CAMBRIDGE – It will be 25 years in November 2020 since Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was leaving a Tel Aviv rally in support of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A gunman waited in the shadows. Yigal Amir, a 24-year-old Israeli law student, fatally shot Rabin, who a year earlier had won the Nobel Peace Prize for supporting the Oslo Accords, which called for the creation of a Palestinian state.
“Incitement,” a new Israeli feature film by Yaron Zilberman, tells the story of the assassination from an unusual point of view: that of the killer. Directed by Zilberman, with a screenplay cowritten by Zilberman and Ron Leshem, “Incitement” was screened at the Boston Israel Film Festival in mid-February and the Kendall Square Cinema on Feb. 28 and 29, just a few days before the Israeli elections. Leshem, who now lives in Boston, participated in Q&As following some of the Cambridge screenings.
“I don’t think I’m going to write ever again about someone I am so disgusted with,” Leshem said.
Leshem explained that the film is not only about Amir’s individual actions drifting out of legal studies and into criminal activity, but also about broader voices within Israeli society denouncing the peace process. “Through [Amir’s] point of view, I wanted to show he was influenced by rabbis, politicians, hundreds of thousands of people” who “called out for the death” of Rabin, Leshem said. And, he told the audience, “Almost every single word said on screen is real.”
Leshem recalled attending the fateful rally at which Rabin spoke on Nov. 4, 1995. The future screenwriter was serving in the Israel Defense Forces as an intelligence officer. Leshem left the rally to go to the beach and learned about the assassination from an army radio broadcast. He told the Jewish Journal that he felt “mostly shock and depression.”
Up to that point, Leshem felt that the fractured Israeli society was “going to reunite, that we would be better people,” he said, but following the assassination, “I was not optimistic then, I have lost confidence since then.”
The making of “Incitement” dates back more than six years, arising out of conversations between Zilberman, who lives in New York, and Leshem in Boston. “Yaron called me from New York,” Leshem recalled to the audience. “I did not know him, but I loved his films.
“Yaron said, ‘I want to do a film about the assassination of the prime minister.’ I said, ‘I can’t do it, it’s too depressing.’”
Yet Leshem ultimately signed on, even though, he said, “I usually write characters I’m attracted to, I want to be with.”
Leshem did not interview Amir, who is serving a life sentence in Israel. “I did not want to meet him,” Leshem said.
Instead, the screenwriter sent two researchers to Amir’s wife’s home, where they were able to record his conversations from prison. “He’s so similar to a lot of assassins, even [Lee Harvey] Oswald,” Leshem said, noting that Amir had both “an inferiority complex” and “a God complex.” But, Leshem added, “he had something no other assassin ever had. One thing, he was mostly fearful someone else would kill the prime minister before him. He was obsessed with the fact that someone else would be written as the future biblical Messiah.”
When the film begins, Yigal Amir is a Yemeni Jew living in Herzliya, the son of Shlomo, a sofer (Torah scribe), and Geula, a preschool teacher. In the film, Yigal Amir is played by actor Yehuda Nahari Halevi, a secular Israeli who is from Amir’s neighborhood and knew his family, Leshem said.
In the film, Shlomo Amir laments that his son’s military service took away his gentle nature. Unlucky in love with girlfriend Nava, the younger Amir is increasingly radicalized by religious and right-wing voices amid violent reactions to the Oslo Accords, ranging from deadly Palestinian suicide bombings to Israeli Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinians and wounded 125 others while they were worshipping in Hebron in 1994. Yigal Amir sees Goldstein as a hero and hosts Shabbat events in the occupied territories. He recruits volunteers, including his brother Hagai, for a clandestine project, stockpiling weapons and soliciting multiple rabbis’ opinions on his ultimate goal.
“A few rabbis either said ‘yes’ when he asked or debated among themselves, ‘Should we warn the prime minister?,’” Leshem said. “None got to the point of a trial. All were investigated.”
As the story moves toward a denouement, the film shows real-life footage of crowds calling for the death of Rabin – and even actual footage of the assassination itself.
“It changed the course of Israel forever, maybe,” Leshem said. “Three bullets started and ended a civil war in a second.”