THE assassination of Yitzhak Rabin has sparked unprecedented soul-searching among religious Zionist factions and right-wing rabbis and produced the first steps by the Israeli government to curb their rulings and actions.
Statements by extreme Zionist rabbis in Israel and the United States have emerged as a key factor in creating the climate that many Israelis say was responsible for the murder of the late Israeli prime minister. Israeli leaders worry that the divide between those who support peace with Palestinians and Arab neighbors and those who reject it could be deeper than ever.
That divide broadly corresponds to the one between secular Israelis, who support the land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians, and religious Jews and ultra-Zionists determined to hang on to the whole of what they regard as the Biblical land of Israel.
This divide was highlighted by Leah Rabin, Rabin's widow, in a televised interview last week in which she said she felt closer to Palestinians and Arabs than to extremist religious Jews.
''I would say that the most serious challenge to our security is the way Jews will feel toward each other,'' says Rabbi David Hartman, a liberal rabbi who founded the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
''Religious extremism grows from a feeling that your world is changing in directions that you cannot control and a feeling that liberal democratic principles are not functional to create a decent society,'' Rabbi Hartman adds.
Roots in US?
The kind of extremism prevalent in Israel today could have sprung from American Jews and figures like the assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the extremist Jewish anti-Arab movement Kach, Hartman says. Rabbi Kahane, the Brooklyn-born leader of the militant Jewish Defense League, was assassinated by an Arab in New York five years ago. He is widely regarded by extremists as their inspirational leader.
Several of the suspects held in connection with Rabin's assassination are self-declared members of Eyal, a Kach splinter group.
In Jerusalem Monday, about 100 followers of Kahane attended a memorial service for the slain extremist.
In November 1993, an American rabbi was caught smuggling gun parts, bombmaking manuals, telescopic sights, and silencers into Israel.
Last week, a group of American Jews set up a telephone hot line to raise funds for the legal defense of Yigal Amir, Rabin's confessed assassin. It claimed to have collected more than $100,000 in the first few days.
Israeli police are investigating whether certain rabbis were part of the conspiracy to kill Rabin by providing religious justification for such acts.
The Israeli government said Sunday that anyone who condoned Rabin's assassination would be charged with incitement. ''Whoever praises the murder will be arrested,'' Israeli Attorney General Michael Ben Yair told reporters at the Justice Ministry Sunday. ''Whoever praises the murder brings about the next murder.''
The Israeli government is considering tightening the Law of Return, which grants all Jews the right to immigrate to Israel, to prevent Jews who pose a security threat from entering Israel.
But several government ministers and the quasi-official Jewish Agency, the body responsible for the immigration of Jews to Israel, are opposed to tightening the law out of concern for further exacerbating tensions between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora.
The agency favors a stricter application of the existing law and administrative steps that would enable authorities to prevent the entry into Israel of members of banned right-wing organizations like Kach and Kahane Chai.
Rabbi David Forman, founder and spokesman for Israeli Rabbis for Human Rights, said that it was the inactivity of the silent majority of rabbis in the United States and Israel that had allowed a vocal and extremist minority to appear to speak for all rabbis.
Rabbi Forman told the Monitor that what was urgently needed in the US was for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents 1,800 reform rabbis and 850 congregations in America, to call an emergency meeting and draw up a clear statement.
Majority urged to speak out
''They should send a delegation to meet President Clinton and should be swarming on Capitol Hill,'' Ford said.
''The time has come to make it clear that the distorted rulings of some extremist rabbis do not have the support of the vast majority of American rabbis,'' he said.
''The problem is that you have an element that believes that their way of interpreting Judaism is the only way ... the absolute way.
''So everything becomes permissible to uphold the law of Judaism above the law of the secular state,'' Ford said.
But right-wing rabbis warned that a witch hunt would only exacerbate the divisions in Israeli society. ''I reject with disgust the horrible attacks on us,'' says Rabbi Haim Druckman.
Rabbi Shalom Gold, vice chairman of the 1,500-strong Rabbinic Coalition of Israel, was party to the halachic (Jewish religious) ruling in July that said it was justified to refuse to obey military orders to evacuate military bases or Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The decision forced religious soldiers to make an agonizing choice between God and their military commanders. Though conceding that the Rabin assassination had damaged the right-wing cause, ''The vicious attack on the right by the left is creating a division far deeper than it was before the assassination,'' Rabbi Gold said.