Yitzhak Rabin: Another Victim of Zealotry

(Free Inquiry, winter 1995/96)

By James A. Haught

Civilized people around the globe were sickened by the Nov. 4 murder of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister, by a Jewish fanatic.

Such zealot crimes hurt the human spirit. They damage the majority hope that reason can prevail over hate and tribalism.

The killer, a law student at a religious university, told police he "acted alone and on orders from God." But he wasn't alone -- he was part of a movement blindly preaching violence: Israel's right-wing fringe.

These extremists mostly are Orthodox Jews who think God gave them the Promised Land forever. They abound among armed West Bank settlers who vow never to yield an inch of ground to Muslims. They were symbolized by the bitter Orthodox physician who machine-gunned praying Muslims in a mosque at Hebron. Meanwhile, the Muslims have abundant killers on their side, some of whom give their lives in suicide attacks on Jews.

Rabin's peace plan, which would return much of the captured West Bank to Palestinians, made him evil in the eyes of Jewish militants. They grew increasingly vehement, holding stormy protests with posters of Rabin in a Nazi uniform -- the most despicable image possible to Jews.

Far-right rabbis told their followers it would be religiously proper to murder the prime minister. The 27-year-old student who did so claims that his assault was based on the legal code of the Jewish faith.

"According to the Halacha, you can kill the enemy," he testified at his arraignment before a magistrate. When asked if he had accomplices, he replied: "It was God."

Soon after his arraignment, Israeli police charged seven other men -- five of them Orthodox religious students -- with conspiring to kill Rabin. The New York Times said they were part of a secretive, lethal, "deeply religious underground movement" -- and the murder may have been mandated by a holy order from a right-wing rabbi.

Israeli writer Amos Oz commented in Newsweek that "a loose conglomerate of mad-dog fundamentalists has declared war on the rest of Israel." He observed: "Those fanatics have the crazy dream of turning Israel into an Iran-like theocracy, controlled by Jewish ayatollahs. It is typical of religious fanatics, Christian, Muslim or Jew, that the 'orders' they get from God are always essentially one order: Thou shalt kill."

Extremist Jews weren't the only religious killers in the news in November. Immediately after Rabin's assassination, these events occurred:

-- Terrorists, presumably Muslims trying to drive Westerners out of Saudi Arabia's holy cities, detonated a car bomb outside a U.S. center in Riyadh, killing five Americans and two others. Credit was claimed by three Islamic groups, including one calling itself the Fighting Organization of the Partisans of God.

-- In Tokyo, a leader of the Supreme Truth cult, which is accused of the nerve gas attack that killed 12 subway passengers and sickened 5,500 others, pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

-- In Oklahoma, the Rev. Ray Lampley, head of the Universal Church of God, and three of his followers were charged with preparing fertilizer bombs with which they planned to blow up human rights groups, welfare offices, abortion clinics and gay bars. At his arraignment, Lampley was asked the name of his lawyer, and he declared: "Jesus Christ."

-- Muslim terrorists who want to turn Egypt into a theocracy sent a suicide bomber to ram an explosives-packed truck into the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, killing 15 and wounding 60.

Fanaticism is essentially the same in all cultures. It is the extreme fringe of fundamentalism -- the few who overdose on self-righteous rhetoric until they kill for it.

Often, they kill their own. Anwar Sadat, Muslim president of Egypt, was killed by Muslim zealots who thought he was "soft" on Jews. Mahatma Gandhi was killed by a fellow Hindu who thought Gandhi favored Muslims. The Buddhist president of Sri Lanka was killed by a Buddhist monk who thought he was selling out to the Hindu minority. Now Rabin has joined the list.

Ironically, minutes before his murder, Rabin attended a peace rally where he joined non-belligerent Israelis in singing the "Song of Peace." He folded the music and stuck it in his breast pocket -- where it soon was soaked with his blood.

The Song of Peace mustn't die with him. Conscientious people and leaders must redouble their commitment to a non-violent solution in the Middle East, and to resisting madness everywhere.

There's no way to prevent extreme believers from committing murder, in Israel or any other nation. Even the strictest security measures can't shield every public figure and every government building. All that can be done is for decent people to press on, unswerving in their search for peaceful solutions, no matter how many fanatics wreak horror.

While November's holy lunacy was ensuing, President Clinton announced plans to send U.S. peacekeeping troops to Bosnia, to curb that nation's "war of ethnic and religious hatred." Isn't it odd that an American president speaks of "religious hatred," and the term doesn't seem incongruous? It simply describes a reality of the world.