The Assassination of Yitzchak Rabin

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The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin on November 4th, 1995 remains one of the most difficult moments in Israeli history and in modern Jewish history. Join Noam Weissman as he dives into Rabin’s life and legacy and unpacks how the assassination and its aftermath continues to affect Israeli society.

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Episode Transcript

The evening of November 4, 1995 was a Saturday night that started off like any other. Immediately upon extinguishing the havdalah candle, my older brother Chanan and I rushed downstairs to switch on our basement television to watch our favorite Saturday night show, Walker, Texas Ranger.

But this Saturday night was to be different.

As we flipped through the channels, I vividly recall my father and mother slowly descending the staircase and coming into my field of vision. The pain and shock on their faces was obvious and unsettling. “Rabin was killed,” they muttered in disbelief. “Rabin was assassinated.”

Although I was not particularly interested in politics — certainly not Israeli politics — as a 10-year-old growing up in Baltimore, I was raised to be a committed Religious Zionist. I had heard of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. I recalled the image of him awkwardly, limpingly shaking the hand of Yasser Arafat. As I stood there in that basement, looking at my parents, I knew that a major event in the history of Israel and the Jewish people had just taken place.

There is no question that the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin on November 4th 1995 was one of the most difficult moments in Israeli history and honestly in modern Jewish history. In today’s episode, we’re going to dive into the life of Rabin, his legacy and of course his assassination and how it has impacted Israeli society ever since. 

It makes me think, what if Rabin was never assassinated? How would life look different? And, even before that, how did it get to the point that a Jew killed another Jewish leader? That fateful night, November 4th, 1995, altered the story of Israel…or maybe it didn’t?

A little biographical background to get us started. Born in Jerusalem in 1922, Rabin, a secular Jew, joined the legendary elite strike force called the Palmach in 1941. By 1947, Rabin became the chief of operations for the Palmach, setting the table for his key involvement in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war as one of the IDF’s key leaders. During this War of Independence, Rabin directed Israeli operations in Jerusalem and fought the Egyptian forces in the Negev. By 1964, Rabin was named the IDF’s Chief of Staff by Israel’s third prime minister Levi Eshkol. As Chief of Staff, Rabin helped build up Israel’s air fleet. This fleet would prove to be Israel’s most important tool in 1967, at the start of the Six-Day-War, when Rabin helped mastermind the legendary and quite necessary preemptive strike that crippled Egyptian air bases. Rabin was quickly becoming a legendary leader and strategist in the annals of Israeli history.

After serving a few years as Israel’s ambassador to the United States in Washington DC, Rabin returned to Israel and on June 3, 1974, he made history as Israel’s first prime minister who was born in the land of Israel. In this sense, Rabin was the ultimate Sabra! This first stint as Prime Minister was highlighted by Operation Entebbe also called Operation Thunderbolt, the miraculous rescue of hostages held in Entebbe airport in Uganda and lowlighted (not a word) with the shame of a financial scandal involving his wife Leah. But that’s a story for another time.

While many people have heard of Rabin and his multiple military and political accomplishments, we often don’t really know that much about the person himself. Yitzchak Rabin was a real person and he was actually a really complicated figure. Both revered and reviled, ultimately, he was a man of paradoxes. A war hero and a peacemaking icon. Hawkish like in his taking a lead role in expelling the Arabs in Lydda during the 1948 War of Independence or his strength against the Palestinian Arabs during the First Intifada and dovish as in his pursuit for peace with the Palestinians and striking a peace deal with the Jordanians. Socially awkward, an introvert and with a monotone way of speaking, Rabin was a dignified international statesman who is credited with engineering some of Israel’s boldest geopolitical decisions. 

This was one interesting man who deserves a separate podcast on his life, but for our purposes let’s unpack his second tenure as prime minister, fastforwarding to 1992 when Rabin was re-elected. His second go-round as prime minister, Rabin, a man who had seen so much war, appeared to have a singular mission: peace. He had his eye on the much-eluded prize. 

And the time seemed right. 1993 was a big year for Israel. McDonalds, Madonna and Michael Jackson all came to Israel. Companies like PepsiCola, Honda, and Toyota who previously avoided Israel were now readily available there. 

