Becoming Yigal Amir

Director Yaron Zilberman and actor Yehuda Nahari Halevi discuss their new film, Incitement, which reckons with the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Corey Atad
October 2, 2019
Yehuda Nahari Halevi plays Yigal Amir in Incitement. Photo: Yael Ilan

Confronting the often nasty realities of Israeli history and politics on-screen can be as uncomfortable as it is necessary. That’s what director and co-writer Yaron Zilberman set out to do with Incitement, his real-life psychological thriller about the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which recently received the Ophir Award for Best Picture, and which has been selected as Israel’s entry in the Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Oscars.

The boldly combative film centers on Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, played with great force by actor Yehuda Nahari Halevi, who grew up in the same Yemenite community as Amir. It depicts the year leading up to the prime minister’s murder at a rally in support of the Oslo Accords, at what was then called Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv. Rather than place the responsibility for Rabin’s murder solely on Amir, Incitement unflinchingly depicts the people and social forces that turned him into a killer, from politicians like Likud leader and future prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who led a mock funeral before the assassination, complete with coffin, noose, and “Death to Rabin” chants—to the prominent rabbis who declared Rabin a traitor who deserved death on biblical grounds.

Following the film’s eventful world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival—the cinema was temporarily evacuated due to a bomb scare just as the movie began—I sat down with Zilberman and Halevi to discuss the filmmaking process and the continued relevance of the assassination.

Corey Atad: I hope your night at the premiere was okay.

Yaron Zilberman: It was a bit hectic. Nervous in the moment. But the exciting part is that so many people stayed; we lost maybe 40 people out of 500. That’s not trivial at all. It’s beautiful.

CA: So, why did you want to make this movie?

YZ: On a personal level, Rabin’s assassination affected me significantly. I was 27 years old at the time of the murder, living in Tel Aviv. It happened while I was on my way to the square, and then we heard about the murder. For an Orthodox Jew to kill a reigning prime minister was unthinkable. It changed the whole paradigm. You know, you say, this will never happen here, we’re not going to have a political assassination. We’re Jews. Jews don’t kill Jews politically. It really broke taboos on that level. To see how the Bible and Judaism, which I’ve always thought of as a source of humanism, becomes the basis of calls for murder—I found this extremely disturbing.

I set out to investigate this, to immerse myself in the subject matter. I was fascinated by Yigal’s journey: to see how a person goes from a law student and political activist—but not a violent one—to an assassin. 

CA: How old are you, Yehuda?

Yehuda Nahari Halevi: 33. I was 10 when Rabin was assassinated.

YZ: But he looks 21.

CA: You were young when it happened. Did it change how you viewed the history?

YNH: The only thing I remember as a kid is that it made a huge mess in the neighborhood. I come from the same neighborhood as Amir. We know the family. My oldest brother used to play soccer with Yigal. Our father prayed in the same synagogue, which is five meters from my parents’ house. I used to be religious, too, until sixth grade. But I always had kind of big questions about the Bible and where I find myself in it.

CA: How did you track the evolution of Yigal Amir? How did you map his journey?

YNH: I couldn’t see the whole journey. I could see only each step, as I lived in every situation, every scene. Yaron suggested I do method acting, that I become religious. I didn’t like the idea of it, but I just said, “Okay, let’s do it. I will dive in and I will trust you completely.” So I started to wear the tzitzit and kippah and go to synagogue three times a day. I even avoided a woman’s touch, I didn’t shake hands with anyone. I just lived in the moment in a way. 

CA: On what level were you trying to understand the motivation?

YNH: To the bottom. I cannot judge this person. I just need to understand what he thinks and why, what triggers him, where he’s coming from, what he lacks. I need to believe, myself, that I can do such an awful thing.

YZ: It was very important for me to make a sort of contract with Yehuda that I am with him on this journey—that I will never talk about this event as “horrific.” Now I’m saying this word, and referring to Amir as “the murderer.” But through the filmmaking, I would not use any of these words. Yehuda knew I will never speak about your character from the outside, always from the inside. I also did not let any crew member, nobody from costume to makeup, say a word. For them Yigal Amir is a horrific human being, a murderer that they would like to choke. Instead, it was: There’s Yigal, he’s great, he’s on a journey. It’s a good journey to fulfill his destiny. I went with him on this journey, so I can help him—you know, it’s like a diving thing. What’s the name?

CA: A diving bell?

YZ: A diving bell! In this case, I also had to dive myself, in addition to being there for him. And the day after, at the wrap party, I was back to being Yaron Zilberman.

YNH: It was a bit weird for me. Yaron fed me with so much information, like testimonies and videos. I couldn’t meet Amir, so for hours I read and watched how he spoke in order to understand his logic, and in order to have his physical posture. Until I had it. It was challenging, but I knew it was a huge accomplishment.

