Early last month, Israel’s Supreme Court denied a motion by Yigal Amir, the convicted assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, that he be moved out of solitary confinement. While the appeal was in progress, Amir’s wife, Larisa Trembovler, acted as her husband’s spokesperson. “It is forbidden by law,” she said to the news portal Ynet, “to keep a person in solitary confinement for more than half a year, and in his case it’s already been 15 years, which is unprecedented. Every six months the state gets an automatic approval. His conditions in solitary confinement are very difficult.”
Trembovler has consistently spoken in the language of prisoners’ rights and state obligations in advocating for her imprisoned husband. Israel, meanwhile, on the recommendation of its security services, has repeatedly renewed Amir’s placement in solitary confinement. Israel’s rationale is that such treatment will prevent him from spreading his radical doctrine. Fifteen years after the November 1995 assassination, Amir’s supporters, led by his wife, claim that the prisoner holds no doctrine that he could spread to others and say that they increasingly see Amir’s solitary confinement as a violation of his civil rights. An unexpected endorsement of the supporters’ position came on the eve of the Supreme Court hearing. Physicians for Human Rights, an international civil rights organization based in New York, affirmed that prolonged solitary confinement is known to lead to mental debilitation for prisoners.
The civil-rights discourse surrounding Amir that is gaining traction in Israel evokes an entirely different setting in which advocates for prisoners spoke about breaches of rights. This setting was Soviet Russia, where dissidents were imprisoned by the state for their political activities. In this case Amir’s wife—a Russian Jewish émigré to Israel—played a crucial role in gradually turning Amir into a sort of political prisoner. Through Trembovler’s participation in her husband’s case, the language and tactics that Jewish dissidents used in the Soviet Union to appeal for emigration rights have been lifted from one historical context and political reality and applied in Israel.
The state has been forced over the years to recognize many of Amir’s civil rights. In 2005, Israel’s attorney general’s office ordered the state to recognize Amir’s marriage, conducted a year before by proxy according to an arcane Orthodox custom (itself recognized only after a period of deliberations by the country’s Orthodox rabbinate, which is the sole authority on Jewish marriages). Subsequently, Amir and Trembovler were allowed conjugal visits, which led to the birth of the couple’s son in October 2007. Supporters of the state’s repeated renewals of solitary confinement for Amir, who is serving a life sentence, often cite these two facts as proof that Rabin’s assassin enjoys all the rights allowed to other prisoners in Israel’s correctional system. Thanks in part to his Russian wife, the public image of Yigal Amir—an Israeli-born Orthodox Jew of Yemenite heritage—has been gradually evolving in the eyes of a sizable minority from that of a prime minister’s assassin into a Soviet-style dissident, imprisoned for his political views.
Larisa Trembovler immigrated to Israel in 1989. She had come, along with her first husband, during a massive wave of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, then teetering on the brink of collapse. In a 2004 interview with the Russian-language Israeli publication Kursor, Trembovler, who is now an Orthodox Jew, described an early interest in Judaism that emerged during her teenage years and culminated in her choosing a religious ceremony for her first marriage in 1987—a rare occurrence in the officially atheist Soviet Union. As an example of her prior involvement in civil-rights cases, Trembovler, who was not a refusenik, recounts sending care packages to political prisoners while a university student in the Soviet Union. Like the majority of Russian Jews in Israel, Trembovler has subscribed to right-wing ideologies and opposed the Oslo peace accords between Israelis and Palestinians signed by Yitzhak Rabin in 1993. Seeing in Rabin’s assassination an attempt to stop the peace process and prevent planned concessions to the Palestinians, Trembovler—long before she met Amir—was among those who traveled to the home of Amir’s parents to provide emotional support in the period immediately following the assassination. She later began corresponding with the prisoner and subsequently sent him books and arranged phone calls and visits. Trembovler, who is seven years older than Amir, eventually divorced her first husband, with whom she had four children, when she decided to marry the assassin.
Since 2004, Trembovler has kept an active blog written in Russian, on which she has been documenting Amir’s appeals for recognition of their marriage, his requests for conjugal visits, and his struggle against being held in solitary confinement. Her readers, who comment on the blog and in their own forums, form an extensive community of support within the Russian-speaking right-wing fringe in Israel. Initially attracted to what she saw as Amir’s act of courage against a repressive state, Trembovler has, through her writings, implied that Amir is similar to a political dissident, borrowing the language for the struggle from the discourse surrounding the so-called Prisoners of Zion, people imprisoned in the Soviet Union for their Zionist activities.
Amir’s wife uses certain Russian phrases that convey her self-appointed role as the political dissident’s wife, and similar phrases have been used in reference to her. For example, one article about the couple written at the time of their wedding bore the title, “In the depths of Jewish mines”—“Vo glubine evreiskikh rud”—a reference, instantly recognizable to anyone who has gone through Russia’s school system, to the first line of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin’s 1827 poem addressed to the Decembrists, “In the depths of Siberian mines”—“Vo glubine sibirskikh rud.” As punishment for their attempted coup against Tzar Nicolas I in December 1825, the Decembrists, a group of Russian aristocrats, was sent into internal exile in Siberia. Their wives followed them, often conducting personal correspondence on their behalf, as they had been forbidden to participate in public life. However inappropriate the comparison, Trembovler sees her role as implicitly based on this cultural model, which not only has extensive roots in Russian history but is also familiar, in its 20th-century manifestation, to many Israelis, Russian-speaking or not, through the public campaign conducted in the 1970s and ’80s by Avital Sharansky on behalf of her husband, Natan, the most famous of the Soviet Union’s Prisoners of Zion. Through the framing of Trembovler, who has comported herself in her writing and public image according to the underlying cultural model of a Russian and Soviet political prisoner’s spouse, some have come to see Amir’s continued incarceration as an ongoing struggle against what such language implied to be a repressive state.
