Political Assassinations: Gedaliah and Rabin

This past Shabat Torah study, just before the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination on 4 November, Rabbi Splansky took up the case of Gedaliah ben Ahikam. The fast of Gedaliah is held one day after Rosh Hashanah on the 3rd of Tishrei. Gedaliah had been appointed to head the government of the remnant satrap of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon after the Babylonian conquest and the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C. The Temple was not the only thing destroyed. The royal family, the nobility, the high priests, the top civil servants and the military leaders of Judah were all trucked off to Babylon where most were executed.

Four years after Gedaliah became Governor, ignoring forewarnings, he was assassinated by Ishmael ben Netaniah and his ten henchmen on Rosh Hashanah 582 B.C. Evidently Netaniah had the support of the Ammonites for his coup. Netaniah had another motive; he came from the Davidic line via the House of Zedekiah and, therefore, claimed royal descent and entitlement. In comparison, Gedaliah’s father, Ahikam, was renowned for having saved the life of the prophet of peace, Jeremiah, who opted to stay in Judah under Gedaliah’s protection in the new religious and political capital, Mitzpah. (Ahikam’s father, Shaphan, purportedly discovered the Book of Deuteronomy.) It is not clear whether the family was part of the nobility coopted by Nebuchadnezar to rule the remnant of Judah.

While refugees that had left, but had not been taken into captivity (the farmers and artisans), had returned to Judah after the overthrow of the Gedaliah government, the murder of his entourage as well as the members of the Babylonian garrison stationed in Mitzpah, instigated all of its inhabitants to flee and seek sanctuary in Egypt, contrary to the advice of Jeremiah.

Was Gedaliah a collaborator who deserved to be overthrown and even assassinated? Was Netaniah a freedom fighter challenging a false king and Petain-like character? Or, alternatively, was Gedaliah a pragmatic peacemaker who believed that a quarter loaf was better than no loaf at all?

Contemporary Israelis and diaspora Jews often compare Rabin to Gedaliah. Both had been pragmatic and responsible rulers. Both are examples of a Jewish ruler being assassinated by a Jew.

Gedaliah’s reputation is largely based on Jeremiah who had a double bias – the prophet was ideologically a peacemaker. Further, as noted above, his life had been saved by Gedaliah’s father; Gedaliah received a religious imprimatur for his political position. Based on Jeremiah 40:5, 40:8, 41:9 and 52:16, and the Second Book of Kings, 25:22-26[i], note the comparison between Gedaliah and Rabin.

 Gedaliah ben AhikamYitzhak Rabin
Date killed582 BCE4 November 1995 CE
CharacterModest, humble, wiseModest, gentle, pragmatic but tough when believed necessary
AssassinIshmael son of Netaniah + ten henchmenYigal Amir
Motive of assassinPossibly opposed getting only a remnant of the land, but also wanted to inherit the throneOpposed giving up any of the land
Early WarningYes, but dismissedYes, but of extremism, not assassination
Social Status of Person assassinatedNobility (?)A Sabra “prince” from the founding fathers’ generation
PeacemakersImposed by conquerorRisked negotiations with defeated enemy
RefugeesReturn of refugeesPeace without return of Palestinian refugees
ProtectionChaldean guardsShin Bet
Consequence for the landLeft depopulated and desolateExpansionist into West Bank
Evaluation of OutcomeImmediate failureSuccess

Assassination of Jews by Jews is not an extreme rarity. King Joash of Judah was assassinated by his own servants. (2 Kings 12:19-21) Absalom, King David’s son, was assassinated by Joab. (2 Samuel 3:26-28) Assassinations of Jews by Jews in the modern era for political motives are also not uncommon.

YrMonthPlacePersonAgentRoleMotive
1920JuneLower GalileeOscar OplerHaganahKibbutznikBritish informant re arms caches
1924JuneJerusalemJacob Israël de Haan[ii]HaganahDutch Jewish writer, lawyer and activist for Jewish prisoners in Czarist Russia (AI precursor);  later religious Haredi representativeGay relations with Arabs, anti-Zionist journalism, pro-Haredi efforts
1933JuneTel AvivHaim ArosoroffZionist RevisionistsZionist Mapai leaderSpearheaded negotiations with Nazis
1940OctoberHaifaBaruch WeinschellHaganahJewish migration to PalestineBritish informant
1948SeptemberJerusalemCount Folke BernadotteLehi (Shamir)Palestine UN Mediatoraccused of being British spy
1957MarchTel AvivRezső (Rudolf) KasztnerLehiHungarian Zionist leadernegotiated with Nazis – trucks for Jews
1981JanuaryJerusalemHamad Abu EabiaSons of Abu RabiaFirst Bedouin Knesset memberCancelled Abu Rabia, their father’s rotation agreement
1985OctoberSanta Ana, CAAlex OdehJDLAmerican-Arab lawyer ADCOpposed US aid to Israel
2000DecemberOfra SettlementBinyamin KahanePLOLeader of Kahane ChaiExtremist anti-Arab Zionist
2001October Rehavam ZeeviPFLPIsraeli general and politicianpopulation transfer advocate

