‘How I wrote the story’: Who IS this guy?

Scott Kraft on the struggle to profile a suddenly notorious newsmaker

Maybe it’s the nobody who sets a local apartment house on fire and kills a bunch of people. Or the guy who holds a bunch of jewelry store customers hostage before killing himself. Or the Unibomber. Or the hijackers. The rush-job profile of a heretofore anonymous person in the news–the demand to answer the question, “Who is that guy?”–is a reflexive challenge we all face at one time or another.

'How I wrote the story': Who IS this guy?

'How I wrote the story': Who IS this guy?

This week I’ve pulled a three-day-turnaround story Scott Kraft and colleague Chris Reynolds wrote in 1995 on a young Israeli nobody named Yigal Amir, who had shattered the Middle East peace process by assassinating Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. The killer’s politics were 180 degrees apart from Rabin’s, but that merely set the stage for the deeper question: What made him do this? What made him tick? These are questions that quickly reported stories almost always fail to answer completely. We accept this, and struggle merely to get a little closer to the truth with each question we ask, and with each time we undertake the challenge of another rush-job profile. Scott’s essay about speed, persistence and judgment is a roadmap to follow the next time you’re drafted into this kind of mission.

I’ll let Scott, now the L.A.Times’ national editor, take it from there:

When Rabin was assassinated, thousands of reporters descended on the mourning nation to cover a multitude of stories, from the funeral to the future of the peace process. And everyone wanted to know more about Yigal Amir, the young Israeli who had pulled the trigger and been arrested at the scene.

Within 30 hours, Times’ bureau chief Marjorie Miller and correspondent Mary Curtius had been joined by three other Times reporters. I had come from Paris, Bill Montalbano from London and Christopher Reynolds, a Travel writer, from Amman, Jordan, where he had been on assignment.

Two days later, as the press of breaking news began to ease, our editors asked Chris and me to break away from the daily coverage and focus on the life, and the mindset, of Yigal Amir.

Our goal was to find out everything we could about this 25-year-old man, who remained a mystery, even to most of the Israeli press. The Hebrew translators in the Times’ Jerusalem bureau pored through the newspapers, which gave us some of the basics–the schools he had attended and the place where he and his parents lived in Tel Aviv.

It was apparent that Amir held right-wing views, but we wanted to flesh that out: At what point in his life did he part ways with more mainstream right-wing thinking? What was his personal Damascus Road? When, where and why had he decided that violence against a fellow Jew was the path of righteousness?

None of those questions had yet been answered in any of the stories that had been written about Amir.

We began by interviewing his teachers and fellow students. The family wasn’t talking, but Amir’s mother ran a kindergarten in her home, so we interviewed people who had sent their children there.

We spent long hours running down the smallest of details, which are so important in a story like this. Chris persuaded a clerk in the interior ministry to find Amir’s firearm license application, which yielded important details, such as the reason Amir had given on the license and where he had applied for it.

We interviewed the chancellor of Amir’s school, Bar Ilan University, who was still visibly shocked by the bad publicity all this was creating for his school. We asked a lot of questions about Amir that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer. (Later, Chris talked other school officials into giving us Amir’s school scores.)

The chancellor referred, again and again, to Amir’s school file, which lay on his desk. He said it would violate the student’s privacy to show it to us, and he insisted on speaking in maddeningly vague terms. As we compared notes later, we realized that we both had read the file number from across the desk and jotted it in our notebooks. It wasn’t much, but we needed as many details as we could get.

Most of the students were reluctant to talk about Amir. They distrusted journalists in general, I suspect, but many also were worried that if they said anything that sounded too knowledgeable, they might make themselves a target of the Israeli police investigation.

While talking to the students, though, I found a good friend of Amir’s, a young man who had been Amir’s roommate in high school and knew him well. I pulled him off to the side, away from the other students whose presence might make him less willing to talk. He opened up and added many pieces to the mosaic we were creating, from what Amir read for pleasure to how his views on theology had changed in recent years.

Then, I found one of Amir’s professors. Accustomed to the five-minute interviews he’d done with TV correspondents, the professor was a bit surprised by my desire to talk at length. Eventually he invited me into his office, where he became more expansive.

The professor said Amir, though one of the brightest students, could be combative with his teachers, and he gave me a good example of that, along with a lesson in theology. The example itself had nothing to do with the central question–on what theological basis had Amir acted–but it provided a window on this young man’s thought process, especially on his stubborn refusal to change his opinions, even in the face of his learned teachers and on the smallest theological points.

