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Yitzhak Rabin. Photo: Courtesy Israel Defense Forces Flickr

Yitzhak Rabin. Photo: Courtesy Israel Defense Forces Flickr

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, z”l, on November 4th, a tangible and trustworthy peace between Israelis and Palestinians seems, still, a pipe dream at best. Yet we remember that peace accords between Israel and parts of the Arab world have indeed been achieved, and continue to hold.

The Camp David Accords of September, 1978, sealed the agreement of a land-for-peace deal between Israel and Egypt, in which Israel returned the entire Sinai Peninsula, which it had conquered in its victory over Egypt during the Six Day War. The iconic image of the 3-way handshake between US President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin, was seared into our memories as a triumph of the human aspiration for peace over the all too familiar instinct for war. And while there have been tensions between Israel and Egypt, to be sure, the fact is that since that handshake in 1978, not a single shot has been fired between these two nations.

Likewise, just this week, October 26, marked the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Israel-Jordan Peace Agreement, at the Arava Crossing between the two countries, which was renamed “The Yitzhak Rabin Crossing,” connecting Eilat and Aqaba. There too, we remember the table that was set up, in the expanse of the Arava Desert, with the big books containing the texts of the agreement, being signed simultaneously by Prime Minister Rabin, Jordan’s King Hussein, and President Bill Clinton in the middle. This peace has brought both a cessation of fighting and economic advantages, especially to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Tensions? Occasionally. Fighting? None.

This is a portion of the account of the night that Rabin was shot, written by Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, North America. Yehuda had spent a number of years living in Israel when he was younger, during the time that his father Daniel served as US Ambassador there, and also to study. I learned of the murder when I was 18 years old, as I rode a bus back from Ra’anana to Jerusalem after a weekend spent with dozens of other kids under the auspices of the Religious Zionist youth movement, Bnei Akiva. Strangely enough, that Shabbat we had read the Torah portion Lech Lecha. Genesis 12 marks the first promise of land to the Jewish people, a promise which, translated from opportunity to idolatry, led to the tragedy of biblical proportions that came to pass that Saturday night.

Of all the chaos and confusion of that memorable bus ride, one incident stands out. A few kids on the bus — Americans in Israel, with strong opinions about the Jewish state’s political situation but little understanding or empathy for its people — cheered and celebrated the news that Rabin had been shot. The climate was so toxic; I suppose it was reasonable for them to believe such news would have been welcome in the country. This account is particularly poignant for me because of my husband Stephen’s personal recollections of the day that President Kennedy was murdered. In his junior high school in Columbus, GA – his then legally segregated junior high school – when the announcement came over the school’s intercoms, while some students were shocked, others did indeed send up cheers and clapping. John F. Kennedy was utterly despised by many in the South, primarily because of his support of the Civil Rights Movement, and his efforts at desegregation. So the news of Kennedy’s assassination came as cause for celebration to some segments of the population in our great nation, America. Nevertheless, eventually the South was desegregated, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed, and the South became a very different place. On the other hand, the past year especially has reminded us that racism and social pressures are still very much with us, and as a nation, we still have much work and soul-searching to do.

September 13, 1993 was another one of those extraordinary days in history. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat stood on the left of President Bill Clinton, and Prime Minister Rabin stood on his right, there in the gleaming sunlight on the White House Lawn. Another iconic image – a gentle nudge from the President, and perhaps a reluctant, yet determined handshake between the two leaders whose peoples had lived with so much hatred and pain. Peace was so close….

On Motza’ei Shabbat, Saturday night, November 4, 1995, PM Yitzhak Rabin stood with his colleagues on a podium as Israelis from all ethnicities and walks of life filled Kings Square (now Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv, with waving arms, glowing flashlights, and songs of peace. Moments later, he was shot at point blank range by a 25-year-old Jewish extremist, who believed that he was protecting Israel from Rabin, who, in his understanding, was going to “give Israel to the Arabs.”

Dr. Kurtzer: Here we are now 20 years on. While we learned from the assassination about the existence of fundamentalism in our midst, and while those kids on the bus (hopefully) learned that such treasonous violence is not to be celebrated, not much else has changed. Jewish militant fundamentalism is as strong and self-confident today as it has been since the end of the Bar Kochba revolt. And though its outbursts of violence still remain largely isolated incidents, and though we know collectively to condemn and mourn those incidents, the assassination of Rabin did virtually nothing to damage — much less dismantle — the ideologies that would give birth to such behavior. . .

But the biggest obstacle to Rabin’s memory is that many Jews very reasonably have little appetite right now for the self-flagellation involved with a commemoration of Rabin. As Israel’s citizens are under attack, many of the country’s supporters feel that Israel’s primary enemies are from without and not from within. They argue that empathy with a society under attack dictates solidarity with the people rather than the bitter surfacing of a memory that signaled that society’s failure. If remembering Rabin is about signaling that we can be our own worst enemies, I am not sure that message can be heard today. . . .
Kurtzer’s thoughts of Rabin’s ultimate legacy:
I see Rabin’s primary legacy in the character of his leadership, in his relentless pursuit of a revision of the status quo (in spite of his own personal reservations about the very process in which he was engaged), and in the belief that such a process was ultimately vital to Israel’s long-term safety, security and stability. Rabin — in deed, if not in temperament — was heroically hopeful. In retrospect, he occupied a place very few Israeli politicians have been able to inhabit — a place located between Shimon Peres’ ultimately unrealistic utopian universalism and much of the cynical pragmatism that has characterized the Israeli political leadership of the right for the last generation.

Last May the group of us who traveled to Israel together spent a morning at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem with Dr. Tal Becker, a Senior Fellow at the Institute, and a member of the Israeli negotiating team since the time of Oslo. Tal explained the quagmire that seems to have stalled any realistic hopes for a peace agreement just at this moment. Nevertheless, he reminded us that this cannot let us off the hook from the aspiration for peace, and for creating a just society for both of the parties involved. That is the essence of the Jewish vision, in his view, and the current stalemate need not, and indeed, cannot, paralyze us from continuing to move forward. Perhaps that is the most important observation at this 20-year mark since the death of Rabin.

This week we read Parashat Vayera. We are reminded that just as Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of Abraham, are brothers, so too are we, their descendants. Ultimately, after great trauma and separation, Isaac and Ishmael reconcile, as in next week’s parashah, they will bury their father together. Yitzhak Rabin was a man of war. Yet he was able to embrace a vision of peace, and took brave and significant steps to achieve it, particularly with those who are our brothers and sisters. We can and must find a way, eventually, to do the same.