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Dissonance

Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin 15 years ago in an effort to derail the Oslo peace accords. Now his wife, a Russian émigré, is trying to turn him into a heroic Soviet-style political prisoner.

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“Free Yigal Amir” protesters outside the Hasharon prison, near Tel Aviv, where he is being held. (David Furst/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

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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.

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Absolutely disgusting. I don’t care how good the cause is. The guy murdered a democratically elected Prime Minister. Maybe Scharansky would like to comment on how Amir should be placed in the same sentence as himself.

Joshua Herzig-Marx says:

This is a fascinating look into Israeli politics through a specific lens. Thanks!

Dissonance indeed–between the heroic image of the Soviet dissident and the warped and troubling ways in which post-Soviet Jews in Israel are deploying this rhetoric in service of extreme-right politics. Great piece.

Jonathan Silverman says:

He didn’t kill him.

Very good article. Whilst reading it the word “Chutzpah” came to mind.

David P. Stone says:

The article is a terrifying indication of what Israel is rapidly becoming–a right-wing loony bin in which history is being rewritten in the most disgusting way possible and common decency has become a relic of the past.

The article is also an articulate call for capital punishment. Had it not been applied to Eichmann, he might still be alive and well, fathering more children and somehow lionized as a stalwart hero in the fight against left wingers. Had it been applied to Yigal Amir–yimach shmo–the state would have been relieved of the burden of housing and feeding him and the world would have been relieved of the burden of his wife’s existence as such.

This would be irrelevant if Israel had the death penalty.

But what do I know?

I wonder if Hamdi Quran, Basel al-Asmal and Ahad Olma, convicted assassins of then minister of tourism Rehavam Zeevi, are also held in solitary confinements since 2008? Or Amir (because he is not an Arab but a Yemenite Jew) deserves different punishment for the same crime? Or maybe Israeli court thinks Rabin’s life was more precious than Zeevi’s? (After all not everybody is equal)

anonymous says:

I beleive,that he should be let out because it was somebody else who actually killed him. May that other person will be in jail, not Igal.
I would not like Rabbin’s killer to be out, but they arrested a wrong person. I beleive that that Amir’s fault was was partial, but not actual. At least he’s been in jail for 15 years and it’s enough for him.

The killing of Rabin while a great tragedy for the Jewish People is not as great a tragedy had Rabin given up Israel to the Palestinians. That would have been a real disaster, and knowing what we know today about the Palestinians, it is a miracle that someone stood up and fired that fatal bullet. It seems that most of the readers and writers on this website are leftist in orientation, and as such would just love to see Israel disappear or at best simply put down. Had Rabin lived long enough, he would have accomplished your goals for you. Keeping Amir is solitary confinement for more than 15 years just shows how crazy things are in Israel these days.

Very interesting analysis. I am all for protecting the civil rights of convicted murderers, as these are provided for under the law, but it does seem that Ms. Tremblovler is intent on crafting a narrative that has little to do with legal civil rights (except in so far as these can be used as a disingenuous rallying cry) and more to do with a fraudulent appeal to emotion.

It is a big question if Rabin at the time of his assassination was indeed democratically elected prime-minister. He definitely did not represent the will of majority of Israelis at that time. But even members of his own Labor party (which represented majority in the knesset) voted against his actions as a prime-minister. Only support of communists and Arab nationalists by one vote allowed him to pass one of the most important resolutions in Israel’s history (which in USA would require at least two thirds) and haughtily declare that Israeli population supports him. He acted against the will of majority and therefore his end came as the logical conclusion to his actions. It was destined to happen unless new elections would be held in a short time.

Thank you very much for this fascinating report on an important and mostly ignored phenomenon. I’d have loved to hear more about how this coheres with the larger picture of Russian presence in contemporary Israeli politics – most notable right now in the figure on Avigdor Lieberman, of course. Is he also importing Soviet cultural and political models? And what are the implications for Israeli politics?

Phillip Cohen says:

Gene, Georg von Starkermann, anonymous and Jonathan Silverman are proof that Yigal Amir needs to remain in solitary confinement.
Yigal Amir murdered the President of Israel. He disenfranchised millions.The majority of Israelis did support him. That is why he was able to offer the resolution. Larisa Trembovler should be incarcerated for inciting the public or deported to Russia.

allenby says:

To those who believe in this drek story…YIGAL AMIR is NOT the assassin.
He never was.
Yigal Amir was used as a Puppet. Want to know more, goooooogle…

WHO is sasha senderovich ? WHO is he…????
Without knowing this writer, without knowing his agenda, without knowing WHO he is, where he is, and WHO is behind him…NOBODY should believe this story.
90% of his shpil is about Larisa. And only a couple small paragraphs about Yigal.
People, are your brains half dead ???
How can you believe this bullshit from the first read ???
AGAIN: Yigal Amir has never killed Rabin. Period.
If somebody wants to know the truth, start googling.