On the third day, we decided that Chris would follow up several remaining leads while I cloistered myself in my hotel room with both our notes and began writing the story. We had promised to deliver it that evening, which would be morning, L.A. time.

I knew the story would be long (I figured at least 60 inches, though it turned out to be 85), and that put extra importance on the opening. I asked myself the question all of us ask when beginning a feature story: How can I set the scene, bring the reader in, and keep him or her reading? Sometimes, it it is best to begin with the conclusions, but the conclusions of this story were subtle and nuanced, and didn’t really lend themselves to a straight: ”Yigal Amir killed Yitzhak Rabin because he…[etc.]…according to dozens of interviews with people who knew him.”

The stories I most like to read have powerful opening scenes. So I wanted my introduction to be dramatic and full of detail. It had to sell readers on continuing the story by making them feel as if they were witnessing the scene.

But I wanted it to be economical, too. Overwrite the opening, with too much flourish, and I’d lose the reader quickly. Underwrite it, and the introduction would be crushed by the sheer volume of the copy that followed.

So I began with the most dramatic material, retracing Amir’s steps on the day he killed Rabin. The day had begun in his Tel Aviv home, where he had gone to Saturday prayers with his father and shared a traditional Sabbath lunch with his family. Then, he took a bus to the downtown Tel Aviv rally where he mingled with the security guards and government drivers, emerging to kill Rabin as the premier returned to his car.

That took six paragraphs. It was a little longer than I would have liked, but I thought the material was strong enough to support the length.

Then came the ”nut” paragraphs. I wanted to describe, as succinctly as possible, what we intended to do with the story. In this case, the easiest way was to simply pose the questions set up by the introduction, namely: What kind of young man spends a normal day with his family and then goes out at night and kills the prime minister?

I framed those questions in the nut grafs this way:

“How could a clean-cut young man from a good family go so wrong? Why did this highly intelligent scholar, a good son to his mother and father, a loyal friend to his fellow students, a devoted pupil of the good rabbis, act so brazenly against Jewish society and culture, morality and tradition? What could have led Yigal Amir to stalk and kill, without remorse, another Jew?”

While the introduction is the ammunition for a story like this, it is those nut grafs that pull the trigger for the reader, vaulting him or her into the rest of the story. So, next, I had to quickly reassure the reader that we intended to answer those questions, and offer some hint as to what the answers were:

The answers are not simple. In fact, they are as complex as Israel itself. But some are evident–in Amir’s upbringing, in his studies, in his passions and finally in the tense climate created, ironically, by peace in his tortured homeland. And the portrait of Amir that emerges from interviews with friends and teachers, the people who knew him best, makes a disquieting parable for modern-day Israel.

This story had a lot of natural interest, but that put even more pressure on us to tell it compellingly. Once the introduction and nut grafs were in place, I was pretty sure the piece was on track.

From there, I went chronologically through Amir’s life. The key there, I thought, was to use the detail we had collected to the story’s best advantage. We needed just enough detail to give the passages some punch, and the ring of authority, but not so much that the readers’ eyes glazed over.

Some hard-won details, such as Amir’s brief stint teaching Hebrew in Latvia, had to be discarded in favor of others that seemed more relevant, such as the nickname, ”Big Mind,” that he earned during his tour in the army.

But there was plenty of room in the narrative for much of what we had collected. One of the most telling anecdotes turned out to be a professor’s recollections of Amir as a student who argued the smallest points of theology and refused to ever back down. ”It was impossible,” the professor said, ”for me to ever convince him that he was mistaken.”

Five hours after beginning to write, I was nearing the end. I wanted to return to the killing and its aftermath for the conclusion, though I wasn’t sure until I got there what I was going to say. It needed to be a dramatic finish, but one that also underlined the theme of the story.

I set up the ending by recounting Amir’s previous attempts on Rabin’s life, attempts that were unknown to police until after the assassination. Then, I skipped lightly over the assassination itself, which we already had described in the lede, and went straight to the aftermath–Amir’s defiant, unrepentent appearance in court.

”I have studied (Jewish law) all my life, and I have all the information,” he had told the incredulous judge. Later, he hung up on a telephone conversation with his parents, who were imploring him to apologize.

As a final line, I wrote: ”Even to the end, no one could argue with Yigal Amir.”

