Rabin's Last Day: The Chasm of Israel’s Own Divide
November marked the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Yitzhak Rabin at a solidarity rally in Tel Aviv. In the new film Rabin, The Last Day, filmmaker Amos Gitai revisits the turbulent political atmosphere in Israel during the Oslo Accords negotiations between the Rabin government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Shunting aside conspiracy theories or the idea that a lone gunman acted in a vacuum, Gitai instead examines government officials’ anemic response in the face of a rising tide of virulence to the peace plan among the settlers, the rabbis in their camp, and leaders of the right-wing Likkud opposition party.
The film opens with a traditional talking head-style interview with then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who explains that “[as the] threat grew, so did Rabin’s determination.” It then transitions to actual footage of the assassination, taken by an amateur from a nearby rooftop. From there, viewers move to street level, where the shooting is reenacted, and are suddenly thrust into Rabin’s car as it speeds toward the hospital, his bodyguard desperately trying to stop the bleeding.
The lengthy film proceeds to veer between raw footage, re-enactments derived from actual testimony, and wholly imagined scenes, while presenting the story as if the viewer were right there witnessing to the events. The result is a complicated patchwork of scenes setting up the film’s overriding question: Who is to blame?
Much of the film is set in a room where the Shamgar Commission, set up to investigate the assassination, conducts its inquiry. First to testify is the attorney general, who defends his inaction in the face of evidence that radical rabbis were preaching sedition during the period leading up to Rabin’s death. Again and again, the film raises the question as to whether rabbis calling for a din rodef on Rabin – a law sanctioning the killing of an individual who intends to kill or harm others – are in fact guilty of anything prosecutable by law. Is calling for someone’s death is akin to ordering it?
The commission, tasked only with determining “operative acts of negligence” in the assassination, hears testimony from the head of security forces at the crime scene, a police officer, and Rabin’s driver and bodyguard. It becomes clear none of them was prepared for an attempt on the prime minister’s life, and their blindness to the threat speaks to the belief that no Jew would kill Israel’s head of state. Lamenting the lack of coordination between the secret service and police on the day of the attack, one commission member mutters, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry."
The government’s unpreparedness is seen in even greater contrast against the fictional but plausible scenarios Gitai constructs of rabbis stirring up anti-Rabin sentiment. In one scene, an unnamed rabbi prays for the Angel of Destruction to vanquish Rabin; in another, a settlement rabbi prompts the assassin, Yigal Amir, to read a passage of Talmud that explains the din rodef, perhaps introducing him to the idea that killing is permissible, even laudable, under certain conditions. In the film’s most chilling scene, a clinical psychologist named Doctor Neda tells a room of agitators her diagnosis of the prime minister: schizophrenia brought on by his existing in “an absurd world of his own making.” She then compares him to another “megalomaniacal” leader – Hitler.
As Shimon Peres tells us in the film’s opening scene, Rabin himself was not oblivious to the threat. We see him being shouted down before the Knesset, his cries for moderation drowned out by angry outbursts. In archival footage, we see people at a Likkud rally holding up images of Rabin superimposed with swastikas and signs that read, “Get rid of Rabin with fire and blood,” as well as children chanting, “Death to Rabin.” In this way, the film depicts Rabin as courageous and determined to usher in an era of peace to save Israel, whatever the personal sacrifice.
In an odd verisimilitude, reenactments of the assassin’s own testimony show Yigal Amir just as convinced of the righteousness of his actions. He claims, “According to Torah, if a Jew hands his people over to the enemy, he must be killed.” Amir views handing over the West Bank and its Jewish settlements as akin to handing over Israel to the enemy. While Gitai pulls no punches in depicting Amir as the perfect vessel for the vitriolic message of Israel’s radicals, there is no doubt Amir himself believes he is saving the Jewish people, no matter the cost.
Gitai’s film may serve as a cautionary tale for any society that sacrifices civility and the preciousness of human life on the altar of religious and political orthodoxies.