Saturday, December 12, 2015

Q&A with Dan Ephron

Dan Ephron, photo by David Blumenfeld
Dan Ephron is the author of the new book Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel. He has been the Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and his work has appeared in a variety of other publications, including The Boston Globe and Esquire. He lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin?

A: Israelis and Palestinians faced this unique moment during the Rabin era, when peace seemed possible -- not a certainty but at least possible. I remember it vividly because I reported from Israel in the mid-1990s. I actually covered the rally where Rabin was assassinated and then the murder trial of the assassin, Yigal Amir.

Fifteen years later, Newsweek sent me back to Israel to serve as the bureau chief. By then, peace seemed very distant. So I decided I wanted to reexamine that earlier period and understand precisely what happened: how this 25-year-old Jewish extremist managed to upend the process with nothing but a handgun and a fairly simple plan.

Q: Your book includes so many details about both Rabin and his assassin. How did you research the book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I had the cooperation of both families -- the Rabins and the Amirs -- in writing the book. I couldn’t interview either of the protagonists (Rabin is dead and Amir is in prison, where he’s barred from giving interviews), so access to the families was critical.

I also had available to me the letters of key figures, a diary and thousands of pages of official documents. Reading through everything and deciding what the documents told me, how I could use them to shape the narrative, was the first step. It took more than a year.

Q: You write, “Had he lived, Rabin might plausibly have reshaped Israel broadly and permanently.” What do you see as some of the major impacts of his death, both in the short term and the long term?

A: Rabin’s death sets off a chain reaction that shifts the power in Israel from the pragmatists to the ideologues. Within six months, Rabin’s Labor party is ousted and a young right-wing politician named Benjamin Netanyahu is elected prime minister.

The rightward shift in the country had been underway long before the assassination. But Rabin’s murder was the pivotal and culminating event in that process. Netanyahu has been the dominant political figure in Israel ever since, serving as prime minister for nearly 10 of the past 20 years.

Q: How did you pick the book’s title, and what do you see it signifying?

A: The title comes from one of the letters Hagai Amir wrote from prison in the days after the assassination. Hagai is the brother of the assassin and a co-conspirator in the murder. He spent 17 years in prison.

In the letter, he placed the murder in the broader context of Jewish history. He wrote: “According to Judaism, Killing a King is profoundly significant. It affects the entire nation and alters its destiny.” I read the letter 17 years after Hagai wrote it and it struck me as chillingly prescient.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I spent the last few months working on an hour-long radio documentary about the Rabin assassination with my wife, Nancy Updike, who is a longtime producer for the public radio show This American Life. It aired around the time the book was released. I’m now mulling another book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The book includes a chapter on the conspiracy theories surrounding the murder. I had initially planned to ignore them -- all the evidence points to Yigal Amir as the culprit. But the conspiracy theories have gained enough traction over the years that it felt necessary to address them in some way.

I ended up spending a lot more time on the issue then I intended. At one point I bundled the clothes Rabin wore on the night of the assassination in a carry on and took them to the U.S. to get them inspected by a gunshot analyst.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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