Not all the cases above were of Jews assassinated. Hamad Abu Eabia was a Bedouin killed by an Arab rival. Bernadotte was a Swedish diplomat and member of the royal family killed on the false belief that he was secretly an agent of the British. – Alex Odeh was an Arab American assassinated by a Jewish extremist group when entering a Reform synagogue. The last three were all assassinated by different terrorist groups. I have included these other cases simply to provide a tiny taste of perspective.

There other political assassinations far more infamous than the above. President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, as well as Martin Luther king and Malcolm X, were all assassinated for political motives in the United States. Even in Canadian history, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, one of the fathers of confederation, was assassinated by an Irish patriot who felt that McGee had sold out to the British. The most famous modern assassination was not of an American but of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Black Hand, an assassination that triggered World War I.  

When is assassination of a political leader, especially a Jewish political leader by a Jew, justified if ever? If there is a justification, what intentions are considered just? Certainly not ambition, jealousy, reward by an enemy, vengeance or greed for power. But what about other political or military motives, such as the claim that the person had “sold out” to a foreigner, had betrayed the people, was abusing his power or was totally incompetent as a ruler resulting in the death of tens of thousands of citizens?

The Israeli government itself carried out a significant number of preemptive targeted killings or extrajudicial killings or the “liquidation” of Palestinians who were considered terrorists, therefore combatants under international law. The claim was that these cases did not fall under the prohibition against assassination. The justification was the European Court of Human Rights in the case of McCann and others v. the United Kingdom. To justify the killings, the principle of proportionality was cited, provided collateral damage was minimized and the principle of “last resort’ was applicable. This was the justification for the killing of Osama bin Laden by the Americans as well as the assassinations under the operation Wrath of God to avenge the Munich Olympics murders of Israelis. B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, estimated that during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second Intifada, 387 Palestinians, including 153 who were collateral damage, were Israeli targeted killings.[iii]

However, our issue is not extrajudicial killings that are claimed to be exempt from laws against political assassinations, nor even political assassinations in general, but political assassinations of prominent Jews by other Jews. If we examine the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin more closely, this chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces during the Six-Day War, Prime Minister and Defence Minister as well as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, he carried a copy of the very popular Israeli song, Shit Lashalom (“Song for Peace”) that put forth the proposition that the dead cannot come back to life and that is why peace was needed – so no more lives would be lost in an endless series of Israeli wars. Yigal Amir, an extremist ultranationalist, shot Rabin for signing the Oslo Accords that entailed an Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank because it was promised by God to the Jews.

Politicians had stirred the pot. Benjamin Netanyahu accused Rabin of betraying Jewish tradition. Likud rallies featured effigies of Rabin in an S.S. uniform and, in one poster, in the crosshairs of a gun. Likudniks at rallies compared Rabin to Hitler. In July 1995, Netanyahu led a mock funeral with a coffin and hangman’s noose as his supporters shouted, “Death to Rabin.”

There were religious justifications as well. Some rabbis proclaimed din rodef, the traditional justification for killing based on self-defense since the Oslo Agreement allegedly threatened the lives of Jews. Amir claimed that Rabin was a rodef, a pursuer who threatened Jewish lives because his actions opened the gates to others set on killing Jews. Amir believed he would be justified under din rodef in removing Rabin as a threat to Jews in the territories. Though he claimed that the rabbis issued a bin rodef against Rabin, none has been found. But it is possible that one was issued but has not been publicized lest the rabbis responsible be charged as accessories to murder.

Which brings us full circle back to Gedaliah. Had he been for some a traitor to the Jewish people in cooperating with the enemy? Was he like Haim Arosoroff or Rezső Kasztner, Jews who negotiated with the Nazis? But on appeal, Kasztner was cleared of all charges of knowingly sending Hungarian Jews to their deaths in exchange for saving his personal relatives and friends on the Kasztner train. The problem is that when you justify assassinations, you end up traveling down a worm hole and easily lose your way in the darkness. Further, as assassinations of fellow Jews become questionable, so do targeted killings of enemies.

Orthodox and ultra-orthodox rabbis who believe Israel must hold onto the West Bank have a more specific problem. How can they fast honouring the assassination of Gedaliah yet be totally reluctant to honour Rabin, with some even secretly applauding his murder?


[i] See also Flavius Josephus Antiquities of the Jews, 9.

[ii] Shlomo Nakdimon and Shaul Mayzlish (1985) De Haan: The first political assassination in Palestine.

[iii] See Ronen Bergman, Ruse Up and Kill: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.

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