Chris Reynolds went over the story, adding material he had gathered while I was writing. We debated several passages and fine-tuned some of the wording. We both wrestled with that last sentence, trying to strike just the right note. Chris pointed out that, in fact, people could argue with Amir and were doing so, deafeningly. So, together, we rewrote it this way:

”Even now, no one can win an argument with Yigal Amir.”

And now, the story:

November 10, 1995

HERZLIYA, Israel — It was just an ordinary Sabbath in the two-story stucco home at 54 Borochov St. Up early, Yigal Amir set off with his father to the synagogue for prayers. Then back for the traditional Saturday midday meal, in the womb of his family–his parents and seven brothers and sisters.

There was no trace of emotion on his face, his mother recalls. And she says she would have noticed.

Shortly after sunset, the 25-year-old Amir headed down his quiet suburban street, a two-block stroll to the bus stop next to the Cheaper Than Cheap grocery store. Bound for Tel Aviv in the warm air, he wore a blue T-shirt and no jacket. A 9-millimeter Beretta semiautomatic pistol was on his hip, stuffed in the waistband of his black jeans.

Nothing unusual there. Amir always carried that gun, duly licensed, for “protection,” as do 250,000 people in Israel.

Arriving at a peace rally, he worked his way through the crowd to the side of Kings of Israel Square, where the official cars were parked. He mingled with the government chauffeurs, some idly smoking cigarettes. Amir blended in; the police would later say they thought he was a driver.

Cheers still ringing in his ears, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin descended a set of stairs to the waiting cars. The official drivers moved toward their vehicles, but Amir hung back, pulling the gun from the waistband and firing three bullets at Rabin’s back.

Security agents were caught off guard. Amid the pop, pop, pop of his gun, Amir shouted: “It’s nothing, it’s nothing. They aren’t real bullets. They’re fake!” But two already had torn through the prime minister’s suit coat, mortally wounding him.

Authorities now believe this act of terrorism was part of a conspiracy, and Israelis may argue for years over which right-wing militants and groups can be tied to it. But many in this nation are now asking a more fundamental set of questions:

How could a clean-cut young man from a good family go so wrong? Why did this highly intelligent scholar, a good son to his mother and father, a loyal friend to his fellow students, a devoted pupil of the good rabbis, act so brazenly against Jewish society and culture, morality and tradition? What could have led Yigal Amir to stalk and kill, without remorse, another Jew?

The answers are not simple. In fact, they are as complex as Israel itself. But some are evident–in Amir’s upbringing, in his studies, in his passions and finally in the tense climate created, ironically, by peace in his tortured homeland. And the portrait of Amir that emerges from interviews with friends and teachers, the people who knew him best, makes a disquieting parable for modern-day Israel.

A Respected Family

Amir was born in 1970, the second son of Shlomo and Geula Amir, who still live in the same stucco house with the red-tile roof. Then, Israelis still had fresh memories of the 1967 war, when the powerful army led by Rabin had retaken the eastern half of the holy city of Jerusalem, driven the Syrian enemy from the Golan Heights, seized the West Bank of the Jordan River and reached the Suez Canal.

The Amirs were Yemenites, among the most respected of the non-European immigrant Jews in Israel. Most, including Yigal’s family, had emigrated in the 1940s and 1950s. The Yemenites are one of the oldest Jewish communities outside Israel, having settled in southern Arabia 2,000 years ago. Although not considered exceptionally religious, they are a traditional people, speaking biblical Hebrew, maintaining their customs and ethnic identity in Israel, and acquiring a reputation for charm and humor.

Geula, whose name means “redemption,” and her husband settled on the name Yigal–“will redeem”–for their son. He grew up in a happy, middle-class home. Shlomo was both a kosher butcher who killed–according to biblical tradition–the chickens brought by neighbors, and a scribe who spent hours hunched over parchment, transcribing the Torah and other religious material for local rabbis.

Although the Amirs were religious, they were tolerant of their non-observant neighbors, a group that has grown in recent years. Geula runs a nursery school from her home, drawing children from many segments of Jewish society.

“She’s just wonderful and so tolerant with the children,” said Zvia Laor, who has sent two children to the Amir nursery school. Although Laor is not religious, and supports the government’s peacemaking efforts, she never hesitated to send her kids into the Amirs’ more pious home.

“Geula teaches the kids to love their neighbor as yourself, and she has always stressed tolerance,” Laor said. “I could see her good effect on the children. They just loved her. And it’s hard to find teachers who love their kids like that today.”

