them. Beat people up, push around, vandalize belongings, enjoy mistreating them, just for entertainment.”

Amir was released from duty in 1991 and was sent by a religious youth movement as part of a delegation to Riga, Latvia, to teach Judaism. Shortly after he returned, he started studying at Bar-Ilan University in a rigorous program for law, Jewish studies, and computer science.

His main priority, though, was not his schoolwork but his political activism.

AMIR STARTED to travel to the West Bank and became familiar among settler circles and rabbis, establishing connections. One of these connections was with Rabbi Moshe Levinger, one of the founding fathers of the renewal of Jewish settlement in Hebron, who was charged and convicted of violent acts against Palestinians in the ’70s and the ’80s.

As part of Amir’s aspiration to partake in the efforts to stop the Oslo Agreement train from getting under way, he organized student trips to Judea and Samaria so as many students as possible would come to know and sympathize with the residents there, and through this intimate encounter oppose withdrawal from the West Bank.

Those trips were a success in terms of numbers – hundreds participated – but he wasn’t entirely satisfied.

He thought that his weekend trips had become social events and that their political edge wasn’t sharp enough.

He also grew somewhat frustrated at the way most settlers led the campaign against the peace process.

“A settler wouldn’t have dared to kill Rabin,” he told a police officer who interrogated him after the assassination. “The settlers are concerned about their image. They’re timid, terrified people.”

Around that time, he dated Nava Holtzman, a woman from a highly respected Ashkenazi family in the religious Zionist community. In profiles of Amir penned shortly after the murder and published in Yediot Aharonot and Maariv, it was emphasized that Amir’s girlfriend eventually rejected him partly because of her family, who looked down upon his non-Ashkenazi origin. Dan Ephron, who authored a meticulously researched book on the Rabin assassination, Killing a King, published a year ago, wrote that, “Their [Holtzman’s parents] qualms might have had something to do with Amir’s skin tone... [unlike the Holtzmans] Amir was Mizrahi... and not just Mizrahi, but Yemenite, the darkest shade on the ethnic palette.”

Not too long after Amir and Holtzman started dating, the Yemenite children affair surfaced again when Rabbi Uzi Meshulam barricaded himself with several of his followers in a private home in Yehud. He demanded that the government launch a comprehensive investigation of the kidnapping of the Yemenite children. When Meshulam left the house to negotiate with the authorities, SWAT teams stormed the house and shot one of his followers dead. Eventually, Rabin’s government did reopen the investigations around this affair, but, as Ephron wrote in his book, “The Amir brothers saw the raid as one more way Rabin silenced truth tellers and shut down dissent.”

Whether or not Holtzman broke up with Amir because of her parents’ alleged racism, the ethnic tension was a third wheel in their relationship.

Soon after she broke up with Amir, she married one of his friends. Amir was devastated.

Years later, Amir’s father speculated that the breakup was a pivotal moment, and that had he married Holtzman, he would have never killed Rabin.


Turning point

Another figure who seemed to have resonated with Amir was Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh – an American transplant to Israel who had become influential with new-age seekers, Chabad, and the settlement movement. A controversial figure to this day, Ginsburgh was often accused of inciting violence. Although never convicted, he was imprisoned, and his yeshivot were often visited by Shin Beit (Israel Security Agency) officers armed with search and arrest warrants.

However, he is also regarded as a gaon (genius) who wrote more than 80 books and masterfully renews Jewish spirituality.

In 1994, Amir attended the funeral of Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish doctor who murdered 29 Muslims as they were praying in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Purim. Amir said during his trial and investigation that this was a turning point for him as a political activist.

Ginsburgh’s essay Baruch Hagever (“Blessed is the Man”), based on his eulogy for Goldstein, includes ideas that apparently corresponded with Amir’s own beliefs.

That essay inspired a collection of essays on similar topics that came out as an anthology under the same title, Blessed is the Man – a play on words, since in Hebrew it bears another meaning: “Baruch [Goldstein’s first name] is a well-regarded man.”

Although there is no evidence to directly link Ginsburgh and Amir’s act of murder, when the Shin Beit raided Amir’s room, one of the few books they found there was this anthology.

Carmi Gillon, who headed the Shin Beit during the Rabin assassination told the Magazine in a phone interview that Ginsburgh’s ideas and worldview are reflected in the reasoning Amir described as motivating him to take action.

“He was influenced by Ginsburgh – whether there was a direct contact between them I don’t know. Perhaps there wasn’t, and perhaps they met.

There might be details that we simply cannot know.

“What I do know is that Amir – and that came up in the interrogations – saw himself as an emissary of rabbis, as the messenger who is implementing their gospel. He held a comprehensive and complex religious ideology. There were other rabbis that had direct impact on him – some of them from Ginsburgh’s circles...

“Yigal Amir isn’t crazy,” Gillon added. “Targeting him as the threat is counterproductive. If you want to stop those who are the real danger, look for the rabbis that are still preaching incitement.”

