Israel's 'ayatollahs' make no apology

Peace in the balance: Rabin's assassin emerged from an education system combining military service with religious study

PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

"He was a good student in study and behaviour, a friendly man," says Rabbi Abraham Rivlin, dean of studies at the military-theological college outside Ashdod where Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, studied for five years.

It was here at Yavneh Yeshiva, a tree-shaded campus south of Tel Aviv, that Amir combined study of the Talmud with service in the elite Golani brigade. But it is these seminaries, with their blend of nationalism and religion, which are now seen as a breeding ground of fanaticism and violence.

Rabbi Rivlin, a benevolent, bearded man, says that when they heard the news that their former student had killed the Prime Minister, "We couldn't believe it. We don't have an answer to it." He says the seminary is not responsible for what happened and "you don't close down the line in a chair factory when you find one bad chair out of thousands".

Even in the wake of the assassination Rabbi Rivlin does not want to underplay the differences the religious right has with the government. He says: "I don't justify the murder, but I don't deny the real argument that we have with the government. We think the government is making a big mistake [in withdrawing from the West Bank]." By the standards of other military yeshivas, he says the one at Yavneh, with 380 students, is considered moderate.

Many secular Israelis, however, argue that the roots of Rabin's murder lie in the country's two education systems; a quarter of the population enters the religious one. Or Kashti, the education correspondent of the daily Ha'aretz, says: "It is possible for somebody to spend all his years from seven years old until he is 22 in this closed system."

Rabbi Rivlin says that Yavneh does not have political groups. But in fact the system is deeply politicised. In July former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira and other rabbis involved in the so-called Hesder units, where military service and religious study are combined, called on soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate bases or settlements on the West Bank. Their justification was that the area was part of the Land of Israel whose occupation was divinely ordained. Rabin attacked them as "ayatollahs" who opposed redeployment.

The seminary says its students are exemplary citizens. They arrive at 18 and spend 18 months or more in the armed forces, entering military service along with fellow religious students from their own yeshiva. Rabbi Rivlin says: "We send rabbis to give them lectures." He says Amir was not an extremist when he was at Yavneh, though soldiers in the Golani brigade interviewed yesterday in the Israeli press recall him as peculiarly cruel to Palestinians, volunteering for duties in Gaza which involved beating them.

It is difficult to see the link between the polite students and pretty gardens of Yavneh and fire breathing Israeli settlers from the West Bank threatening to slaughter any Palestinian who comes their way. The militant cells of Eyal and Kahane Chai were notorious for their anti-Arab venom, but Rabbi Meir Kahane, who inspired them, had broader ambitions, very similar to the ideas of much of the religious establishment. "The central message in Kahane's theory was and is conversion of Israel into a theocratic state, to be conducted according to Jewish religious laws, while the transfer of Arabs was only a byproduct of this basic conception," writes Professor Baruch Kimmerling, a specialist on the far right.

If, as Moshe Shahal, the Minister of Police, says, Rabin was killed by an organised cell then it had its origins in Yavneh and Bar-Ilan university. Two of its members went to the yeshiva and four to Bar-Ilan. They visited the West Bank to demonstrate - as recently as three weeks ago Yigal Amir helped to drag two women belonging to a human rights group by their hair through the streets of Hebron - but they did not live there or have their organisation there.

The Shin Bet security police have hinted that they are looking for rabbis who may have given divine blessing to Amir before he killed Rabin. But the signs are that Shimon Peres, the acting Prime Minister, does not want any confrontation with religious Israelis since he would like to lure some of them into his coalition. "Who knows," said one Israeli, "how many hundreds of religious young men like Amir are being trained up in the military yeshivas and religious universities who believe that God has given them the right to kill."

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