When non-religious mothers would show up in shorts and short-sleeved shirts, attire frowned on by many religious families, Shlomo would greet them at the door, wearing his traditional kippa, or skullcap, but also a broad smile.

Religious Education

Amir attended his mother’s school, then was sent to the orthodox Wolfson elementary school, associated with the conservative Agudat Israel movement. That was the beginning of the road away from the religious tolerance he had found at home. At 14, he left for five years’ study at Hayishuv Hahadash, north of Tel Aviv, the only Yemenite child in a Lithuanian orthodox high school.

While there, Amir distinguished himself as a passionate student of the Jewish Bible.

“He was so serious; he just studied all day,” said Aryeh Frei, 24, a fellow student. “He would go to bed at night, get up in the morning and continue studying. He didn’t waste time on anything else.”

His teachers noted Amir’s remarkable memory. He could repeat Hebrew passages, flawlessly and by heart, after one or two readings. When he graduated from high school in 1989, he volunteered for the toughest part in the school play, which required him to cross a muddy field and lose his shoes in the process, a skit intended to show the difficult life of the boy attending yeshiva, or Jewish seminary.

The choice of strongly religious schools for Amir is significant. Since the 1967 Middle East War, those schools, supported though not controlled by the Israeli state, have shifted gradually to the right.

The main prod for this has been the territory acquired during the war. Many religious schools teach that control of that land, which includes many Jewish holy sites, is the key to the eventual spiritual redemption of the Jewish people and humanity. Others accept practical obstacles, such as Islamic mosques built on Jewish holy sites or the need for peaceful coexistence with the Arabs.

Amir was moving toward the absolutist position. In his view, the planned hand-over of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Palestinians was a mortal threat to Jews.

‘Crazy About the Army’

After graduating from high school, Amir, then 19, went to Karem Dyavneh, a respected school that combined military service with advanced religious studies. It was a philosophical leap for him, moving from the religious arena, where many students eschewed military service, into a combination of religion and the secular state army.

Amir spent 20 months in the elite Golani infantry brigade, in a company that proudly called itself “the cruel ones.” He became, in the words of a friend, “a real Golanchik. He was crazy about the army.”

During Amir’s tour of duty, Israeli soldiers spent much of their time protecting the occupied territories, especially communities of religious settlers whom the government had encouraged to put down roots in the “lands of Israel.”

Amir’s intellect and devotion to religious scholarship impressed fellow soldiers, who nicknamed him Natsnets, or “Big Mind.”

In 1991, Amir returned to his studies at Karem Dyavneh, near the Gaza Strip south of Tel Aviv, but he had more than a religious future in mind. “He really believed in this country, and he wanted to devote himself to his country,” a fellow soldier said. “That was his attitude.”

Rabbi David Kabe, one of his teachers there, recalls telling Amir that his destiny was to become a great Torah scholar, something much in demand in the religious schools. But, as Kabe recalled in an interview with the Hebrew-language daily Yediot Aharonot, Amir just laughed and said: “No, no. I’m going to finish yeshiva and go to university.”

In early 1993, just before the first of Rabin’s historic accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Amir applied for a gun permit, a common enough act in one of the most heavily armed societies on Earth.

On the application, he listed his residence as Shavei Shomron, a Jewish settlement in the northern West Bank. It appears he never lived there. But he knew, as does everyone in Israel, that gun permits are nearly automatic for people in the territories, where residents feel they need protection from the surrounding Palestinians.

Amir wrote “self-defense” as the reason for applying and attached a photograph and a certificate proving that he had taken the required firing-range training. The permit, specifically for a 9-millimeter Beretta and valid until 1996, was approved within weeks, and Amir immediately took the permit to a gun shop and bought his weapon.

Devoted Scholar

Graduating in the summer of 1993, Amir was nominated by his professors to the Liaison Bureau of Rabin’s government, which sends highly regarded young Israelis as envoys to foreign lands. Amir and a school friend were dispatched to Riga, the Latvian capital, under the auspices of the B’nei Akiva, a nationalist religious youth movement.

For two months that summer, the young men taught Hebrew to Jewish residents of Latvia, hosted traditional Sabbath dinners and tried to encourage Jewish residents to emigrate to Israel. Their supervisor recalls they both did “a very nice job.”

Returning to his parents’ house near Tel Aviv in October, 1993, Amir, at 23, enrolled at Bar Ilan University, one of the country’s most respected institutions. He was among the best students on that carefully manicured, modern campus, having won a cherished spot in the law school, which accepts only the top applicants, as well as the computer science school. On the psychometric entrance exam, a kind of Scholastic Assessment Test, he scored 680 out of a possible 800.

