Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Dan Ephron

Twenty years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a horrible question arises: Was the murder a complete and unmitigated success?

I remember exactly where I was on November 4, 1995:  dozing with family on a lazy Shabbat afternoon. The TV was on, and it grabbed our attention when the program cut to breaking news. Rabin had just been shot, and was later confirmed killed, on his way toward the parking garage after a big peace rally in Tel Aviv.

It pains me even now, two decades later, to write the next sentence. But I knew in my kishkes right away that it was not a Palestinian terrorist who had murdered Rabin. I knew this was the work of a Jew. I doubted an Arab attacker would infiltrate a Tel Aviv rally of hundreds of thousands of Jews and be able to get to the Prime Minister. A Jewish terrorist, on the other hand, would slide through the crowd with ease. 

And I had seen firsthand the underbelly of violence fomenting in the Jewish community. The opposition (Mr. Netanyahu) had no problem, in the months prior to the murder, rallying beneath images portraying Rabin in an Arab kaffiyeh or with a Hitler mustache. Rabin, who had dared propose peace, was vilified among the Jewish right.

But worse than that: there were code words. Rabin, they insisted, was a boged (traitor), a rodef (one who is in active pursuit of a potential victim), and a moser (one who informs against Jews to non-Jewish authorities). Those are loaded terms, because in the Halachic world they could be interpreted to mean: Such a person could legally and morally be killed in order to halt his treachery. This was gasoline being poured on smoldering embers, waiting for the right fanatic to spark the flames of violence.

The publication of Dan Ephron’s Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel is timely, coinciding not only with the ugly anniversary, but also with waves of violence in Israel from the hands of Jewish extremists. 

Ephron begins the saga with the events leading up to the historic peace signing on the White House lawn in September 13, 1993. On that day Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and PLO President Yasser Arafat signed the historic peace accords that set in motion a dizzying new direction for the Middle East. Suddenly, nations around the world were making diplomatic overtures to Israel. It sparked a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994 (the first Arab state to do so since the treaty with Egypt in 1979). Rabin, Peres, and Arafat were all awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But the peace process also triggered more insidious responses. A wave of terrorism was launched against Israel. Hamas rose to power in Gaza, positioning itself as a more radical voice of the Palestinian street. And right-wing Jewish radicals seethed. On Purim 1995, Baruch Goldstein (yimach sh’mo—may his name be blotted out), a 38 year-old doctor and captain in the army reserve, walked into the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and massacred 29 Muslims at prayer and wounded 100 others. In some religious quarters, rabbis and students debated—in an ostensibly theoretical way—whether or not Jewish law mandated that Rabin should be put to death.

Ephron tells two distinct narratives (distinct, that is, until they come together at the denouement). One is Rabin, the unsentimental, battle-hardened leader, who had doubts but still concluded that peace with the Palestinians was pragmatic, strategic, and sensible.

The other narrative is of a young Yemeni Jew, Yigal Amir. Amir did not grow up in what was considered Israel’s incubators for radicals, the remote settlements in Judea and Samaria; he was from Herzliya, a small Mediterranean city north of Tel Aviv. He was a student at Bar Ilan University, than (and now) a mainstream Orthodox college for Jewish and secular studies.

The story of Amir’s radicalization is sobering. Amir spoke openly about killing Rabin to a circle of peers and family. He and his brother gradually accumulated an arsenal of weapons hidden in their family home. Yet somehow on that tragic night he was able to enter the garage where Rabin’s car was parked and loiter there for the better part of an hour. 

One astonishing detail is Amir’s utter remorselessness. Tel Aviv was his third attempt to murder the Prime Minister. In early 1995, he attempted to get close to Rabin at Yad Vashem, at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (can you imagine if the Prime Minister of Israel was assassinated by a Jew at such an event at such a place?). In April, he tried again to get close to Rabin at a Mimouna celebration in Jerusalem. He had been a known quantity to Shabak, Israel’s security services. And after Amir was in police custody, he acknowledged what he had done and why. He even returned to the square in Tel Aviv and walked police through the series of events, explaining exactly how he shot Rabin.

In the weeks after the assassination, there was some genuine hand wringing from the right wing religious Zionist camp. There seemed to be an acknowledgment that a virus was replicating itself in certain yeshivot and in the settlements: a virus that was radical, violent, and placed its loyalty in extremist rabbis rather than in the laws and institutions of the State of Israel. There seemed to be a spirit of honest Teshuvah.

But that self-reflection faded. Amir became a hero to many. (I recently argued with an Israeli friend about whether or not Amir would be paroled in his lifetime. He is convinced that one day it will be politically prudent for a Prime Minister to pardon Amir. I disagree, but the prospect chills me to the bone.) And conspiracy theories began to flourish among those who would exonerate Amir. Was the murder an inside job with Amir as the fall guy? Who yelled “They’re blanks!” when Amir fired his gun, causing confusion among the bodyguards and secret service agents? And what was the role of an embarrassing rogue Shabak informant, Avishai Raviv?

Ephron strikes a proper balance: He dismantles the conspiracy theories in a few pages without granting them too much legitimacy.

Today, the lessons of 20 years ago seem forgotten. Israel is currently governed by its most right-wing coalition in history. Recent months have seen a proliferation of “price-tag” attacks on Palestinians. So-called “hilltop youth” have become folk heroes of a sort among elements of Israeli society. Reclaiming the Temple Mount for Jewish prayer—once considered to be an extremely radical and inflammatory position—has gained traction this season as political wedge issue.

And certain settler rabbis continue to preach hatred and armed conflict in the name of G-d.  I have no doubt that behind closed doors, there are many Israelis who say, “You know, Rabin was a boged. He deserved to be killed.” 

Ephron’s gut-wrenching book deserves to be widely discussed in the pro-Israel community. Frankly, it’s haunted me since I read it. Somewhere tonight Yigal Amir sits in prison, aware that the modern Middle East is different because of him. Somewhere there are people who still drink L’chayim! to Amir as a hero. Somewhere, radical rabbis are giving drashot inciting their followers to embrace their hate—and their guns.

Killing a King reminds us that hateful words erupt into hateful deeds. If it inspires us to be counterpoints to Amir and his ilk—to elucidate a Judaism and a Zionism based on mutual respect and peace—then it will be more than just a timely reminder. It will be a Mitzvah.