Things were good in Israel! And this is the context in which the “peace process” was taking place. 

Rabin and Israel’s Foreign minister, Shimon Peres oversaw the initiation of the Oslo Process, a shaky peace proposal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The process created deep rifts within Israeli society that are still felt today. Some Israelis feared that concessions and a peace process would lead to more terror and war, not peace. The thinking was that if the Palestinians weren’t sincere they’d ultimately use their new autonomy to perpetrate more violence against Israelis. And this fear was not without warrant. Of course, there was settlement building and the one terrible massacre by one Jewish extremist named Baruch Goldstein in February of 1994 — which is a whole other story we told in a previous podcast — but the first year of peacemaking was more violent against Israelis than the entire First Intifada. 60 Israelis were killed. Palestinian extremism and terrorism was at an all time high. But other Israelis were optimistic and saw hope for a brighter, more peaceful future with Palestinian neighbors and potentially a separate state for Palestinians. For ardent religious nationalists, giving up biblically-ordained Jewish land to create a Palestinian State was fundamentally wrong. 

In September of 1993, the Oslo process reached a climax. With cameras clicking, Rabin unenthusiastically shook hands with PLO leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn with President Bill Clinton glowing while standing between them. Some reporters described Rabin’s awkwardness as a reluctant groom about to say “I do.” But, the prospect of peace between Israelis and Palestinians appeared to be real and was bright on the world stage.

Many Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad were fervently opposed to the Oslo Process and Arafat would speak out of both sides of his mouth in order to patronize all of his audiences, engaging in what I would consider BS behavior. While speaking the language of peace in English, he would call for “jihad to liberate Jerusalem” in fiery Arabic speeches. During this time Palestinian terror attacks, especially suicide bombings were pervasive. There were bombings, stabbings, hand grenades, and molotov cocktails. October of 1994 saw the brutal capture and subsequent murder of of Nachshon Waxman. From those in Rabin’s inner circle, they described the search for Waxman as the most painful two weeks of Rabin’s tenure. As a young nine-year-old when Waxman was abducted, I remember hoping, praying and just feeling so sad for Nachshon’s mother. While watching this story unfold in my parent’s boxy 25 inch zenith TV in their bedroom, I remember thinking to myself, “Please make sure he is returned safely,” but it just did not happen.  From January until August 1995, 40 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinian suicide bombers. Widespread protests in Israel voiced displeasure with land concessions in a peace deal citing serious security concerns. In some extreme cases, this included hate-filled rhetoric, even death threats, in Rabin’s direction. 

Now we’ve caught up with where we began today’s episode, the fateful evening of November 4th 1995. Leading up to this rally, the sentiment within the Israeli public was moving more and more against the peace process, which many felt was anything but peaceful. In some protests, people dressed effigies of Rabin in Nazi uniforms and burned them, calling Rabin a murderer and a traitor. In one instance, while making an appearance at the Wingate Institute in central Israel, a crowd gathered around Rabin, screaming at him and even spitting on the Prime Minister. As terrorism continued to drain support for the peace process, a major rally was organized under the platform “Yes to Peace, No to Violence”with the goal of bringing voice to the peace camp and regaining hope in the peace process. That Saturday night, he was anxious that there would be a low turnout but was shocked to see 100,000 people standing in Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv upon his arrival. When Rabin stepped up to the podium to speak, the crowd was chanting “Rabin, king of Israel.” 

More powerful than his usual monotone, Rabin declared:

I was a military man for 27 years. I fought as long as there was no chance for peace. I believe there is a chance now, a great chance, and we must take advantage of it. 

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that it was the happiest he had ever seen Rabin, possibly the happiest day of his life. After the rally ended with the singing of Shir L’Shalom (the song for peace), Rabin placed the lyrics of the song into his jacket pocket, walked down the stairs towards his car through cheering supporters surrounded by his security guards when suddenly Israeli history changed forever. Yigal Amir, a kippah-wearing Jew, (I’ll describe why that’s important soon) walked up to Rabin, and fired three bullets towards him.

