Read Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel Online

Authors: Dan Ephron

Tags: #History, #Middle East, #Israel & Palestine, #Biography & Autobiography, #Presidents & Heads of State, #Political Science, #World, #Middle Eastern

Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel (6 page)

BOOK: Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel
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Yigal Amir read the newspapers that day with a sense of scorn for the optimism they exuded. He was also spending the holiday with family, including seven brothers and sisters. At twenty-three, he had recently moved back to his parents’ two-story home at 56 Borochov Street in Herzliya, having completed five years of army service and seminary study in a program geared to observant Jews. A
civilian again, he was now working odd jobs and growing out his black curly hair. He planned to continue living with his parents once he started law school in a few weeks, which in the Israeli university system—more akin to Europe’s than the American one—was open to undergraduates.

Amir was short and thin and had the kind of dusky complexion that identified him to other Israelis as Teimani—of Yemeni extraction. Among a certain segment of Ashkenazim

those Jews of European origin who regarded themselves as the country’s cultural elite—the skin tone suggested inferiority, a stereotype that Amir took great pleasure in disproving. In school and in the army, he showed himself to be smarter and tougher than most of his peers. An IQ test administered years later placed him in the upper tier of intellectual aptitude; he scored 144 on the verbal section. His dark eyes and broad smile, which could be either warm or menacing, made him alluring to women.

Two days earlier, Amir watched the televised handshake between Rabin and Arafat. He decided instantly that the Oslo deal was not just a calamity for Israel but an act of treason by Rabin, the land he would be handing over to the Palestinians having been promised by God to the Jews. Amir had been a supporter of Moledet, an ultranationalist party whose leader, Rehavam Ze’evi, advocated a kind of self-deportation for Palestinians—with Israel providing both negative and positive inducements. Among Israeli political figures, only the late Meir Kahane, the American-born rabbi and agitator who preached a xenophobic hatred toward Arabs, articulated more extreme positions. Amir favored Kahane but a judicial panel had ruled his Kach Party too nakedly racist to compete in elections.

Amir’s political extremism arose from a somewhat unusual upbringing: an ultra-Orthodox education but also a day-to-day exposure to the material world of secular Israelis.

His father, Shlomo, had emigrated with his family from Yemen in 1942 and attended a Haredi yeshiva in Bnei Brak, “Haredi” being the Hebrew term for the most devout and “god-fearing”—the literal definition of the term—among the Jews. Shlomo dressed in dark suits and wide-brimmed hats, the outfit of the ultra-Orthodox, and worked as
a religious scribe, copying by hand Torah scrolls and other religious texts in ornamented calligraphy. The home where Amir grew up had the trappings of religious piety, including portraits of rabbis on the walls and Talmudic volumes lining the shelves of an old bookcase in the living room.

But the neighborhood itself, Neve Amal in Herzliya, was comprised mostly of nonobservant Jews. Shlomo had purchased the home for a good price in 1964, when it consisted of just two rooms on a single floor. He moved in at the end of the Six-Day War with his bride, Geulah Shirion, whose family had also emigrated from Yemen. Gradually, they expanded it outward and upward. Elsewhere in the country, ultra-Orthodox Jews tended to cloister themselves in homogenous neighborhoods. The Amirs, on their tree-lined block, with a small market at one end and a grassy playground at the other, were an anomaly.

From his father and from the Haredi grade school he attended, Amir soaked up the strictest version of Jewish orthodoxy, including a provision that every word of the Torah is divined truth. But he also absorbed influences from the neighborhood. Geulah ran a day-care center in the backyard of the home, opening her door to children mostly of secular families—and the cultural winds that blew in with them. Books that made their way to the house included the novels of the German author Karl May, whose stories about life in America’s Old West appealed to Amir. At some point, Geulah allowed television in the house—an appliance frowned upon in ultra-Orthodox communities—including a set in Amir’s room. He and Hagai, the eldest among the siblings, liked to watch thrillers and westerns borrowed from a video rental shop in the neighborhood.

