Gedaliah and the legacy of political murder

Gedaliah and Rabin are reminders of the price Jews pay for political power.

From left; Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, former US president Bill Clinton, and the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. (photo credit: REUTERS)
From left; Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, former US president Bill Clinton, and the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Fast of Gedaliah is a minor day of commemoration in the Jewish calendar. The fast takes place usually the day after the Jewish New Year. But Jewish knowledge of the real nature of this fast day was transformed on the evening of November 4, 1995: Yigal Amir gunned down prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in the street in Tel Aviv. It seemed for the first time that political murder had come to Israel. The facts are more complex.
Political murder by one Jew of another Jew is not a new phenomenon in Jewish history. That brings us to the ancient figure of Gedaliah ben Ahikam, governor of Babylon- occupied Judah.
Gedaliah was a hero to some, a traitor to others. He had a difficult task: Gedaliah had to assume the governorship of what was left of the Kingdom of Judah after the Babylonian conquest and the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Gedaliah led a moderate faction that took the controversial stance not to rebel against the Babylonians.
This political moderation crushed any possibility of the revival of the monarchy of King David’s heirs. Gedaliah’s governorship destroyed the hopes of many – but he was not to blame. Was it not Babylonia’s Nebuchadnezzar who was responsible for this national catastrophe? Gedaliah tried desperately to normalize life for his people. He instituted land reforms to benefit the poor and followed the prophet Jeremiah’s wisdom for the conquered to accept their situation. But there were those in Judah who considered Jeremiah and Gedaliah defeatists.
Gedaliah’s governorship ended when Ishmael ben Nethaniah murdered the ruler whom he considered a traitor.
The assassin received logistical support from the king of Ammon who coveted what was left of Judah. The debacle that followed left Judah bereft of any autonomy.
Did Gedaliah deserve to die? Was he not a practical man and a political realist who understood that the Babylonian empire was invincible, in much the same way that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai surrendered to the Romans centuries later? His assassin Ishmael did not think so. The dreams of the glory of monarchy died hard; the most visible embodiment of the dashing of these hopes was Gedaliah ben Ahikam. Perhaps his murderer considered the governor a collaborator, nothing better than a stooge of a Judenrat appointed by the occupying power. We will never know. But the image of a political moderate hunted down by an extremist who considered the ruler a traitor does resonate with the events of our own day.
Murder carried out in the name of a political cause is not new to the State of Israel or the Jewish people. The first example of political murder in the history of the Yishuv was the Haganah’s assassination of Jacob Israel de Haan. The murder occurred on June 30, 1924. De Haan, a Dutch Jewish writer and journalist, turned to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism after his aliya to Israel.
He was especially angered by the refusal of the Labor Zionists leadership in the Land of Israel to negotiate with the Arabs. He was an outspoken defender of the ultra-Orthodox opposition to Zionism in Eretz Yisrael. De Haan today is revered by the Neturei Karta and the Edah Haharedit as a martyr who gave his life for “Torah-true” Judaism. This case of political murder has been ignored by most historians and ideologues because of De Haan’s politics and his anti-Labor Zionist stance. One does not need agree with De Haan to condemn his murderers.
Consider the still unknown killers of Chaim Arlosoroff, the rising star of Labor Zionism gunned down on a Tel Aviv beach in 1933, likely because he was negotiating with Nazi Germany to plan the emigration of Jews in the Reich to the Land of Israel. The Labor Party leader’s wife was never clear in identifying the gunmen. It is possible that Revisionist Zionists, supposed followers of Vladimir Jabotinsky – Jabotinsky would never have condoned Jews killing other Jews in cold blood – considered Arlosoroff a traitor and sentenced him to death. No one knows.
Murder in the name of patriotism, personal and national vengeance or political and religious purity is not a new phenomenon. But Jews should never accept it as the “business as usual” of the reality of politics. It is not just about the tragedy of civil war or the undermining of democracy. The killers of Gedaliah, De Haan, Arlosoroff and Rabin refused to distinguish between tough political decisions that had to be made and their own dreams of glory and absolute justice compromised. The betrayers were condemned to execution. This is especially tragic in the case of prime minister Rabin. The Oslo Accords have proven dangerous to Israel. Yigal Amir ended the debate over Israel’s future with bullets. He ended any true possibility for debate. And Rabin – a true Jewish hero – was dead in a pool of blood.
Amos Oz, the prominent Israeli novelist, has described his countrymen as “circumcised Cossacks.” Is this really so? Should Jews simply let themselves be destroyed by their enemies rather than assume political power and stand up for their right to live? “Purity of Arms” is an ideal that the IDF has attempted to embody. While there have been exceptions to this ideal, the Israeli army has been successful in many cases adhering to this ideal, including the recent war with Hamas. To be sovereign in your homeland comes with a heavy responsibility. Jews, like all human beings, are Aristotle’s “political animals.”
The voice will always be the voice of Jacob. The warrior ways of Esau are concessions to survival against great odds. Part of the reality of politics has been political murder. It should never be the norm and should never be deemed acceptable. The responsibility of power is awesome and the Jewish people have succeeded in assuming this power. Gedaliah and Rabin are reminders of the price Jews pay for political power.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.