A Response to Betzalel Smotrich’s Yom Rabin Speech

I listened to the whole speech that Betzalel Smotrich’s delivered on Yom Rabin. I agree that the Religious-Zionist camp has much to be proud of. I agree that in a democracy we need to be willing to hear voices that make us uncomfortable. I agree that in some ways the Religious-Zionist community has been denounced unfairly. I agree that the remembrance day for Rabin should be focused on the delegitimization of political violence and that it should be a day in which we strive for unity. I agree that the day shouldn’t be used for the promulgation of a particular political policy. I appreciated his denouncement of the killing of Rabin as a despicable murder.

And yet, there is much that is troubling in the speech. I would like to focus on one particular aspect — Smotrich’s insistence that the Religious-Zionist community has nothing to apologize for.

Compare Smotrich’s words with Rabbi Yehuda Amital’s address to the students of Yeshivat Har Etzion on Nov. 6 1995:

“when a man is found dead in the field, the Torah requires the elders of the neighboring city to state: “Our hands have not spilled the blood” (Devarim 21:1-9). The sages explain that their declaration of innocence means that they did not send off the victim without provisions and without escort. Rashi elaborates: perhaps he left the town without food, and, out of hunger and desperation, attacked another man and was killed. This possibility, far-fetched as it seems, will preclude the elders from declaring their innocence if they did not provide him with food when he left. This is the Torah measure of culpability!

Those who spoke of the “reign of iniquity,” who called the government a “Judenrat,” who questioned the legitimacy of the government, who publicly issued the ruling concerning disobeying orders in the army – are they less culpable than the elders who failed to provide a traveler with provisions? Is the connection more far-fetched? Can they truly say ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood?’

… After the Goldstein massacre, how many rabbis condemned it outright, without hemming and hawing? Don’t you see the connection between that and the current tragic events?

…On an educational level, I think this tragic event also reveals something frightening. A law student, an educated person, thought that by killing Rabin he would solve all of Israel’s problems!? What primitivity, what shallowness, what a lack of thought!  In our schools and youth movements, have we educated so shallow a generation, where slogans have replaced critical thought?

A lesser known episode of this chapter of history was recorded by Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin z”l. He wrote, “in February 1995, a group of rabbis from the Irgun Rabbanei Yesh”a wrote to forty prominent Israeli rabbis and poskim inquiring whether the Rabin government had the halachic status of rodef or moser.” (Equality Lost pg. 101). After declaring his opposition to the policies of the Rabin government, Rav Henkin engaged in a detailed halachic analysis that concluded that the government, bad as it was, could not be considered illegitimate.

While Moshe Helinger and Isaac Hershkowitz make clear in their book, Obedience and Civil Disobedience in Religious Zionism, that the inquiry was actually written with the intent of preventing political violence, Rabbi Henkin picked up on what he felt was the subtext and context of the letter. In the last paragraph, Rav Henkin addressed “the unanswered question” – should one take the law into their own hands and commit an assassination in order to save Israel.  Rav Henkin answered that such an act would produce no such salvation and would only bring destruction in its wake. Rav Henkin’s fear of this possibility is palpably felt in the responsum. It is clear from the inquiry and from Rav Henkin’s response that there was awareness in the religious Zionist world that a dangerous atmosphere was being created from within its ranks. Can one suggest that enough was done to counter that?

Rav Henkin lamented that his response was not made public by those who had submitted the question. When that didn’t happen, he made his own efforts to publicize his position. He decided to publish his responsum in the rabbinical journal Keshot that he edited. The issue that was to contain the responsum was at the printers at the time of the assassination. It was later republished in the third volume of his responsa Bnei Banim (no.33).

Did the problematic discourse that was all too common in Religious Zionist circles directly cause the assassin to pull the trigger? Helinger and Hershkovitz conclude that it is an open question. Yet there is little doubt that the discourse created a dangerous situation. Revisiting this chapter in religious Zionism’s history does not leave me feeling that there is nothing to apologize for to say the least. Perhaps Yom Rabin of all days is the day to express some contrition.

About the Author
Ross Singer lives on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa and works as a tour guide, educator, and translator.
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