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Rabin’s Last Day and the Israeli Right’s Rise to Dominance

Ralph Seliger
January 24, 2016

by Ralph Seliger

Discussed in this essay: Rabin, The Last Day, a film by Amos Gitai. Anthos Media, 2015, 153 minutes.

61982190100892640360noWE ALL KNOW what happened to Yitzhak Rabin on his last day, but there is some dispute as to why. Amos Gitai, a highly respected filmmaker, blends dramatic recreations with some on-the-scene footage to explore security lapses that day and the machinations of Israel’s loony religious-nationalist right, together with the more mainstream right in the person of Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, which benefited enormously from Rabin’s murder.

Forces of the extreme right and the mainstream right literally came together in supporting the three parties of the “Nationalist Bloc,” as they were called at the time — Likud, Tsomet (a now defunct, extreme nationalist party), and the National Religious Party (a forerunner to today’s Jewish Home party) — with a joint rally that was recorded live and is featured in the film. Violent incitements are pervasive, including wild chants of “Death to Rabin” and the infamous portrayals of Rabin as a Nazi, a traitor, and a terrorist, with his image being burned in effigy. All this went on as legitimate political leaders like Netanyahu (with the former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir by his side) exhorted Israelis, from a balcony that served as the speakers’ podium, to mobilize to put an end to the “dangerous” and “deluded” effort of the Labor-Meretz government led by Rabin to “give away” the land of Israel to Arafat in the guise of promoting peace. Exactly this footage has been cited as evidence of Netanyahu’s complicity in Rabin’s murder, for not speaking out against this pernicious demonization of the prime minister.

Staged scenes depicting activities of the rabid right proceed without on-screen identification as to person and place. This lacuna may give viewers the mistaken impression that they were entirely made up, but veteran filmmaker Amos Gitai claims otherwise in the press notes:

Our film is completely factual; it is based entirely on existing documentation. For every line spoken in this film, we have the relevant documents with the words as they were originally spoken.... We went through documents, video footage and photos from the period that preceded Rabin’s murder to the months after it. It was difficult to avoid the harsh statements and accusations made against Rabin at the time by rabbis, politicians and public figures.

A GATHERING in what appears to be the offices of a rightwing political organization would be especially chilling if it’s documented word for word as the filmmaker claims. At first there is an impassioned speech by a national-religious zealot (not a “black hat”) sitting at the head of a small conference table, speaking Hebrew with a Yiddish intonation for religious terms. He denounces the government as illegitimate because it doesn’t have a “Jewish majority” — it relied upon Knesset votes from the Arab parties to keep it in power during its final years — and declaring it a “desecration of God’s name” for violating the Torah in giving away Jewish land to “goyim.” The man becomes so worked up that he finishes in a fit of coughing.

The next speaker to address this silent, overawed little assemblage is an Orthodox woman, identifying herself as a practicing clinical psychologist, who proclaims with great conviction that it’s “obvious” that Rabin is mentally ill, that he is “schizoid,” unable to distinguish reality from his fantasies. She too becomes so overwrought in her vehement denunciation of Rabin that she practically collapses in tears.

Another scene recreates the “Pulsa diNura” cursing ritual in a synagogue, replete with shofar blasts, to proclaim Rabin a “rodef” — a “pursuer” intent upon murdering the pursued — who must die to stop his evil intent. The young presiding rabbi announces that since the Middle Ages, this curse has only been invoked previously against Leon Trotsky.

ENACTMENTS OF the official inquiry into Rabin’s assassination, the Shamgar Commission (named for its head, Israel’s chief justice Meir Shamgar), are returned to repeatedly. A pivotal scene depicts a female prosecutor attempting to convince members of the commission to investigate the “moonstruck rabbis with weird religious edicts” who encourage “hooliganism” at the expense of the Palestinian population, whose rights are trampled upon by Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Territories. A brief legal disputation ensues with two commissioners arguing against her view that Israel has violated international law by settling the territories.

Working in tandem with this colleague, another young attorney briefs the commission on developments in the Occupied Territories since the emergence of Gush Emunim in 1974. He points out that in 1977 (when Likud was first elected to form the government), West Bank settlers numbered 4,400 in 31 settlements. By 1992, he continued, there were 100,500 in 120 settlements. (Today, there are over 400,000 in the West Bank — not counting at least 100,000-200,000 in East Jerusalem and over 20,000 in the Golan Heights.)

Filmmaker Gitai augments these learned arguments with two virtually wordless portrayals of extremists known as “Hilltop Youth,” including pimply-faced teenagers, setting up an unauthorized settlement of mobile homes near a large unnamed Arab town. Think of hippies wearing tsitses and sporting firearms. There’s a memorable tableau of massive religious tomes laid out on an outdoor table, interspersed with an impressive array of automatic weapons.

A later scene shows soldiers forcibly removing these people in a wild hand-to-hand melee, but fortunately with no guns brandished or fired. This enactment is not-so-seamlessly intertwined with actual footage of police removing settlers.

The young attorneys failed to convince the commission to broaden its narrow focus on the direct facts pertaining to the assassination. As the film’s press notes state:

Though the Shamgar Commission was a state commission of inquiry, its letter of appointment instructed it to investigate only the operational failures that enabled the murder, not the incitement that led up to it. This film was also made to help correct this injustice by creating a kind of cinematic commission of inquiry to investigate the incitement. In a way, this film is the commission of inquiry that never happened. This is a film dealing not only with a brutal event 20 years ago, but with a long-lasting shadow still very present in contemporary Israel.

The film does not prove an actual conspiracy, in the sense of an organized effort around a specific plan. Yet it shows a tragic confluence of circumstances in which the lone gunman, Yigal Amir, was influenced by his milieu to act as he did, and Rabin’s security detail failed to protect him. The commission uncovers shocking lapses in routine security procedures — primarily that the Shin Bet and police did not enforce a no-go zone around the area where Rabin’s limo was parked; it is here that Amir waited unchallenged for forty minutes, and literally found an opening when Rabin’s bodyguard was momentarily separated from the prime minister’s side.

THE TRAGEDY for Israel’s future, one that very much still grips the country, was assured when the Shin Bet’s director, anxious to redeem his agency’s reputation, persuaded Rabin’s successor Shimon Peres to authorize their targeted killing of the Hamas bomb-maker Yihyeh Ayyash during a time of quiet two months later. The ensuing wave of retaliatory terror attacks in late February and early March 1996, in the midst of the election campaign, suddenly gave Bibi Netanyahu his opening, to come from twenty points behind in the polls to defeat Peres by a hair on May 29, 1996.

This history was retold most recently by journalist Dan Ephron, but is not part of the film’s purview. We all know, however, that something profound died with Rabin. Gitai might have shaved off a few minutes from his film’s more than two and a half hours, but he’s still done a remarkable job of relating this story in a gripping and innovative way.

Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, and currently blogs for Ameinu, The Third Narrative, and Partners for Progressive Israel.