Lest We Forget

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Amir between two jailors

In Israel these days, a big debate is raging about Yigal Amir. Amir, for those of you who don’t know or have forgotten, was the guy who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin back in November 1995. Sentenced to life imprisonment, since then he has been in jail. As, by law, he deserves be. To avoid misunderstandings, let me repeat the last sentence: as, by law, he deserves to be.

The occasion for the debate is a newly produced documentary about his life. Should it, or should it not, be subsidized? Should it, or should it not, be shown? Is it, or is it not, “educational” (as Voltaire might have said, “education” is the last refuge of the scoundrel)? In my view, the fact that Amir has committed a crime and is being punished for it does not mean that he should not be allowed to have his say. Let alone that others should not be allowed to think, say and write about him. Just as they please.

Questioned after the deed, Amir maintained that there was nothing personal in it. He had never hated Rabin. To the contrary, he rather liked the man. They did in fact have some things in common. To wit, honesty and a certain kind of shyness. The reason why he acted, so Amir, was because he feared the Prime Minister would follow up on the Oslo Agreements and allow the Palestinians to establish a State in the West Bank and Gaza. That, in Amir’s view, was against God’s Law as well as a mortal danger to Israel.

I do not know anything about God’s Law. However, in this belief, about Rabin allowing the Palestinians to set up a State Amir was probably wrong. When Rabin died he no longer had a majority in Parliament. Chances are that he would have had to call new elections. And that he would have lost them to Likud. Which, at the time, was headed, for the first time, by a young leader by the name of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The documentary shows how Amir was brought up in a national-religious family (his father was a Torah student, his mother ran a kindergarten). He did his military service in an elite infantry unit and went on to study law at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. He chose it because its official ideological stance resembled, and sill resembles, his own. It holds that Israel should be a religious state and that it should never, ever, surrender the Occupied Territories. At the university he came into contact with a group of similarly-minded young people. Though just how much they knew about his intentions remains moot.

Since then Amir has been in jail. Allegedly for fear he would “influence” other prisoners—an idiotic idea, if you ask me—he spent the first seventeen years of his sentence in an isolation cell. His every move was monitored by CCTV. In other ways, too, he was being tormented and, in comparison with other murderers, discriminated against. I have seen a clip; you might think he was some kind of cockroach. It made me gag. Not at the man, but at the way he was being treated.

As a practicing Jew, Amir believes that it is his duty to leave offspring, preferably a boy, behind him. Making use of some peculiarities of Jewish Law and exploiting the stupidity of his jailors who did everything they could to stop him, he succeeded in marrying Larisa Trembovler, a doctor of philosophy. They had met when he was teaching Judaism in Moscow; later she divorced her husband for his sake. He even succeeded in forcing the State to allow them to have intercourse. She became pregnant and gave him a son.

The film also shows his life in prison. Particularly moving is a section where, using the phone, he reads his son a story. When the child asks why he is in jail, Amir answers that it is because he had done something that is prohibited by law. That, in my view, is a hero. A man who does not allow the force of circumstances to break him but copes with them as best he can. All the time, thinking not just about himself but about others as well.

But this is not about Amir alone. It is about freedom. If not outer freedom, which Amir does not have and probably will never again have, then inner freedom. Never once in the entire twenty years that have passed since 1995 did Amir say that he regretted what he had done. Never once did he apologize, never once did he grovel, never once did he ask for mercy. In so doing he kept the most important thing in life. To wit, his inner freedom; the right to be what he is without asking anyone or anything for permission.

Of Stalin’s USSR, the Nobel-Prize winning writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn wrote that the only ones who enjoyed freedom in it were the inhabitants of the GULAG. Modern Israel (and not just Israel, but that is another matter) is, thank God, not quite as bad. However, as the debate about the film shows, it is bad enough. What really makes people mad at Amir is not what he did. It is the fact that, by his courageous behavior, he is showing his jailers, the police, the security services, the justice system, the State, most Israeli politicians, and large parts of the Israeli public that they have no power over him.

I myself am neither religious nor a supporter of “Greater Israel.” I most certainly do not condone Amir’s deed. But I do think that the petty abuse to which the State, by way of its justice- and prison system, has been and is subjecting Amir on a daily basis should stop. After all, Rabin’s blood was no redder than that of anyone else. Hence Amir should be treated like any other convicted murderer. And that should include the possibility of an early release. Which, in Israel, is usually granted after twenty years.  

Last not least, I believe that, in a certain way, the fact that people like Yigal (the name, incidentally, means “he who will redeem”) Amir exist is a blessing for society. And not just for Israeli society either. That is because, in a world where freedom of speech, the most elementary there is, is being increasingly limited day by day, he is one person who, amidst all his suffering, still has what it takes to be free and hold it up for the rest of us to see.