Miriam Shaviv
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Give Yigal Amir his legal rights
Date: Friday, November 11th, 2007
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

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If all goes to plan, in two days’ time, the son of Yigal Amir will enter the Covenant of Abraham and have his brit milah. According to the secular calendar, it will be 12 years to the day since Amir shot Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The macabre timing has ensured that the focus, as we approach the November 4 anniversary, is not on Rabin — where it should be — but on his assassin. Over the past few weeks, the Israeli public has been treated to an emotional DVD put together and circulated by his supporters, calling for his early parole; video footage of his initial interrogation, released by Israeli police, in which he calmly describes how he carried out his crime and professes no regrets; a request — which was turned down — by the murderer himself to be allowed out of prison to attend his son’s brit; and endless, sick speculation on internet forums as to what Amir will name his offspring (the hot money is apparently on “Yitzhak”).

The public reaction in Israel has by no means been unsympathetic. A poll in the Ma’ariv daily last week showed that a quarter of Israelis, and more than 40 per cent of religious Israelis, want Amir to be set free by 2015. A story on the birth of Amir’s child on Ma’ariv’s website generated close to 100 comments by visitors congratulating Amir, apparently without irony. Even given the vulnerability of any internet site to manipulation, it all makes for disturbing reading.

The sad truth is that, 12 years on, relations between Israel’s left-wing and right, secular and religious, remain suspicious and tense. The murderer Amir, who by rights should be rotting away in a cell, alone and forgotten, is still at the centre of things — a lightning rod for all those on the right who still feel that their voice is not being heard by decision-makers, and who cannot bear the fact that the occupied territories are still on the negotiating table; and all those on the left who see him as the embodiment of anti-democratic forces in Israeli society.

Were he to disappear from the headlines, Israel’s problems would not be solved. But without him as a focus, the extreme right would lose a useful rallying point. Perhaps the rest of the nation could finally let go of its unhealthy obsession with the details of Amir’s prison regime — a vicarious battle over the major issues of conflict within Israeli society, which are no more resolved today than they were on the day before Rabin’s murder — and start dealing with the problems directly.

How can we make this happen?

Several commentators have suggested that it is the media’s responsibility to deny Amir coverage. “None of the things that deal with Yigal Amir should be published,” Motti Morell, a leading strategic adviser, told The Jerusalem Post last week. “Journalists can reject news items about this person’s life, but they don’t do it.”

I disagree. Amir is a public persona, and it is not the media’s responsibility to avoid covering events that are newsworthy simply because they are politically sensitive.

The power significantly to shrink Amir’s public profile, rather, belongs to the state. Over the past few years, most of the attention paid to Amir has surrounded his battles to be granted certain rights which, by law, either belong to every jail inmate, but were denied to him, or which were eventually conceded to him by the courts anyway.

In January 2004, for example, the Israel Prison Service forbade him to marry his fiancée, Larissa Trimbobler, in prison, despite a law that permits all prisoners to wed. The result was not only a protracted and widely-covered legal battle, but the bizarre spectacle of Amir marrying his bride through a proxy, his father, who gave her the wedding ring on his behalf.

Despite the same law giving every prisoner the right to have children, there were also long battles over Amir’s right to conjugal visits (the Israel Prison Service initially denied him on the ground he was a “security risk”, but the decision was overturned by the High Court) and his right to conceive a child through artificial insemination. Again, the results were grotesque: extensive media coverage; Amir smuggling his sperm to Larissa in a plastic bag; detailed accounts of their first night together.

The state’s impulse, in each of these cases, was completely understandable. Amir’s crime was not only against an individual, but against the state itself and its democratic nature. Surely he has forfeited all rights. But perhaps it is time to consider whether his extraordinary treatment plays into his hands — allowing him to engage in a series of media-savvy shenanigans, keep his name in the public eye and portray himself as a martyr.

Amir must never again set foot outside jail. But would it not make more sense to let him share more of the rights granted to other inmates without having to resort to legal battles and manipulations? Paradoxically, in granting them, Israel would be denying him his most prized luxury — the oxygen of publicity.

Miriam Shaviv is the Comment and Letters editor of the JC

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