The secular influence could, in theory, have moderated Amir’s worldview. Certainly it influenced his outward appearance. Amir dressed in jeans and T-shirts, with the ritual fringes that observant Jews wear under the shirt, known as
tucked into his pants instead of protruding ostentatiously. But far from tempering Amir’s political outlook, it produced an internal discord that seemed to radicalize him, in the view of a clinical psychologist who would evaluate him some years later. “There’s a strong conflict inside him between
the longing for sensual and emotional satisfaction and his commitment to a religious and ideological way of life—an ideology that demands sacrificing all material pleasures,” the psychologist Gabriel Weil would write after spending several hours with Amir over two days. “He feels a sense of guilt about the longing.”

The dissonance would increase in Amir’s teen years. At age eleven, he pressed his parents to send him to a secondary school in Tel Aviv, Israel’s secular heartland. The school belonged to the Haredi education system but offered a broader curriculum than just Torah and Talmud. Crucially, it prepared students for university instead of a life in the yeshiva. Shlomo and Geulah balked at the idea. Getting to school would require their seventh-grader to travel on a public bus for almost an hour each way. But Amir was nothing if not willful. He locked himself in his room and announced he would not emerge until his parents relented. The standoff lasted a day and a night, an eternity for Geulah, who spent the time talking first herself and then Shlomo into giving the school a try. By morning, Amir had prevailed.

The high school Amir went on to attend in Tel Aviv, HaYishuv HaHadash, had a snooty prestige to it and brought Amir into contact with the children of Orthodox nobility. A student several grades ahead of Amir would become the chief rabbi of Israel, the country’s highest religious authority. Geulah recalled years later that the principal of the boarding school initially snubbed her son, perhaps because of his skin tone, but came to respect his solid command of scripture. When Amir graduated four years later, he declined the service exemption available to most Haredis and signed up for the army.

It was now 1988, the first full year of the Palestinian uprising. In the Gaza Strip, where Amir spent long stretches, Palestinian youths would gather in huge numbers to taunt soldiers and throw stones. Though the level of violence would remain relatively low in this first “intifada” (a second insurrection years later would include dozens of suicide bombings), it affirmed for Amir the notions he’d held for years: that Arabs would kill Jews at every opportunity and that only ruthless reprisals would deter Palestinians.

Amir had volunteered for the Golani Brigade, a unit with a reputation for dealing harshly with Palestinians. In dispersing large pro
tests, it was not uncommon for soldiers to separate individuals from the crowd and dispense harsh beatings. Private Amir, Company C, 13th Battalion, seemed to take special pleasure in it, as a member of his unit, Boaz Nagar, would later recall. “Yigal was the enforcer with a capital
. Hit them hard, hit here, push there. Destroy stuff. He enjoyed badgering them just for fun.” The behavior drew mostly praise from Amir’s officers.

There were other forms of harassment as well. Amir told friends later that on patrols in Gaza, he and his buddies liked to drive their jeeps straight at oncoming Palestinian vehicles in order to provoke a response. If a driver didn’t swerve to get out of their way, the soldiers would interpret the behavior as hostile and shoot at his windshield. Most of the time, the Palestinians would pull well off the road to let the soldiers pass.

The growing brutality of soldiers serving in the West Bank and Gaza raised enough concern for the government to commission an internal study in 1989 on how the intifada was affecting troops. It concluded, perhaps not surprisingly, that soldiers often became violent at home as well and cultivated a deep hatred for Palestinians.

For Amir, the power felt invigorating. A photo from this period shows him standing on a dirt road, in front of a row of tanks. He has one arm propped on his hip and the other draped over the shoulder of a somewhat taller soldier. Both men are smiling, but Amir’s expression is tighter and more controlled. His Galil assault rifle hangs across his torso and the signature brown beret of the Golani Brigade is folded into his epaulette. A clump of dark chest hair projects from his open shirt.

Amir’s regular evaluations were so positive that one of Israel’s intelligence agencies approached him about a mission overseas. The agency, Nativ, had been sending Israelis to the Soviet Union for short periods going back decades—to smuggle books to Zionist activists who faced government harassment, teach them Hebrew, and lift their spirits. With the Communist era now over and Jews free to leave, the mission evolved. Amir was tasked with persuading these potential emigrants to choose Israel over other destinations, including Germany
and the United States. He spent several months in Riga with a second emissary, Avinoam Ezer, who came to regard him as exceptionally smart and capable. By the time they left, Amir had learned enough Russian to communicate basic ideas.