Sander Postol says:

Larissa has done a good job of bringing out the nutcases as some of the comments show. She should be deported along with some more of her Russian friends. Amir should have been executed for an act that seriously injured Israel’s soul.

Assassinating anyone is never a good idea, unless the individual is a Hitler or Stalin. In Rabin’s case, he acted like a Junior Hitler, so maybe just shooting him would have sufficed.

There is only one Israel, and one People called israel. Who gave Rabin the right to give away Israel to the Palestinians? The Palestinians to this day reject the very notion that there is an Israel, or that there is a Jewish People with a common history and geography. How many times can a country be attacked by so many enemies, win each war, then wait awhile to be attacked once again.?

Didn’t Rabin read his own history books or look at military journals outlining all of the battles fought for Israeli independence? Still he was willing to give back to these murderers the very land that was created for Israel. Rabin was a traitor, and all traitors should have been shot upon their first perfidy.

Harriet B says:

Had Amir been put to death, he wouldn’t be in solitary confinement.

dani levi says:

Yigal needs to pick up the soap he dropped in the shower, and again, and again, and again, and again…

Nachum says:

Phillip Cohen is such an expert, he doesn’t realize that the President and Prime Minister of Israel are two different people.

your right wing nut case commenters forget rabin was a soldier who fought for israel not one of the johny come latelies who are distroying israel from within

you didn’t post my other comment which said Rabin’s killer makes me sick and is a sorry excuse for a jew. i agree with others who say his wife out to be deported. i can’t believe that they let him marry and have a child

To Ilana from the “right wing nut case”. Unlike “left wing nut cases” we do know the history. We know that Rabin was a brave solder. We also know that he was accused by the human rights organization of breaking international law when he expelled members of Hamas to Lebanon in 1992, just one year prior to the infamous “handshake” for which he received Nobel peace prize. We also know that those who in 1995 called him “martyr of peace” in 1990 (just 5 years before that) were comparing him to Hitler and Nazi because he ordered IDF to “break bones” of Palestinian militants during first intifada. But let me ask you a simple question and see if you can answer it: “Why murderer of a prime-minister should be treated differently than murderer of a minister of tourism?” Just let see if you know the answer.

dani levi says:

HEY EVERYBODY!
The fat guy illustrating this sad story in the chosen photographs leading the article, is in this video by the Jpost.
http://www.jpost.com/VideoArticles/Article.aspx?id=205527
He has a biting guard dog called Shiksa and lives in an Arab neighbourhood in Jerusalem. He likes to clear the street with his biting dog of all his neighbours. It is these kind of fat f+++s who support Yigal and other sub-fascist Israelis in destroying the country. He is of course American!
Great video, the symbolism could not be greater. Oy Vey.

He reminds me of a WW2 German Nazi with his dog, all proud that he got a good deal on the animal. Maybe Big Boy, the dog and Yigal can get together and do a little bestiality vid in prison? Wifey on camera.

I bet that would go down well on those dark wet and windy winter nights in the WB settlements, you know! Snuggle up in front of the telly with a hot cup of cocoa after Torah study and watch the Yigal doing the dog!
mmmmmm….you want some more sugar in that cocoa? Sweet enough for you, honey?

asherZ says:

Amir did more harm for his cause than anyone else in the last few decades. The bullet would have been made unnecessary by the ballot. The homicide bombers would have shown the Israeli voter that we have no partner for peace, which by now most realize. This horrible act should keep him confined for the rest of his life primarily because it was wrong and an obscene way to make a point, but it should demonstrate to others that in a democracy these kind of acts ( and to a much lesser extent the incivility that often is seen in Knesset or cafe debates) is not how Jewish people should deal with each other. If he were executed he would not be as an effective example in our political and social dealings with each other. Amir continues to remind us of that horrific act that should never enter anyone’s mind again.

Shulamit says:

Why is it that everyone alwyas critize Israel on what they do or dont do. Other countrys do worse and no one say anything. No one even a bad person should be killed or murdered. Maybe Mr. Rabbin was in favor of the palestinians just maybe trying to bring peace with a wrong solution.
But I do agree that this woman should be deported and her husband should be put to death because he took a life and his should be taken for justice. I think that the jewish people deserve more understanding by the world, we are a suffering race always blamed and ridicule and hated just because we stand for the truth that there is Only One G-d and for the land that rightfully belongs to us given by that same G-d. If people did real research on the jewish people just like they do in other things they would learn the truth.