Within 40 minutes, Rabin’s bureau chief Eitan Haber announced the following outside of the Hospital: “The government of Israel announces in consternation, in great sadness, and in deep sorrow, the death of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered by an assassin, tonight in Tel Aviv. The government shall convene in one hour for a mourning session in Tel Aviv. Blessed be his memory.” Rabin was dead. 

The first politically-motivated assassination of a Jewish leader since 1933 when Chaim Arlossorof was assassinated on the beach. Not since since the murder of Gedaliah Ben Ahikam over 2,500 years earlier had we seen the leader of the Jewish people killed by another Jew…and we have a whole fast day to commemorate that event until this day, Tzom Gedalia. 

How could this happen? How did we get to this point? And who really killed Rabin?

How did we get here? Well, there were some right-wing Jewish extremists who had been citing mis-applied religious law to radicalize young religious Jews. They said that if a Jew hands over the property of another Jew to someone who is not Jewish, this is called Din Moser and the person who commits this crime is known as a rodef. If someone is a rodef, they deserve to be killed, says the law, but the law has LOTS of context and is not meant to be carried out practically. A young Orthodox law student named Yigal Amir felt otherwise. In his estimation, Rabin, who was negotiating with Arafat, the mastermind behind countless terrorist attacks, was someone who meant Jews harm. Amir believed that Rabin giving more land to Arafat would only lead to more terror, and more dead Jews as it had before. He saw Rabin as a man with a death sentence hanging over him. Yigal Amir was sentenced to life in prison in March of 1996 after trying to make the argument in court that the assassination was in accordance with Jewish law. 

Amir defended himself, saying “The Torah is the brain. If the Torah tells you to do something that runs counter to your emotions, you do what runs counter to your emotions. Din Moser and Din Rodef are halakhic rulings. Once something is a halakhic ruling, there is no longer a moral issue.”

While rabbis like Eliezer Melamed, Daniel Shilo and Dov Lior had written about this concept, it was Amir who materialized it and turned it practical. 

The Israeli judges rejected this claim and said “The attempt to grant religious authority to the murder…is completely inappropriate and amounts to cynical exploitation of Jewish law for goals that are alien to Judaism.”

But, did Yigal Amir really kill Rabin? Here is where things get a bit wacky. Although there is clear-cut evidence that Yigal Amir murdered Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in cold blood on November 4th 1995 with eye witness testimonies, a confession and even an amateur video of the assassination itself, there are still people, surprisingly, that question the events that took place that fateful evening. As in many cases when major events take place, the magnitude of the events captures peoples’ imaginations and conspiracy theories are developed. With both left wing and right wing conspiracies out there, here are some of the claims brought up by some of the conspiracy theorists out there:

  • One claim states that the three police officers who had been present during the shooting testified that “when Yitzhak Rabin was placed in the car, he showed no visible wounds. Also, they claim that no blood was seen coming from Rabin at the scene, despite wounds to his lung and spleen, nor was any found later in the same location. Alternatively, witnesses described seeing blood “gushing” from a chest wound upon Rabin’s arrival at the hospital.
  • Another claim says that Rabin’s wife, Leah Rabin stated that a security guard told her immediately after the incident that the bullets shot at her husband were “blanks”. She also stated that she was told by an Israeli security chief that she “should not worry as the whole thing had been staged.”
  • Others claim that the drive from Kings of Israel Square to the hospital was abnormally long despite the fact that the roads had been blocked off

In 2019, well-known Israeli professor from Bar Ilan University Mordechai Kedar unleashed a political earthquake when he claimed that Yigal Amir was not the man to kill Rabin and that the assassination was orchestrated by a senior politician against the backdrop of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. After facing major public pressure to apologize for his comments, Kedar said he would rather resign from his position than apologize for asserting Amir’s innocence.

According to a poll released in 2018 by an Israeli tv channel, only 60% of Israelis fully believe that Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzchak Rabin. Crazy, right? Well, not really. Whenever major assassinations take place, there are conspiracy theories that arise, like the assassination of JFK, the slaying of legendary hip hop artist Tupac Shakur, or even the murder of Michael Jordan’s father, James Jordan. If you watched the show “The Last Dance”, you’ll know what I’m talking about. 