Sometime during his service Amir gravitated toward a more provocative form of fundamentalism. Whereas his Haredi upbringing taught him that God alone determined the destiny of the Jews, he now bristled at the passiveness of this approach. Instead, he embraced the idea that Jews “must learn to fathom God’s Will” and act accordingly. Amir had read the line in an introduction to a book of essays by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the spiritual leader of the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. While Kook seemed not quite fiery enough for Amir, the author of the introduction, the far-right politician Binyamin Elon, had captured something profoundly meaningful to the young extremist. “Contrary to the secular, activist approach, which holds that history is determined by man’s actions alone, and contrary to the passive [religious] approach, which holds that Divine Will is the sole instrumentality, we must learn to fathom God’s Will and ‘come to the help of the Lord’ [Judges 5:23] and ‘act with God,’ ” he wrote in his own essay. Elon meant the passage as an exhortation: Jews must settle the West Bank and Gaza rather than wait for God to secure their sovereignty over the territory.

But Amir read it as a broader theological doctrine, one that empowered him to judge for himself—to “fathom God’s Will”—whether political leaders were honoring the Bible or violating it. Amir felt uniquely qualified to execute the doctrine. In his own view, he knew God’s writ better than most Jews, even most rabbis. And he was a doer—the characteristic that defined Amir more than any other, that distinguished him from his peers in school and in the military. If a leader of Israel strayed from the core tenets of the Bible, Amir had his own notions about how to “come to the help of the Lord.”

At home, these notions helped draw a line between his father’s Judaism and his own. Amir had already told his brother Hagai cryptically that it might be necessary to do something about Rabin. When he repeated the words one day at the dinner table, his father responded
with a line he would deliver again and again in the coming years. “Only through prayer and Torah study will the government collapse. And if it doesn’t, it’s not God’s will,” he said.

To Amir it was a meek and submissive Judaism his father was preaching, one he had already left behind.

holiday, Amir and his brother set out for Shavei Shomron, a Jewish settlement surrounded by Palestinian villages in the West Bank. Hagai had finished his own army service several years earlier and had been working in trade jobs, first as an electrician and now as a metalsmith. With the money he’d saved, he bought an off-white Volkswagen Beetle, a 1976 model. He also put several thousand dollars in a savings account and bought shares in a company that quickly lost most of its value. He hadn’t bothered cashing out.

The two brothers looked alike, held the same extremist positions, and confided in each other about almost everything, having shared a room since birth. But they were different in significant ways. Amir engaged easily with people, including girls, while Hagai mostly kept to himself. Hagai had watched his little brother stand up to older and bigger boys if they tried to bully him on the playground but lacked the fiery temperament to do it himself. He also lacked his brother’s aptitude in school. Geulah thought of her two sons as the thinker and the tinkerer, Hagai being the one who could fix appliances in the house, who liked taking apart old radios to see how they worked.

Hagai was also less crafty. Geulah kept the boys mostly indoors or in the backyard. “You wouldn’t see them just walking the streets,” she would recall years later. She also kept them from participating in sports, which involved dressing immodestly and mingling with girls, whether on the team or on the sidelines. Instead, the two burned their schoolboy energy around the house. Hagai liked to sneak up on his brother and knock the book he was reading from his hand, a provocation that invariably ended in a chase and a broken window. (The neighborhood glazier, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps,
made a regular portion of his living from the Amirs). But Amir almost never got punished. “Hagai would get yelled, at but Yigal was clever. He would get away with things,” Geulah said. Like his brother, Hagai had also served in an infantry unit and spent time in the Gaza Strip. During a grueling five-month boot camp, he trained as a sniper, learning how to stalk a target, where to position himself, and how to breathe while shooting. He also developed an interest in explosives, reading about them in army manuals and pilfering munitions whenever he could. On isolated operating bases, it was not difficult to do. The ammunition was often stored in a tent and guarded by the soldiers themselves. If Hagai did three hours of guard duty at the tent, he might leave with a pocketful of fuses or detonators.

BOOK: Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel
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