Until last month Yigal Amir and I seemed to have a lot in common—both in our mid-20s, university educated professionals of immigrant stock, and Jewish. Admittedly he lived in Israel and I in the diaspora. He claimed to be observant and I am wholly ignorant of Jewish law. But no matter; we shared a pride in a 5,000 year history and the distinction of being Jews. Not any more. When Amir stepped out of the crowd and popped three bullets into the chest of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, he shattered my naive faith in Jewish unity.
When news of the murder broke I was dancing at a disco in the Israeli beach resort of Eilat. The music stopped. A minute’s silence was called. One minute grew into four. By the time we lifted our heads, things did not look the same. Even before Rabin’s assassination, I realised that a Jew claiming to act on higher spiritual authority could, in theory, kill another Jew. I had known the Jewish people were a fractious bunch. But I had presumed that the bickering was contained in a pluralistic society bound above all by a shared history. Our common past was enough, I thought, to hold us together. Even the fundamentalists, whose rigid faith sets them apart from other Jews and non-Jews alike, and compromisers like me, whose Jewish identity blends into our broader secular lives, could at the very least agree to disagree. Today I see that we are not one people of differing opinions but, in fact, different peoples. And some are beyond the pale.
On the day of Rabin’s funeral I was in the West Bank, where extremist settlers delighted in his death. As with Hitler, so with Rabin, they told me; the death of a man with Jewish blood on his hands was a cause for celebration in the struggle to preserve the lands of Israel as God decreed. Survivors of Hitler keep his language alive.
They had no qualms in declaring their hostility to me and my kind of compromising Judaism. “We are in a war between two cultures,” one Californian emigré declared. Another predicted that if it came to a straight fight, the devout followers of God’s law would vanquish the compromisers, “who are homosexuals unable to carry guns.”
Before Rabin’s murder I knew such fanaticism existed. But out of deference to their conviction and because of an unexamined sense of inferiority to people I considered more knowledgeable than me, I too readily forgave their intolerance. It is plainly unforgivable.
Not to have seen this before was perhaps naive (some might say a Jewish arrogance). I had assumed that our fundamentalists were different from theirs. They were orthodox Jews for whom a man-made dilution of the word of God was a gross impertinence. But they were not, I thought, fanatics of the same hue as Islamic Jihad or, for that matter, Eugene Terreblanche’s extremist white South African party. I was wrong; they are. And their intolerance has no place in my Jewish world.
That holds true for Jews outside Israel too. Returning to London, I remembered that at the beginning of the year our Chief Rabbi had lapsed into sectarian talk. The Jew who did not follow “the Torah as given by God to Moses had severed links with the faith of his ancestors,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks declared. We conservative and reform Jews, who are regularly told that our compromises disqualify us from being Jews at all, were on this occasion dismissed as “intellectually dishonest and dangerous.” To be fair, he quickly relented, and following Rabin’s murder he called on those rabbis who had indulged in verbal violence to repent.
Of course, verbal violence is not equivalent to murder. But the assassination woke me to the strand of intolerance in the Jewish people. And—whether it is intolerance of peace-makers or compromising Jews like me—I despise it. Rejecting them liberates me. No longer does orthodoxy seem the only natural source of Jewish authority. Secular and liberal Jews, whose lack of knowledge and mish-mash of ideas is redeemed by our tolerance, have found our voice. It seems that for too long we expected that leadership would inevitably come from the orthodox. Sometimes we even (vainly) sought their acceptance. Why? Because they seemed more learned, and we less knowledgeable Jews were in no place to talk back.
Now we know we can and must talk back. The authority of the most devoutly orthodox has been tainted by the intolerant among them. We have seen the violent, logical consequence of Jewish extremism. By default, the tolerant compromisers have won the moral authority to speak for the Jews.
It is sad that it has taken such a brutal act for me to find my Jewish self-confidence. But Rabin’s murder has changed me. I will no longer subscribe to the myth of Jewish unity. I no longer think Jewish fundamentalists are different from any other loathsome fanatic. And I will no longer take my lead from those intolerant followers of the Torah who refuse to accept my brand of Judaism. Yigal Amir and I have nothing in common at all.