The Jewish Messiah

A new documentary about former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's murderer hits too close to home for Israeli authorities

Early into her tenure as Israel’s new Minister of Sport and Culture, Miri Regev said that she would not fund any artist or institution that denigrates or delegitimizes the state of Israel. “If it is necessary to censor,” she announced upon her May appointment, “I will censor.”

In the following weeks, an Arab-language theater was defunded, ostensibly for being a “political” institution; a Jewish-Palestinian children’s coexistence theater was imperiled by its founder’s refusal to perform in West Bank settlements (he eventually relented and its funding was left intact); and artists were informed that the goal of culture is to supply the Israeli people with “bread and circuses.” City officials took Regev’s cue and have started canceling screenings of controversial movies.

In late June, Regev turned her attention to the Jerusalem Film Festival, which was quietly set to screen a documentary called Beyond the Fear about Yigal Amir, the man who murdered former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Regev objected to its inclusion on the program and threatened to pull the Festival’s funding. She was joined by former President Shimon Peres and other leaders of the nominally left-wing Labor party, who voiced vagaries about incitement to violence. None of them had seen the movie. A compromise was imposed: the film was pulled from the program, but would be screened separately at a private cinema the day before the festival was set to begin.

Beyond the Fear is the final film by Herz Frank, a major figure in Soviet film and a founder of the Riga School of Poetic Documentary Film. One of his films, Ten Minutes Older, was the inspiration for a later project of the same name that featured Werner Herzog, Spike Lee, and Jean-Luc Godard, among others. He immigrated to Israel in 1992 but struggled to find work, despite maintaining an international reputation. Frank worked on Beyond the Fear for eight years before dying in 2013; his collaborator Maria Kravchenko finished the movie.

Although the movie is billed as a documentary about Yigal Amir, he is one of the film’s most distant characters, appearing mostly in stock footage and occasionally as a disembodied voice in phone conversations. Instead, it largely follows his wife Larisa, who married Amir after he was already in prison, and their young son, Yinon, conceived after much wrangling with legal and security authorities. Despite its focus on the human element of a notorious crime, it is the specter of emotional and spiritual transcendence that haunts the film; the specter, especially, of the Messiah.

Amir saw himself as a messianic figure, propelled by 2000 years of Jewish exile and longing. Larisa also recognizes him as such, or at least as someone who views himself as a savior, an agent of collective redemption, and was instinctively drawn to him, because otherwise, in her words, you stand with his prosecutors. Their son’s name, Yinon, is likewise a reference to the Messiah. Amir tells him stories over the phone about biblical figures, such as Gideon, who liberated the Israelites from foreign oppressors and returned them, for a while, to the righteous path.

This is an underappreciated aspect in the assassination’s current telling, which has become an amorphous projection. Frank, who also appears in front of the camera, says at one point that there is a great fear surrounding Rabin’s murder, that people are terrified to touch anything connected with it. After Rabin’s murder, Amir was excised from Israeli society as an outsider, a loser, an aberration. One man interviewed in the movie says that Amir is not really a Jew but an Amalekite, a goy.

Nonetheless, Amir still speaks like a typical Israeli. He was raised in a suburb of Tel Aviv, not a settlement and his messiah complex was fostered by an ideological movement supported by successive Israeli governments. It was Rabin’s Labor party that first promoted the settler project, and it was Rabin who refused to evacuate the fanatical Hebron settlements -- where Amir reportedly made formative visits -- after the Baruch Goldstein massacre. Amir carried out an extreme act, but he was deeply influenced by a movement that substantial swaths of the Israeli mainstream supported for some 20 or so preceding years.

A sort of messianic fervor is intrinsic to the Israeli project. There is an unusual interlude early in the film where Frank, overlaid by scenes of orchards and pastoral landscapes, discusses the peculiar nature of Israeli politics. “Why would anyone fight over these rocks?” he wonders. They do not, he concludes. God promised the Jewish people this land. They are fighting for their right to live on what they view as their land, by divine decree.

The early Zionist pioneers were imbued with messianic fervor. They were renewing Jewish culture, resurrecting the Jewish language, rejuvenating the Jewish spirit, returning the Jewish people to the Jewish home to reestablish the Jewish state—a task closely associated with the Messiah. Zionism is a messianic movement and messianic fervor necessarily ferments messianic figures. Yigal Amir is a product of the Zionist movement, a bond which no willful disassociation can sever. Every year politicians from the left and right arrive to Rabin’s eponymous square to fete the secular saint on the anniversary of his assassination. Even Netanyahu, who spoke at a vitriolic anti-Oslo rally a month before the murder featuring placards of Rabin dressed in a Nazi uniform and pervasive cries of “Rabin is a traitor,” praises the man. Naftali Bennett, whose national-religious settler movement shares Amir’s vision of an undivided Israel, accuses political opponents of ignoring the lessons of Rabin’s murder. In the new narrative, Rabin was the champion of an apolitical peace.

The movie’s titular fear is the recognition of Amir’s humanity, the fear of seeing the product and his environment and their relation. Larisa, in her own way, has broken through this fear. She accepts—and loves—Amir as a human being, and has forgiven his act. One need not forgive the act, but the Israeli people are unable to approach Amir as a human being, as a creation of their society, deeply influenced by its policies and ideological strains. Amir has become, in many ways, the messianic figure he initially envisioned.

Amir’s guiding principle, that Israel should never cede the Palestinian territories, is hardly confined to the margins of society these days, and is basically official government policy after the last election. The settlement project hums along. A few days before Netanyahu’s reelection I stood at a right-wing rally in Rabin Square surrounded by settler youths in t-shirts that read, “Jews, let’s win!” and on the back “On the way to a Jewish country.” Yigal Amir won. But the Israeli public, spurred by its media and politicians, is incapable of this introspection.

The movie, however, is an odd target for suppression. While it is definitely not “bread and circuses,” it is hardly a searing political film. The structure is elliptical. There are long cuts of desert canyons, billowing clouds, and a solitary white balloon struggling against an azure sky. There are metaphysical conversations about what the film is trying to achieve and the nature of the documentary (none of them particularly memorable). It probably has too much context for an Israeli and too little for a foreigner. The majority of the film is in Russian and, inconceivably, there was not a Hebrew translation (and numerous errors in the English translation).

Larisa, like Frank a Russian émigré, began to visit Amir in prison because she felt his civil rights were being violated (they had met previously, before the assassination). Shortly after, she divorced her husband, with whom she had four children (he is remarkably understanding of the decision). Following a protracted legal fight, she married Amir in 2004. Larisa defies common preconception of a high-profile prisoner’s bride. She has a PhD in philosophy and a master’s degree in biology. She sacrificed her academic career for her relationship with Amir. Various explanations of her motives are suggested, from publicity to the more prurient, but the viewer is ultimately left with the same assessment as her ex-husband: Larisa loves Amir.

The couple’s son Yinon was born in 2007. He is aware of the assassination and even discusses it with his father, but seems blissfully ignorant of Israeli society’s scorn for his family. In one of the film’s most painful sequences, assorted Israelis discuss how difficult his life will be; how he will never live down his father’s name, how children will bully him. But I had the distinct impression that these are not sympathetic musings, but fitting punishment for his father’s crime. Kravchenko cut their words over images of Yinon in the grasp of juvenile innocence, grappling a box with childish wonder.

In the movie’s final scene, Yinon tells Amir about his first trip to the Western Wall. He wished for two things: for his father to be released from prison and for the Messiah to come.