In addition, and more important, he had won a place in the university’s Institute for Advanced Torah Studies. From 500 new applicants for the institute each year, 80 are selected, and 10% of those drop out early in the four-year program.

Combining rigorous religious studies with university courses is grueling, which is one reason only 400 of the 19,000 students on campus do it. And Amir’s course load, which included the difficult law and computer science curricula, was particularly demanding.

Each morning Sunday through Thursday, Amir rode the bus to the Torah studies institute, an octagonal modern classroom and synagogue with beautiful blue stained-glass windows.

He would spend several hours in the large study hall, where students break into pairs to read and discuss the Torah. So long are the hours that the study room includes both desks and podiums, to allow students to read while sitting or standing. Then Amir would join 40 to 50 students in classes taught by the staff of rabbis.

After his religious studies, he crossed campus to buildings housing the law and computer science schools, where he would spend the afternoons, usually heading home more than 10 hours after he had arrived.

His record at the school, where he had just begun his third year, is contained in a blue file folder. His law school average was 75%, a passing though unremarkable grade, although he managed that without attending many classes, his teachers said. He had a 90% average in computer science.

It was in religious studies that he excelled. “He was a good student,” said Rabbi Moshe Raziel, dean of the institute. “I won’t deny it, even now.”

Opinionated Student

Amir was well known by the rabbis because of his dedicated study, but also because of his strong opinions. In class, he would regularly argue points of Jewish law with the professors, challenging their interpretation. And he never backed down.

“He was a little stubborn,” recalled Raziel, who had Amir in several classes. “It was hard–well, really impossible–for me to ever convince him he was mistaken.”

Raziel recalled one recent classroom debate over the ethical obligations of Jews entrusted with other people’s possessions.

The question was: If someone pays you to guard a pen and it is later stolen, what is your obligation? Raziel argued, based on 14th-Century rabbinical interpretations, that you wouldn’t have to reimburse the pen owner because you had shown no negligence. But Amir argued that the obligation was greater and that reimbursement was a necessity.

“I showed him the passages that had been written for generations on this, but he said, ‘No, those rabbis meant something else,’ ” Raziel said. “In class, every argument has to come to an end, but he would continue and continue. He was very bright, and it was much harder for his teachers to convince him of anything.”

The conflict between Jewish law and Israeli government laws was a constant source of soul-searching for the students. That was especially true of Amir, who studied Jewish biblical law in the mornings and Israeli secular law in the afternoon. For Amir, Jewish laws were always paramount.

“Everyone who studies [secular] law has this conflict,” Raziel said. “For instance, according to the Torah, you cannot take interest on loans of money. But secular law allows for interest. So our students are always asking the question: How do you as a religious Jew act in life?”

That had become a hot political, as well as theological, question in Israel since Rabin signed the peace accords with the PLO. Amir argued with friends that even the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” does not apply in the case of Rabin, because the prime minister, by handing over Jewish holy lands to the Arabs, was blocking the redemption of the Jewish people. Even killing, he argued, is justifiable when the greater good of humankind is at issue.

Right-Wing Sympathies

For most students, such conflicts between politics and theology are worked out in private meetings with the institute teachers, who say they urge students to keep the two separate. But Amir, confident in his interpretation of the Torah, never sought such counsel.

Everyone in the institute knew Amir was strongly religious. That was obvious from the black kippa he constantly wore, refusing to join most of the other students, who favored colorful, knitted kippot. He was not susceptible to peer pressure.

And they knew he had right-wing sympathies. He attended many right-wing rallies during his two years at the university. Newspaper photos discovered since the assassination show him last year in his usual T-shirt and black jeans, being hauled away from a West Bank demonstration. Another shows him at an anti-Rabin rally near the campus, where right-wing supporters staged a hunger strike.

Amir regularly dragged his friends to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, insisting that they see the land that the Israeli government was preparing to relinquish to the Palestinians. He also came into contact with extremist groups, among them Eyal, whose leader, Avishai Raviv–now under arrest in the killing–had been expelled from the Torah institute at Bar Ilan. With those groups and their supporters, who talked incessantly of stopping “the traitor” Rabin, Amir found himself among ideological compatriots.

“I don’t support his deed,” Raviv told a judge after his arrest on suspicion of conspiracy. But he wouldn’t deny hearing Amir talk of killing Rabin. “He talked a lot, but I did not take him seriously,” Raviv said.