Ironically or maybe the better word is fascinatingly, Hagai Amir, Yigal’s brother who was also arrested for his part has explained away these conspiracy theories. “The problem with the conspiracy theories,” Amir insists, “Is that they take away the whole ideological statement [we] were trying to make by killing Rabin.” 

Yes, conspiracy theories capture our imaginations by placing just a seed of doubt and allowing us to distrust the authorities…They can indeed be fascinating but in the case of Rabin, it kind of serves against Yigal Amir’s whole point. Right? 

Ultimately, this story is interesting for lots of reasons, but it is so important because of how it impacted Israeli society with religious and secular Israelis feeling torn from one another. Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein,  the head of the Har Etzion yeshiva in Gush Etzion, showing his colors as a powerful leader, bravely lamented:

The circumstances of [Rabin’s] cold-blooded murder… are a source of great pain and distress for us…  We should feel deep shame that this method of supposedly solving conflicts has become part of our culture.

But naturally, this shame should be felt by our camp, the National Religious camp, more than any other.  Here was a man who grew up in the best of our institutions.  A day before the murder, he could have been cited as a shining example of success and achievement, and a source of communal pride… But if a day before the murder we would have said proudly, “See what we have produced,” we must say it now as well — “See what we have produced!”  It is indefensible that one who is willing to take credit when the sun is shining should shrug off responsibility when it begins to rain.

Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, another leader from Yeshivat Har Etzion went even harder, saying “The problem is these Torah authorities (you know, the three I mentioned earlier), without whom no kid would have dared such a thing.” 

From my understanding, these rabbis certainly did not mean anyone should commit this heinous act of violence, but Bin Nun saw it differently. He was shaken up. This event shook everyone. The peace process, which had already been vulnerable, was now barely holding on.

It leads me to ask What if!?

What if Rabin chose not to show up that fateful night? 

What if Rabin had never been murdered? 

Would Israel have made peace with the Palestinians? 

Would the Jewish State no longer exist because of Palestinian terrorism? 

What if?

Was Amir’s assassination a “two for one” deal in which he killed both Rabin and the peace process or was the peace process going down the drain anyway, doomed to failure from the beginning? 

It’s the ultimate What if. It’s speculation and conjecture to come up with a definitive answer, but I think these questions are worthy of exploration.

Five Fast Facts

So that’s the story of Yitzhak Rabin’s Assassination. here are your five fast facts.

  1. Yitzchak Rabin was the first Israeli prime minister to be born in the country.
  2. Rabin orchestrated the successful pre-emptive attack in the 1967 war that led to Israel’s victory.
  3. Rabin was prime minister during Operation Thunderbolt when he oversaw the rescue of hostages in Entebbe.
  4. Rabin was assassinated immediately following a peace rally in Tel Aviv at Kings of Israel Square, later renamed Rabin Square.
  5. Rabin’s assassination led to deep rifts in Israeli society, between right and left and between religious and secular Israelis.

Those are the facts, but here is one enduring lesson as I see it. We know that Rabin’s legacy is a complicated one, a profound one. Paradoxes abound. Savvy military man. Israel’s most well-known peace seeking icon — a winner of the nobel peace prize. Anxiety-ridden in private but bold and respected on the world stage. So, sure, we can call him paradoxical. But another way to look at Rabin is as a man who evolved over time and adapted to different political eras, to his benefit or to his detriment, depending on how you look at it. He was not just a paradoxical man, but someone who was willing to learn, to change, to evolve. In regards to magnitude and impact, Rabin’s assassination is the Israeli equivalent of the JFK assassination or 911 for the younger generation. He was a man who Jordanian president King Hussein described as a brother, colleague and friend. President Bill Clinton described Rabin as “my partner and my friend.” I admired him so much.” Like Rabin or not, if you walk the streets of Israel, you are sure to get many different opinions. But, I can tell you one thing: When you walk the streets of Israel and ask people to remember where they were when they got the news of Rabin’s assassination, they’ll recall in detail. Putting the kids to bed. Watching TV. Out with friends. Everyone remembers. As I said at the start, as a 10 year old boy in my basement in Baltimore, I remember too. May his memory be a blessing.

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