Trembovler’s tactic has the potential to reap rewards even outside the most extreme subset of Israel’s Russian émigré population. In a society that holds a largely heroic view of Soviet Jewish dissidents—individuals who risked their freedom to defend their right to emigrate to Israel based on their Jewish identity—the creation of a homegrown Soviet-style dissident fills a peculiar lacuna for those who see the state of Israel gradually ceding its Jewish character. The parallel allows those in need of heroes to view Amir’s act as an attempt to prevent the handover of part of Biblical Israel to Palestinian control, a move that would, in the view of some of his supporters, violate the Biblical commandment for Jews to settle that territory.
Support for Amir’s cause, though generated to a great extent in Russian, does not come exclusively from the Russian-speaking sector, nor is it an exclusively Russian-language phenomenon, but rather represents a convergence of interests of various factions of Israel’s extreme right and those among the Russian Jewish émigrés who have become absorbed into that political fringe. Trembovler’s personal Facebook page and Amir’s fan group there—more recent social-media phenomena than Trembovler’s blog—have begun promoting similar causes in Hebrew. Trembovler’s new book, The Threshold of Fear, or Saf ha-pahad, self-published in mid-November 2010, was written in Hebrew as well. As Trembovler admits in a recent blog entry, Russian would have been an easier language in which to write, but she viewed Hebrew as having greater influence in educating the wider Israeli public. The book’s distribution by Trembovler and a number of her supporters could be likened to distribution of censored documents and literature in Soviet underground circles.
In recasting Amir as a kind of political dissident in the Soviet mold, Trembovler also calls attention to tactics similar to those used by dissidents to pressure the Soviet government. For example, Amir has over the years announced a number of hunger strikes on the occasions when he was prevented from communicating with his wife. In those instances, it was up to Trembovler to publicize these strikes on her blog and by way of petitions to prison authorities to restore communication. Similarly, in 2009, Trembovler’s supporters circulated a petition to Amnesty International, calling upon the organization to take up Amir as a prisoner of conscience, a category that Amnesty famously used for political prisoners in Russia during the Soviet period. The petition on behalf of Amir, which Amnesty International did not ultimately adopt, appealed to the organization’s support of dissent against repressive governments. The interest of the authors of the petition was in depicting Israel as a regime trampling the rights of its most notable prisoner. This convergence of interests is ironic: Normally Israel’s right wing—and even much of its political mainstream—abhors human rights groups like Amnesty International or Physicians for Human Rights, claiming them to be anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic in their support of various Palestinian-rights issues.
Trembovler’s mere presence has put the issue of the assassin’s rights into the public consciousness through her insistence on marriage and conjugal visits. Such issues would not have emerged without Trembovler’s participation: The existence—and the public visibility—of a woman willing to marry Amir and bear his child was necessary to call attention to the existence of any prisoner’s right, under Israeli law, to have a family. The public discussion of these rights, in turn, brought Amir out of the oblivion of a life sentence and into the spotlight. Trembovler’s continued public presence and her use of techniques from the Soviet dissident movement in the Israeli public sphere draw attention to what appears to be the state’s unique and unusual treatment of this particular prisoner.
Even on the left, which despises Amir for assassinating Rabin, the language of human rights has found some support. Didi Remez, who writes for the liberal blog Coteret, noted on his Facebook page at the time of Amir’s recent appeal to the Supreme Court that, “in the long-term, human rights mean nothing if they are not perceived as absolute. Although some may want to think otherwise, Yigal Amir, like any other convicted murderer, is still a human being. He was sentenced to life in prison, not to the torture of decades of solitary confinement. If we don’t fight for him, how will be able to fight for the next Vanunu?” Mordechai Vanunu, convicted of revealing secrets about Israel’s undisclosed nuclear program, served 18 years in jail and is currently restricted from leaving Israel and giving interviews to the press. Among certain strata of Israel’s political left, his whistleblowing came to be seen as a defensible act to force Israel to be accountable to international law.
Trembovler’s involvement in Yigal Amir’s case is a peculiar example of how Soviet-era models of cultural and political behavior have survived after Jewish emigration to Israel and how their promoters have found ways to attach those models to new causes, utterly transforming them in the process. Few would have predicted in November 1995 that on the 15th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination the nature of public debate would have shifted so dramatically as to include a discussion not only of Amir’s continued lack of repentance for his crime, but also his civil rights. Following the recent Supreme Court appeal, the issue is set to remain in the public sphere for a long time to come. Because the renewal of Amir’s solitary confinement is contingent upon the court system’s authorizations every six months, Amir was already back in court on January 3, 2011, for a regular reauthorization hearing during which, as a result of publicity from the recent Supreme Court case, state prosecutors examined the possibility of easing the terms of his confinement slightly. One might speculate whether some in Israel don’t begin to fear that, with the gradual demise of the peace process begun by Rabin in Oslo in 1993, a part of the country’s population may eventually turn Amir into a heroic figure worthy of release from jail.
Sasha Senderovich is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University.