Tuesday Book: The death of the Jewish dream

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THE JEWISH world was shattered for ever on 4 November 1995. Yigal Amir, photographed grinning after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, sits unrepentant today in an Israeli jail. Outside the prison, his birthday is celebrated with champagne by his fanatical supporters. Israel has still not come to terms with the gunning down of its prime minister. Does the fracture between secular Tel Aviv, and orthodox Jerusalem and the occupied territories, mark the beginning of a suicidal split that will end in civil war?

In this book, Michael Karpin and Ina Friedman are circumspect. They build up a detailed analysis of a violent subculture which has percolated into the mainstream and still threatens Israeli democracy. In the struggles leading up to Independence in 1948, Jew had already assassinated Jew. Amir's act of murder was not provoked by a small faction of extremists, but was completely representative of Jewish orthodoxy's latent mob rule.

According to Karpin's and Friedman's research, Amir was urged to murder by racist rabbis. These Jewish zealots detest secular Israel and yet are happy to live off its benefits. Their children do not at present go into the army, and they form the bulk of the non-working population. They also pay lower taxes than secular Israelis.

The strength of this report is the detailed political, religious and personal mosaic built up as background to Amir's "messianic" mission. It shows how he fits into the wider religious terrorism nourished in right- wing seminaries. The authors reveal the hardly known concepts of din rodef and din moser, by which obsolete religious laws are revived, permitting the murder of a Jew who imperils the lives of other Jews.

Orthodox rabbis began to reinstate these antiquated ideas to justify murdering Rabin after the Oslo peace accords. Thus they cancelled the sixth commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." Religious pressure to oppose the democratic state insidiously influenced the volatile factions and, when married to the opportunist ambitions of the secular right, resulted in the fatwa threatening Rabin. A year before the assassination, a photograph of Benjamin Netanyahu, then Likud chairman,marching in front of a coffin painted with the words "Rabin is murdering Zionism", prophesied what was to follow.

Karpin and Friedman make a fascinating point. Amir was the perfect choice as assassin because of his Yemenite origins, his intensely religious education, and his tunnel vision. They chronicle how Amir was influenced by the legacy of Baruch Goldstein and the Hebron massacres, in which 29 Arabs were gunned down at prayer. Amir also met members of the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane's Kach group, seeing himself as Kahane's and Goldstein's disciple.

The authors blame the racist rabbis responsible for the education of those who encouraged Amir's act. But they also note that, because Amir "has only scant knowledge of Western philosophy, the border between reason and emotion was blurred in his mind". Amir's progressively orthodox mother wanted an Ashkenazi mate but agreed to an arranged marriage with a fellow Yemeni. A "mixed" marriage might have given Yigal a pluralistic education, and Rabin might be alive today.

Yitzhak Rabin's intelligence and political innocence emerge throughout the book. He was seen at his election as Mr Security, and his pragmatic transformation into peacemaker scandalised the right and the religious groups. Ingenuously, Rabin chose to ignore the constant slanders, even though his opponents' murderous "free speech" endangered his life. On the eve of Yom Kippur, Kahane's disciples uttered death curses in front of the prime minister's residence. A month before the murder, images of Rabin in Nazi uniform were paraded in a demonstration headed by Netanyahu. Other photomontages show him dressed as Yasser Arafat.

One of Rabin's greatest mistakes was neglecting his US supporters so that only his enemies' homicidal voices were heard. When his minister of culture, Shulamit Aloni (a left-wing, pro-Palestinian feminist lawyer), spoke for the government at New York's 1995 Israel Day parade, a right- winger punched her in the stomach. She was still recovering from an abdominal operation. Indeed, the authors show how New York's racist orthodoxy mobilised Mayor Giuliani against the peacemakers and collected money to nourish the murderous Israeli seminaries.

If there was naivety at cabinet level, there was also blundering in the security services. The authors reveal how an informer reported on Amir's confession that he was going to kill Rabin, then failed to follow it up. At the Peace Now demonstration where Rabin was killed, security guards spoke to Amir twice when he was spotted hanging about the car park, without arresting him.

This is an important book, which not only analyses the build-up to the most famous political murder in Israel but also alerts us to the dangers today. Will there be war between the Labourites and the secular right, supported by the Jewish ayatollahs? Will peace with the Palestinians ever be allowed to grow? Fifty years after the birth of Israel, there seems little hope for the great secular Jewish dream.

Julia Pascal