Sunday, 13 July 2008

A marriage made in Prison

What possessed a mother of three to abandon her husband and marry Israel's most reviled murderer? Ori Golan finds out.

During Yom Kippur, Larissa Trembovler prayed for strength to face up to the many trials which lie ahead. She knows it’s not going to be easy, but as a religious woman she accepts her fate with love. And love is the operative word, because that is what it’s all about: Trembovler, a 37-year-old divorced mother of four, has chosen to marry Yigal Amir, who murdered Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.

Trembovler has a fragile, slightly quivering voice which she barely raises. The accent gives away her Russian origin, but her Hebrew is fluent, flowery, and eloquent. She sets clear boundaries around what she is willing to discuss and politely holds her ground when she feels her privacy is invaded.

She emigrated to Israel from Moscow 15 years ago, where she earned a Masters degree in Biology, and went on to do a PhD in Philosophy at the Hebrew University. She and her husband set up home in Jerusalem and have four children, from 3 to 15 years of age. Last year, she divorced her husband, but they still keep in touch and raise the children together.

"First, I want to emphasise that my recent divorce is not related to Yigal. It is totally unrelated to the current story and I’d like it to remain private." she begins. The relationship with Amir, she stresses, did not start as a romantic liaison. In fact the relationship did not start with him at all.

In 1996, after the assassination, Trembovler contacted Yigal’s parents. "I saw them as innocent people who, in a sense, had lost two sons, (Yigal’s brother, Hagai, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for involvement in a conspiracy to kill Rabin) and were perceived by many as enemies of the state. I wanted to help them. Maybe it is my upbringing: in the former Soviet Union we were educated not to accept this process of dehumanisation."

After initially corresponding with Hagai, she began writing to Yigal. They did not discuss his crime. "We exchanged views and information on other matters. I sent him books to read and we discussed them. I was aware that he was in solitary confinement and wanted to ease his isolation. It was a purely humanitarian gesture. I was certainly not looking for a shidduch" she chuckles.

Did his crime not shock her? "I am not in a position to discuss this. You don’t judge the deeds of those who are close to you, at least not in public". Then she continues.

"What happened is a terrible tragedy and God-forbid that such things happen again. I think that if we want to prevent such things we need to read into past and similar events. I do not think his action can be described as a particularly cruel murder. It is a terrible tragedy. But the motivation was not money or base cruelty: it was ideological. It is important to distinguish between the two.

Three years ago, Trembovler visited Amir in prison for the first time. "We found a common language" she says, "and I discovered a very different Yigal Amir to the one presented in the media. He is a sensitive and caring person with profound thoughts."

At this point Trembovler leaps, or obfuscates, over two years, and suddenly they decide to marry. In between, one assumes, love blossomed. So, I ask her, who proposed to whom?

"Of course it was he who proposed!" she laughs. "I am rather conservative in such matters." She did not give him an answer straight away, but wanted to think it through.

"It was a very difficult decision to make; not because of my feelings, but because of other considerations. I knew it would have an effect on my children. It took many hours of conversations because the situation was so complex."

When Amir applied to the prison authorities to marry, it triggered uproar. "I’d rather go to Amir's funeral than his wedding," declared Yossi Sarid, of the liberal Meretz party. Yuval Steinitz from the Likud Party was hardly more charitable: "The law enabling abominable murderers such as Yigal Amir to marry in jail should be changed," he says.

At a press conference, Prison Services Chief, Yaacov Ganot, said that he intended to oppose the marriage on moral grounds. But during the court hearing into the Amir’s petition for conjugal visits, state attorney, Shai Nitzan, charged that Amir posed a security threat and could relay messages via Trembovler while alone with her. Consequently, Amir’s request for conjugal visits was rejected, a decision which he is currently appealing in the Supreme Court.

"There is no precedent in Israeli law that a prisoner is refused the right to marry" charges Trembovler, "and withholding Yigal this right on moral ground will not hold in court and so, moral grounds have now morphed into security considerations, and like everyone knows, "security considerations" have a unique status in Israel; it is like a magic wand which casts a spell on the courts."

Dan Yakir, attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) agrees. "I find it highly suspect" he says, "that they trump up the security claim at such a late stage". He advised the General Attorney’s office that marriage is a basic right and human rights are granted to all human beings, even those who commit the most heinous crimes. Then, while the legal wheels were slowly chugging, something truly astonishing happened. Amir and Trembovler announced that they had married.

"We are both religious individuals", explains Trembovler, "and we reached the decision that this dithering might take a long time, maybe even many months. We both knew of a rare halachic practice called ‘nisuim b’shlichut’ [marriage through an emissary] and got counselling from a number of rabbis. We obtained a heter from Rabbi Karelitz, from Bnei Brak and followed the procedure to the letter, including a signed Ktuba. I felt a great relief because I believed that we were doing the right thing". Asked to comment, Rabbi Nissim Karlitz, head of the rabbinical court in Bnei Brak, flatly denies any involvement in this union.

The Prisons Service were dumbfounded. In one of their only statements on the affair they said they would "investigate the civil and Jewish legal issues related to the marriage of the prisoner."
Meanwhile, Trembovler has applied to the Jerusalem rabbinate for a marriage certificate, but the case is so contentious, that it may eventually go to the supreme rabbinical court to decide if their wedding can be formally recognised. She also intends to change her family name to Amir. "I don’t want anyone to think that I am ashamed or anything like that".

There are several women in Israel who are married to prisoners serving life sentences, but Amir’s case is unique. Many Israelis view him as the patriarch of all evil who has never expressed remorse for his deed and must never be forgiven. The establishment, it seems, is merely echoing these sentiments.

"They are being vindictive." says Trembovler. "He was given to understand that if he expressed regret then he might be granted permission to marry, but he refuses to compromise. Any person who expresses regret should only do it if he reaches that decision from inside and not under pressure".

Trembovler knows she’s in for a long struggle, but remains resolute: "I have taken into consideration the fact that we may never set up house and home together, but I am at peace with my decision. This relationship gives us both a lot strength."

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