Over coffee and cookies at the Torah institute, Amir would argue with fellow students–some of whom supported the government–that Rabin must be stopped, although he never specified how that might be done. Such arguments over politics and religion were exceedingly common in that environment. Amir didn’t start many arguments, and he never resorted to physical blows. But he never backed down either. “You couldn’t argue with Yigal and win,” one student said.

Kept to Himself

Amir had few interests outside of school. In high school, students recalled seeing novels by Alistair MacLean on his bedside table. He also played basketball. But the spindly young man was too serious a scholar to be much of an athlete. He had had only one girlfriend, but friends said they had broken up recently.

A neighbor of the Amir family said he could never recall seeing a smile on Yigal’s face. But being serious was not a drawback for the students in the Torah studies institute. He was well liked, although he kept to himself much of the time.

Rabbi Raziel, shocked by Amir’s actions, thinks the young man kept his murderous intentions “in a closed corner of his soul.”

“At the end of the day, you can’t mix politics and theology,” said fellow student Frei, a right-wing supporter who has known Amir for seven years. “Yigal was different. He really believed in what he learned. But you’ve got to interpret the Torah correctly, and he missed one important point–you can’t kill someone for it.”

One of the things Amir kept in that closed corner of his soul was his determination to follow through on his promises. But, as his friends knew, Amir always kept his promises.

For two years, police say, he plotted to kill the prime minister, keeping his pistol loaded with so-called dumdum bullets, allegedly customized by his older brother Hagai to make them more deadly.

Yigal and his friends in the constellation of right-wing groups talked tough among themselves. Mostly former soldiers, these extremists kept themselves well armed for “self-protection.” They believed a new war between Jews and Arabs was inevitable, and they planned to defend themselves and their families.

Amir, apparently without his parents’ knowledge, began keeping weapons too, burying them behind the Borochov Street house, where his mother’s 40 kindergartners romped during playtime. There were enough weapons there, police would say later, “to make any terror group proud.”

Plotting to Kill

Police now believe others shared Amir’s dark secret and may even have conspired with him, at least in the legal sense. But laying plans is one thing; pulling the trigger is something else. Amir alone, with his licensed gun, fired the fatal shots.

Twice before, Amir had plotted to assassinate the prime minister in public. The first time was Jan. 22, at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp. But Rabin canceled his appearance after terrorist bombs exploded at a bus stop, killing 20 Israeli soldiers.

Amir waited eight months before trying again. This time the event was the opening of a roadway interchange near Tel Aviv on Sept. 11. Amir arrived with his gun but found security around the prime minister was too tight.

No one knows why he chose the peace rally on Saturday. But it turned out to be the perfect opportunity. With Rabin surrounded by supporters bused in from throughout Israel, security was lax. If anything, bodyguards were on the lookout for Arabs bent on avenging the recent assassination of the head of the radical Palestinian group Islamic Jihad. That assassination in Malta was widely believed to have been carried out by Rabin’s security agents.

But not a peep was heard from any Palestinians at the rally. Instead, Rabin stood before the masses, called for patience and peace, then stepped off the stage to die by the hand of a fellow Jew.

Two days later, Amir was marched into court, where he could face life imprisonment if convicted of murder, although Israeli law does include a death-penalty provision in cases of crimes against humanity. His hands were cuffed behind his back, yet he was cool and sure of himself.

“How does it feel to be the most hated man in Israel?” a reporter shouted. “How does it feel to be a worm?” Amir retorted.

Amir told Magistrate Dan Arbel that he had acted alone “and maybe God acted with me.” He said his goal had been to awaken the Israeli people “to the fact that a Palestinian state is being created here . . . with an army of terrorists.”

The judge, incredulous, asked: “Have the Ten Commandments been canceled?”

“According to Halakha,” Amir responded, referring to the body of Jewish law, “the moment a Jew turns over his people and land to the enemy, he must be killed.

“I have studied [Jewish law] all my life, and I have all the information,” Amir continued, lecturing the judge. “There are 613 mitzvot [commands] in the Torah. And there is a commandment more important than ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ It is pikuach nefesh [the preservation of life].”

Later, in a telephone conversation with their son, Amir’s parents implored him to apologize for his act, saying they could not support him if he didn’t say he was sorry. Without answering, Amir hung up, according to an Israeli TV station.

Even now, no one can win an argument with Yigal Amir.

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