Ginsburgh’s essay, which was found among Amir’s belongings, elaborates on how a violent act can be a manifestation of devotion to God and bring the world closer to redemption. Ginsburgh discusses violent revenge as a concept that contains spiritual virtue and describes it as a form of authentic selfexpression, while at the same time a means of abrogating one’s individuality and becoming one with God and nature.

Prof. Adam Afterman, chair of the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel Aviv University and senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, told the Magazine, “For Ginsburgh, taking revenge is the purest act of Jewish authenticity and kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) . For a Jew to reach the highest level of kiddush Hashem, he must implement against his human instincts a ‘superhuman’ act of violence that will ignite the process and eventually lead to a new religious reality.”


Silenced? 

In their 1998 book Murder in the Name of God, which investigates Rabin’s assassination, Michael Karpin and Ina Friedman quote one of Amir’s friends, Shlomi Halevy, who said after the murder that “[Amir’s] line of argument is rational and devoid of emotion...

There’s no such thing as pluralism for him, no nuance, no openness; it’s all or nothing. There is only One Truth, and he is privy to it.”

Halevy describes Amir as “a fanatic of the holy trinity: the People of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and the Land of Israel.

He hasn’t much use for democracy or the secular State of Israel, its anthem, and symbols. He dismisses what the goyim [gentiles] will do or say. He says that Israel must do what it can and trust that God will take care of all the rest.”

With these thoughts in mind, on the Saturday night of November 4, 1995, Amir wore a blue t-shirt to “look like a lefty,” and made sure he brought his loaded Beretta handgun with him when he headed to the peace rally in Tel Aviv.

The rest of the story is known. A hole in the prime minister’s security detail allowed Amir to shoot and kill Rabin from almost point blank. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to life behind bars.

WHILE IN prison, Amir developed a relationship with Larisa Trimbobler, a woman who sought his friendship.

Trimbobler, a recent immigrant from Russia at the time, was already married and a mother of four. She and her husband made contact with Yigal, Hagai and the rest of the Amir family, first through letters, then in person. Slowly, Trimbobler’s friendship with Yigal Amir grew stronger, and her marriage broke up. Trimbobler’s divorce paved the way for her love affair with Amir, who eventually asked her to marry him.

When news of their intentions to get married broke, Israeli politicians reacted with panic. Dalia Itzik, a senior member of the Labor party at the time, said, “There is but one place appropriate for this union – a pool of blood.”

Israeli media vulgarly described Trimbobler as a sex maniac and ridiculed her Russian accent. In a skit from 2011, flamboyant TV figure Gil Riva “interviews” Trimbobler, played by a male actor. Riva introduces actor- Trimbobler as a “secondhand piece of junk,” makes fun of her Russian accent and notes that her teeth are rotten.

Then the conversation becomes entirely sexual, and actor-Trimbobler says she would have had sex with Rabin had he been alive, and tries to seduce host Riva.

The prison authorities and courts did not want to allow Amir to exercise his legal rights to marry Trimbobler, despite the fact that other prisoners – including a couple of murderers who met in jail and a terrorist – had been allowed to wed. Amir and Trimbobler didn’t give up and performed an ancient Jewish custom of marrying thorough a proxy behind the authorities’ back.

Amir and Trimbobler then had to fight the system for their right for conjugal visits. After a long battle against the state, the couple succeeded, and their firstborn was given his name at the age of eight days in his circumcision ceremony on November 4, 2007, the 12th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination.

In her 2010 self-published and never commercially sold autobiography, Amir’s wife wrote: “The assassination was defined as a traumatic event [for the public]. Even beginning physicians know that it is necessary to study a disease in order to comprehend its source and nature. In order to understand the motives for the assassination and prevent future ones, the killer’s reasoning should be studied, and this is impossible [to do] without letting him speak.”

Indeed, in court Amir was silenced time and time again by the judge, and in 2008 when he spoke to Channel 10 news, he was punished by prison authorities and the interview was never broadcast due to extreme pressure on the journalists involved.

Yet, after years of silence, this reality seems to have changed to some degree. In 2007 a group including Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben Gvir congregated under the banner “The Committee for Saving Democracy” and produced a propaganda movie that calls for pardoning Amir. A Maariv poll the same year showed that 26% of Israeli public support pardoning Amir in the near future; more recent polls show that a large number of Israelis believe that Amir isn’t even guilty of the murder.

A poll from 2014 suggested that 55% of the religious Zionist public and 14% of the general public believe that Yigal Amir didn’t kill Rabin. A poll from 2015 showed that 19% of the general public now hold that opinion. A campaign to free Amir raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2011. A year ago, an IDF officers’ school cadet was kicked out of the course for supporting Amir’s assassination. There is a Facebook group with more than 2,500 followers that calls for his pardon, and his ideology is catching on at the fringes of society.

Today, when the idea of a modern state is being so heavily challenged in the region, it may be time to reexamine not only the assassination, but the ideology that cultivated it and has produced its current followers.

Can Israelis prevent violent individuals from rerouting history again? In this sense, Amir’s wife was right. Looking straight into Amir’s eyes and into the eyes and minds of other violent radical elements is essential to ensuring that Israel’s future will not be shaped again by an individual with a gun.