Murder taints 'tolerant' campus

November 24, 1995

The bullets which pierced the body of 73-year-old Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin also punctured many national illusions of tolerance and cooperation between the mainstreams of secular and religious Israeli society.

For no institution in Israel so clearly attempted to symbolise the synthesis between modern and traditional, secular and religious as Bar-Ilan University, the institution where 26-year-old Yigal Amir, the premier's murderer, studied law.

Although established explicitly as a religious university, Bar-Ilan had been seen by most Israelis as succeeding in bridging the gaps between traditional Jewish values and 20th-century Israeli life; that is, until it became known that the premier's killer was a student there and that other Bar-Ilan law students were members of the extremist cell in which Amir was active.

Questions started to be asked about the kind of education being offered in an independent, respected institution which had always promoted political and religious tolerance, yet had a murderer in its midst. On the one hand is the philosophy behind the university, on the other the fanatical writing on the wall.

The original idea was to combine modern scientific research and academic curiosity with religious learning. According to Daniel Sperber, a professor of Talmud (Jewish Law) at Bar-Ilan, this philosophy "grew out of the conflict between original orthodox religious thinking and scholarly, scientific studies because the religious placed limitations on the para-meters of their thinking and scientific academic study was critical and questioned everything".

The university, founded in 1955, saw tolerance and mutual understanding as a basic part of its educational message. Situated in a modern 70-acre campus in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, it is the only university in Israel which has Jewish studies requirements, in addition to the full university curriculum. Bar-Ilan employs more than 1,300 lecturers and has more than 22,000 graduate and undergraduate students. The university has five faculties: natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, law and Jewish studies. In addition to offering a variety of degrees, the university also offers diplomas in communications, librarianship, social government, music therapy, teaching, translation and interpreting.

According to Professor Sperber, the university is 50 per cent religious and 50 per cent secular with both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews and a very small percentage of Arab students. All students do 25 per cent of the required courses for a BA in Jewish studies. Professor Sperber, who has been a lecturer at the university since 1968, described a variety of "religious intensities" on campus, including students who come from yeshivot (institutions of religious learning) and want to continue learning. The university has a kollel (institute of religious studies) and Amir studied there as well as the law faculty.

In contrast to this philosophy is the recent appearance - according to the Jerusalem weekly newspaper All the City - of posters on the walls at Bar-Ilan's campus offering a "prize for the murderer of Rabin," another with Rabin shaking hands with Arafat and handing him a gun; another depicting Rabin washing the blood off his hands.

Professor Sperber said: "There are people who say that the present government did a great deal of damage not necessarily to the right, but to the Orthodox elements of the right. They saw a systematic de-legitimisation of the settlers (140,000 Jews living in settlements beyond the Green Line marking the borders of Israel) who were openly declared as rebels. The right and Orthodox right saw it as part of the programme of the present left-wing government to de-legitimise them and Zionism.

"This increased the tension between the orthodox and non-orthodox, right and left, which had existed . . . hence the frequent and often violent demonstrations." Among the most extreme right-wingers were orthodox religious leaders including yeshiva heads and rabbis from some of the settlements, who felt that the present government's policy was "not only betraying traditional Zionist values, but was also contrary to their interpretation of biblical and rabbinic law."

At this point they introduced Jewish law into their extreme right-wing political philosophy.

Today, Yigal Amir represents a puzzle to everyone: political leaders, academics and the public alike. His political motivation was not clear. He was certainly not doing the right-wing a favour. "No one from the mainstream right and orthodoxy condones it (the murder)," Professor Sperber emphasised. However, for most people, it came as a shock because of the type of person Amir is. He is not seen as some "weird extreme right-winger". He is a quiet, highly intelligent, intense, introverted law student, who claimed to be "divinely commanded". Born into a working class Yemenite family with eight children, he studied in a variety of contrasting religious and Zionist religious schools, served in the elite Golani infantry brigade of the army and went to a yeshiva before going to Bar-Ilan University to study law.

The university is being seen as the institution which produced a murderer but Professor Sperber stressed that this act "in no way represents the university or the policy of the university".

Bar-Ilan's president, Shlomo Eckstein, said in an official statement: "Murder is simply the most un-Jewish act imaginable. It runs contrary to everything that Bar-Ilan University stands for and teaches its students: tolerance, moderation and morality." In a subsequent interview, he said: "We do not teach ideology I We are not called upon, we are not entitled, we should not and we dare not teach ideology, but we must present before the student body the different approaches in the political arena which are available."

Opinions of the university vary: education minister Amnon Rubinstein, in his 1984 book The Zionist Dream Revisited, used the expression "evil at the heart of Bar-Ilan" to describe the university rabbi's call to fulfil the biblical commandment of wiping out the tribe of Amalek, which in modern times has come to represent any mortal enemy of the Jewish people. Yet, many familiar with Bar-Ilan praise its atmosphere of tolerance.

Eliezer Don-Yehiya, a professor in political science, said that the courses in his department were designed to promote the idea that in spite of differences of opinion, it is still possible to live together, without violence.

"By focusing on ways of resolving conflict by peaceful means without undermining national unity indirectly, the students have some idea of the significance of political tolerance and of living together. In this way, Bar-Ilan is educating its students for political tolerance. But maybe there are more important ways such as the religious and non-religious getting to know each other on campus."

According to Professor Don-Yehiya, some Jewish religious circles have developed a feeling of being "under siege, a dangerous combination of Jewish particularism and distrust of non-Jews," which has led to extremists exploiting selected parts of Jewish law and the idea of "messianic redemption" to legitimise violence.

"Amir believed that Rabin was trying to stop this process of messianic redemption by giving territories to the Arabs." However, Professor Don-Yehiya was convinced that "most Jews (religious and secular) condemn and are opposed to violence towards Jews and non-Jews alike. It's a serious blow to the prestige of the university and it is unfortunate, since most lecturers at Bar-Ilan University are politically moderate."

Yedidya Stern, dean of the law faculty, admitted there was a problem of "combining Halakhic (Jewish legal) ideas with democratic ideas I We do have a responsibility to do what we can to find out if there are any distorted values in the campus I We have to expel the rabbis who promoted (the murder), by talking about it, or by ignoring it. Whoever had any connection to such ideas must protest against them from now on. We have to find out if we have any more people of this sort and throw them out."

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