Teenage Yigal Amir fan club worries Israeli leadership

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JERUSALEM — A television interview with three teenage girls who professed to be members of a "Yigal Amir fan club" has prompted a storm of debate over whether there is widespread admiration among Israel's religious youth for Yitzhak Rabin's convicted assassin.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that if indeed it was a widespread phenomenon, it must be "uprooted immediately."

Education Minister Zevulun Hammer ordered the creation of a special committee to investigate the matter.

Rabin's widow, Leah, said that nine months after her husband's murder, she fears Amir has a huge following.

The controversy follows a report broadcast on Israel Television's weekend magazine in which three 17-year-old girls from the Kiryat Gat area in southern Israel spoke about their deep admiration for Amir, who is serving a life prison sentence for murdering Rabin last Nov. 4.

The girls, whose faces were concealed by straw hats, said they sent Amir love letters, made scrapbooks with his pictures and newspaper clippings about him, videotaped TV segments about him and even attended his trial in Tel Aviv.

They said they were drawn to him by his "cute smile," adding that the former law student who shot Rabin because he opposed the premier's peace policies was "a national hero."

Following the outcry, the three girls said they were sorry and sent letters of aplogy to Yitzhak Rabin's widow, Leah.

"I am sorry about everything," Merav Hazan told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. "I don't support Rabin's murder."

Merav's mother also apologized. "I want to express sorrow and regret for all that happened, and apologize before everyone, including Leah Rabin," Sima Hazan told Army Radio Monday.

"She's only 16 and not mature…We believe that the murder of the prime minister is the worst possible thing. What do you think, that we educate our children to kill, or smoke drugs? There are no pictures of Amir in our home and I didn't know she went to Tel Aviv to attend his trial. She said she was going to buy shoes."

Amir had sought religious justification for his act, sayingthat Rabin's policies with the Palestinians were putting Jewish lives at risk.

The students, who attend the Gross State Religious School in Kiryat Gat, said their parents knew of their infatuation and did not interfere.

They added it was clear that some teachers at their school supported Amir's actions, even if they did not express this openly.

"You can see that some of the teachers supported the murder," one of the girls said.

"They won't say that explicitly. They prefer to be quiet. But when we pressure them, you can clearly see they support it."

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau said he planned to be at the Gross School when the school year opens later this month.

He reportedly said that if the teachers did indeed support Amir, they should be put in jail.

Hammer described the girls' sentiments as grave, but described them as "an isolated act of adolescent craziness."

"The state religious schools do not condone murder in any way, and certainly not the murder of the late prime minister," Hammer told Israel Radio.

But former Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein of the left-wing Meretz Party said many of Israel's young — especially from the national religious camp — had developed anti-Rabin sentiments as a result of the heated rhetoric directed against the premier in the months preceding his assassination.

"It's the inevitable result of this vilification campaign against Rabin, who was described as a traitor, depicted as a murderer," he told Israel Radio.

Members of Rubinstein's Meretz Party demonstrated outside the Gross School on Sunday, where teachers and administrators convened an urgent meeting to discuss the situation.

The National Religious Party struck back at the Labor Party's attacks on the religious-Zionist community and on the state-religious school system.

"We never said that the entire Labor movement is responsible for the massive emigration of its young people from Israel, or for the famous cases of gang rape, or for the drugs and alcohol in its camp," said MK Avraham Stern. "It would have been appropriate for them to learn from us how to conduct themselves."

In an interview with Army Radio, Prof. Uriel Simon of Bar-Ilan University said that admiration for Rabin's assassin and justification for his deed are not a marginal phenomenon in certain political cultures.

He said that religious Zionism did undertake a process of soul-searching after the Rabin assassination but that it stopped prematurely with the Likud victory in the elections.