YZ: He was so deep into the role. This gentleman was so Yigal Amir that when I told him afterward that I’m against the murder, he was like, “No, it can’t be.” That’s how deep he went.

CA: It’s what you present in the movie: these people living in a bubble. The most significant person in Amir’s life who disagrees with him, his father, still thinks the peace process is the worst thing in the world.

YZ: Exactly.

CA: Earlier you mentioned “taboo.” There’s an element in this movie that I’ve never seen on-screen before, when you see the rabbis promoting violence against Rabin. Those scenes reminded me of thrillers about Islamic terrorists featuring radical imams. But you never see Jews presented this way. Did you have any weird feelings about showing that in the film?

YZ: Of course I did. But at the same time, I wanted to portray this story in the most truthful way possible. The journey I went through as a co-writer and director was to discover what actually happened, meaning the discovery that this rabbi was saying these things. Meaning that a major rabbi would praise Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 worshippers in a mosque, saying that’s a godly thing he did and that he’s a saint. For a person like Yigal Amir, it tells him: You have an opportunity to be a saint. You can become a tzadik, you just need to kill the enemy of God. Why is Rabin the enemy of God? Because the rabbis say, if you give away the land of Israel, which was promised by God in the covenant to Abraham, you have become the enemy of God.

For me, this movie isn’t just about Jews, though. It’s about everybody, every country. Look at the fundamentalists in the United States. You have this very extreme Christian movement that influences Trump, that influences the government, just like in Israel with religious Jews. Or you have Trump saying something against “illegal immigration,” and then you see a guy who’s shooting Jews. And why did he kill them? Because this community helped immigrants. So this connection is one-to-one. And that’s what Bibi and the rabbis did that led to Rabin’s murder. Not the sole reason, but part of the reason. I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to make that connection. One plus one equals two.

CA: There’s a great bit in the movie where Amir is going through the texts to find the justification. It’s like, you find a word here, a phrase there . . .

YNH: And you interpret it the way you want. That’s the frightening thing about it. You know, there is a fine line between light and dark. When you take something so powerful and you manipulate it, you can do awful things. It’s a very scary thing, and this is where we live nowadays.

CA: Obviously there is some current relevance, including politically. Some of the people involved in the movie are still around.

YZ: It’s the same people.

CA: You talked about having to do research, but what you were saying about the rabbis, or Netanyahu’s role in the incitement—these things were being said in the open. Have people just chosen to forget?

YZ: Some people knew how deep the hatred was from the other side, but we didn’t really pay attention. We thought, oh, they’re just saying bullshit, it’s biblical, who cares. Then once there was a murder, people wanted to push it under the carpet, as always. Especially Shimon Peres, who was the foreign minister and became the prime minister. He made a conscious decision—in order to avoid a civil war—not to interrogate the rabbis, not to go deep into that incitement.

Yigal Amir said in his interrogation that he would never have done what he did without permission. He says that every rabbi in “Judea and Samaria” basically said that the Law of the Pursuer [which concerns a person—a rodef—who is “pursuing” another to murder them] and the Law of the Informer apply to Rabin, which carries a death sentence. Nobody actually went into that. They just said: here’s the killer, find the gun, let him confess. That’s it, we don’t want to know anything beyond that.

CA: But of course we live with the fallout.

YZ: Peres not following through on the investigation, to me it sent a message to the rabbis that you are above the law, that we are afraid of you. You have a joker card—you can do that stuff and I’m unable to arrest you because it evokes Holocaust images of rabbis being arrested, and if we, the Jewish people, go back to the Holocaust then it’s the end of the world. So that’s why I said I have to go there. I’m trying to do tikkun.

CA: The religious element is interesting. Of course, we can separate Israel and Judaism. But the movie makes a very compelling case that to the extent that Judaism is used as a political justification, they are deeply connected.

YZ: Yes. That’s the religious nationalism.

CA: That seems like something that secular and diaspora Jews need to reckon with. Can you speak to what you wanted to present to Jewish people with this story?

YZ: I think what I want to show is that there are many ways to interpret the Bible and the Talmud and Jewish thought. And if you don’t find [healthy] interpretations, it will kill democracy. What’s important is to take responsibility for this process. Not necessarily just in an Orthodox context. It can be just, what does it mean to be a Jew? What are Jewish values? For me, this guy is the opposite of a Jew, the opposite.

YNH: The Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not kill.

YZ: He went outside the Jewish tribe. For me.

CA: But that’s in the movie, too. Amir talks about the fights between the Jewish “tribes.”

YZ: I know, exactly. There are all sorts of circles. The Yemenites were all soul-searching: how could a member of our, let’s call it “tribe” for a moment, do that? Then it’s, how could we Jews in Israel do this? Then it’s Jews all over the world. We all have some soul-searching to do.

Corey Atad is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has written for publications such as Esquire, Slate, Hazlitt, and The Baffler.