Last week, Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, celebrated his 53rd birthday in Ramon prison. He has spent more of his life behind bars than in freedom. He has served more time in prison than Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa and, unlike most Israelis sentenced to life imprisonment, it is highly unlikely his sentence will ever be commuted.
The judges at Amir’s trial wrote in their summing up that “he who so calmly cuts short another’s life, only proves the depth of wretchedness to which his values have fallen, and thus he does not merit any regard whatsoever, except pity, because he has lost his humanity”.
Amir has never expressed remorse and instead has mounted a long campaign to secure his release – even forming a political party to fight for him. The Mishpat Tzedek party ran on a platform of release and retrial for Yigal Amir in 2019 – it received a paltry 1,375 votes.
Figures who came from that same community of far-right activists now sit in the heart of government. Itamar Ben-Gvir, today the Minister for National Security, was deeply involved in the campaign of incitement against Rabin, prior to his assassination.
As a Kahanist, Ben-Gvir revered the memory of Baruch Goldstein, an American follower of Meir Kahane, who was responsible for entering the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and killing 29 worshippers during Purim 1994. Ben-Gvir was proud to exhibit a photograph of Goldstein on the wall of his home in Hebron.
During the investigation, Amir told the Shamgar Inquiry that he, too, had been motivated by Goldstein’s actions. A one-time emissary of Bnei Akiva, Amir told the judges he had moved to Kiriat Arba, next to Hebron, after the Goldstein killings. Amir had desperately searched for rabbinical approval before the murder of the prime minister that Rabin qualified as a rodef (an assailant) who should be eliminated before he caused the deaths of multitudes due to his policies.
No direct instruction from a rabbi on the matter was uncovered and any vague utterance appears to have been left to the interpretation of the hearer. Baruch Ha’Gever, which praised Goldstein and attributed to the teachings of the Chabad rabbi, Yitzchak Ginsburgh, was later found on Amir’s bookshelf.
In 2007, Ben-Gvir and his fellow Kahanist, Baruch Marzel formed the Committee for Saving Democracy and produced a video that called for the release of Amir.
Amir acted in Rabin’s murder in conjunction with his brother, Hagai, who spent almost 17 years in prison. They believed they were acting according to halachic principles.
When Hagai was released in 2012, he immediately began to associate with Kahanists such as Bentzi Gopstein, who was a keen advocate in the burning down of churches in Israel. Gopstein was also the head of Lehava, which opposed intermarriage, the mixing of Arabs and Jews on beaches, the movement of Reform Jews and the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. Ben-Gvir often defended Gopstein as Lehava’s lawyer.
Gopstein, Marzel and Ben-Gvir all became leaders of a reinvigorated Kahanist party, Otzma Yehudit, which won six seats in last November’s Israeli election. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraced the party to form a component part of his government.
The vast majority of British Jewish organisations have either lightly expressed concern at the composition of the new Israeli government or have overtly condemned the inclusion of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich as ministers in its ranks. Central orthodoxy has remained as silent as the sphinx while advocacy organisations and their media have instead tried to spotlight the good things about Israel in 2023, such as its high placing in the recent Eurovision Song Contest.
What would happen if Ben-Gvir pressed for the release of Amir after a statutory 30-year term in prison? Would a red line have been crossed in the minds of many a diaspora Jew? Would being pained observers in silence still be an option for the central orthodox?
Amir’s liberation would cause an irreversible disunity in the Jewish world and bring angry millions out onto the streets in Israel.
Even so, what was thought to be a wild stretch of the imagination yesterday seems possible today in a move by today’s dysfunctional Israeli government.
Jewish News 2 June 2023