Andrea says:

It’s funny how these Soviet-era models of cultural and political behavior have such a powerful religious subtext. Solitary confinement turns Amir into a martyr, and his wife into a self sacrificing mother figure. You’d think people would be suspicious of her motives by the way she so fiercely fought to even get to play this supposedly self-sacrificing role – marrying Amir and having his children when he was already in prison. But maybe not everyone recognized the cultural stereotypes she so craftily uses. It’s good to read an analysis that makes us aware of the work of stereotypes we are likely to buy into (the self sacrificing mother, the suffering dissident).

Its about time that,The assassin’ wife Larisa Trembovler ,be arrested and charged for inciting, she is a selfish bitch whom needs to be silenced ,why should the Assassin Yigal be released from Solitary Confinement,He is a Murderer Not a POLITICAL PRISONER !!! Is his life worth more than the Assassinated Prime Minister OF ISRAEL, Yitzhak Rabin ? no way ! Think of the family of Rabin ,they have lost a loved one.This Assassin should have paid the ultimate price,with HIS OWN life.
People of Israel ,get awake ,Do NOT give your support to YIGAL AMIR &/ OR
LARISA TREMBOVLER; THEY ARE EVIL,AND SHOULD BE BLOTTED OUT OF THE BOOK OF
LIFE.

allenby says:

you’re all so naive, believing in this garbage written by sasha…
YES, Rabin was assassinated, but NOT by Yigal Amir.
As a matter of FACT, Yigal Amit didn’t even shot Rabin.

The BULLETS that killed RABIN, were shot inside the car that Rabin was pushed into, under the initial first act that was shown on TV.

mr.senderovich ignores the hidden and “secret” truth about Rabin’s killing, for obvious reasons.
This article was posted here not by him, but by his handlers, The Left.
The Left has an agenda here: to SCREW and HIDE the REAL FACTS, to LIE.

Only two names are mentioned in this drek: Yigal and Larisa: Yigal is a “killer”, and larisa is a kgb agent.

HOW WOULD ANYBODY with a little brain in the head, believe in this fabrication???
ONLY 2 NAMES…???

Just two people involved in Rabin’s assassination…..?????!!!!???
DON’T BE SO DAMB!!!

anonymous says:

Amir took part in a conspiracy to put Shimon Peres in power. He fired “blank shots” and the other dragged Rabin in a car and shot him inside. I think “others” were involved more. This is horrible injustice, that Amir is only one that was convicted. I’d keep him in jail for time that he diserves to be and put those that were masterminds of conspiracy.

dani levi says:

I think it was the Jews who killed him.

This is a very interesting, and I think, accurate analysis of the tactics Trembovler is using and the success she may have in applying them.
But there’s a distinction to be made – Trembovelr’s comparison between Amir and the prisoners of Zion and the falsity of depicting Amir as a prisoner of conscience stem from the fact that he wasn’t imprisoned because of the political aspect of his act, because he was voicing on opinion or fought for what he believed in. He was imprisoned because, first and formost, he murdered the prime minister. It’s a crime to kill a person generally and moreover this is more severe since he was acting against the democratic process when decided to voice his opposition to the government’s policy by killing the prime minister. and so he is a criminal, not a political prisoner.
At the same time, the indifference in the Israeli public to the conditions of his imprisonment is part of the indifference to human rights. Amir doesn’t deserve much sympathy but the accusation that he will spread his ‘radical views’ to other prisoners is preposterous. He should be held in prison for the rest of his life and held in contempt and disgust publicly – but he shouldn’t be tortured. We have to acknowledge that if we are to treat ourselves as on the side of human rights.
At the same time, the fact we are so afraid of having Amir voice his opinions, show also how fragile we are and how much we are vulnerable we are – we are not confident in out belief of what is wrong in what he did. If what Amir did was so acceptably wrong, we shouldn’t have a problem with dealing with his ideas. But we aren’t so we torture him beyond his punishment.

Les Miller says:

Israel asks, demands, clemency for Pollard, but metes out the severest penalty to Amir without hesitation. Ironic? Double standards?

Justice is supposed to transcend politics. In Israel, however, politics and religion appear to be more important than justice. It appears some crimes, capital crimes, have subtexts that transcend simple Israeli justice. Morality is for weaklings once you know what really happened. And how do you know? That depends on the political commentator you listen to.

I know, this is naive gibberish. But this business of transforming rank criminals into martyrs is not only unbecoming, it is dangerous. Justice must be consistent and true if a State is to remain above the fetid chaos of a tyranny. There is no shame in living in a society that is ruled by law. Pollard deserves his fate, Amir deserves his fate. A society that finds a political correctness in criminal behavior not only condones murder and espionage, it encourages these outrageous, illegal acts.

I’ve said that least 3666287 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Dissonance

Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin 15 years ago in an effort to derail the Oslo peace accords. Now his wife, a Russian émigré, is trying to turn him into a heroic Soviet-style political prisoner.

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