Accusations, recriminations reverberate

JERUSALEM — Thirty days is not a long time for a trauma of the magnitude of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination to play itself out on a society.

But as thoughtful Israelis this week mark the shloshim, or 30-day mourning period, for Rabin, they know that the brief period of national unity expressed in the immediate aftermath of the slaying has been shattered.

And amid the political and religious divisions, a new debate has surfaced: What are the limits of free speech in a democracy that is suddenly and violently thrown on the defensive by the assassination of its elected leader?

In its frenetic splurge of investigations, arrests and charges in the weeks since the killing, the state's law-enforcement machinery is treading close to a line that many believe no democracy can afford to cross.

Along with the wide dragnet cast to bring in anyone remotely associated with the killer and his close circle, the police have been arresting and detaining people who, though arguably foul-mouthed, were clearly not engaged in any criminal activity.

Day after day, there are reports about people being arrested, charged and sentenced in connection with intemperate statements they made in the past — in some cases, in the distant past.

On Monday, for instance, Israel Radio provided its listeners with a report from Jerusalem of a suburban barber hauled in for questioning by city police after he allegedly condoned the assassination.

According to other reports, the barber had been entirely blameless: He had merely refused a haircut to a man who allegedly made derogatory comments about all Orthodox people, with particular reference to several Orthodox men in the shop at the time.

The remarks were funny, but few listeners laughed.

At a time when ill-conceived statements can lead to an interrogation, people are beginning to censor their own speech in public.

Clearly, orders have come down from the top for the police and prosecutors to dust off all the unused laws and mandatory regulations regarding sedition, incitement and myriad other provisions that many nations have on their statute books — but which only totalitarian states actually use.

Further providing some with an uneasy feeling, three leaders of the right-wing group Zo Artzeinu, or This Is Our Land, were charged in Jerusalem on Sunday with sedition. At the other extreme stands Yigal Amir, the confessed assassin who Tuesday was formally charged with premeditated murder in the Nov. 4 assassination.

In the days before the indictment came down, Amir freely harangued the reporters who regularly attended his detention hearings.

On Sunday, at a Tel Aviv court's detention hearing, Amir said one of Rabin's bodyguards had been killed in the wake of the assassination, a rumor the government and police denied. Amir, who said the bodyguard, not him, was the one who yelled "dummy bullets" during the shooting to confuse security officials, said he had "information that can turn the whole country upside down."

Amir then launched into one of his political diatribes, with the reporters duly recording his every word.

"In some dark corner," author Amos Oz warned the next day on the front page of the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, the next "ideological killer is watching Amir on TV, jealous of his celebrity status."

"If a murderer can hold press conferences and extol murder, why shouldn't every rapist be permitted to appear before the press and the television and publicly applaud the pleasures of rape?" wrote Oz, who added, "At every one of these press conferences, Yitzhak Rabin is murdered anew."

Oz raised some fundamental questions with which Israeli society must now grapple: Is Oz's call to gag Amir a denial of basic rights? If Amir is silenced, what then of the barber or his customer? Should they be gagged or allowed to speak their minds?

Is Oz part of the overreaction, the "witch hunt" that many intellectuals — and not only those on the political right — accuse the government of pursuing in the wake of the assassination?

These questions and arguments coincide with a broad and growing sense within Israel's Orthodox community, and especially among Orthodox Zionists, that they are being victimized.

But here, too, fact and feeling sometimes blur.

There have been instances of kippah-wearing youth being jostled in the street. And the media is full of articles railing against Orthodox education, against the largely Orthodox settlement movement in the territories, against Bar-Ilan University, where Amir was a student and, in some instances, against the basic theological tenets of religious Zionism.

All this because Amir wears a skullcap, received an Orthodox education and was an advocate of religious Zionism.

In another telling incident, a welcome-home celebration at the West Bank settlement of Beit El for Margalit Har-Shefi last Friday, shown on national television later in the evening, provoked an angry outcry in liberal circles.

Har-Shefi had been in detention for three weeks on suspicion of aiding and abetting Amir. Police say they still intend to press charges of complicity against her, and she is under a form of house arrest.

But the settlers maintained they were celebrating not her alleged involvement in the crime, but rather her release from custody, which they construed as a proof of her innocence.

There is some call for dialogue, with reports from across the country of groups of Orthodox and non-Orthodox students getting together spontaneously to talk, if not to agree, in the wake of their common trauma after the murder.

And 20 top professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem issued a public statement Friday of last week decrying the wholesale assault on their colleagues at Bar-Ilan and on the university itself.

But one person's witch hunt is another's natural and justifiable response to the bald fact that Rabin's confessed murderer is religious and cited religious motives for his deed.

The efforts at dialogue will have to take into account the fact that large numbers of the Orthodox Zionist movement are not abandoning their political creed, despite the murder.

The settlers have not given up their fight for a Greater Israel; they refuse to allow Amir to discredit them or their fight.

Although most of the leadership of the National Religious Party has accepted the irrevocability of the accords now being implemented between Israel and the Palestinians, they do not speak for the "hard-core" settlers who number in the tens of thousands.

The settlers, moreover, together with the NRP and the other parties of the right, plan to fight stubbornly against further concessions to the Palestinians by the Peres government.

And just as certainly, they intend to do all they can — by legal means — to ensure that Peres' rule is short-lived.

In the wake of the national expressions of sorrow, the accusations and recriminations — along with the memory of the murder itself — will continue to reverberate through the national psyche for years to come.