Reflecting on the 17th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, IDI Research Fellow Yair Sheleg asserts that Rabin Memorial Day should be observed as "Israeli Democracy Day" and shares thoughts on political violence in Israel of 2012.
Seventeen years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the national Memorial Day commemorating his murder is losing its significance. While schools and state institutions make sure to observe it, the general public experiences it as just another weekday. Even the media—which in the years just after the murder made sure to check that all sectors of the population, especially the religious Zionists, were observing the day as a day of mourning—broadcast regular programming during most of the day; at best, they broadcast the official state Memorial Day events together with their regular programming.
In part, this is a function of natural memory loss, since even memories of very traumatic events fade. Beyond this, however, serious errors were made in the way this day was commemorated in Israel, which contributed to the weakening of its status. The day was observed as a memorial for Rabin himself and—especially in the left wing community—as a memorial for the Oslo peace process. These were serious, albeit understandable, mistakes that were made by those who were personally or ideologically close to Rabin.
We must bear in mind that the terrible tragedy that befell Israeli society on November 4, 1995 was not just the death of a beloved leader. In addition, even in Rabin's political camp, the central tragedy was not the collapse of the Oslo process (many, people, including this author, take exception to the view that the murder was the main reason for that). The terrible tragedy was that on that day there was a political assassination of an Israeli Prime Minister; on that day, an ideological fanatic with an opposing view thought it was legitimate to kill an elected prime minister and attempted to resolve a legitimate ideological debate by means of murder.
Rather than commemorating the death of Rabin the individual or the blow to the peace process on this day each year, Israeli society should have been commemorating the terrible, unprecedented blow to democracy—the only means that we have for creating a shared society. The day should not have been observed as "Rabin Memorial Day," and not even as the "Memorial Day for the Assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin," but as "Israeli Democracy Day": a day in which generations of Israelis would discuss the nature and character of Israeli democracy, the dangers that confront it, and ways to deal with those threats. Shifting the focus of the day in this manner would not only have been the right move, but also a smart move, and may be the only way to maintain the day as relevant and meaningful, long after the memory of Rabin himself fades from memory.
Naturally, this type of day would include in-depth discussions of political violence in Israel, since that was the primary anti-democratic aspect involved in the assassination. For this reason, I will contribute to the discussion of political violence in Israel today in the coming lines.
In general, the Rabin assassination notwithstanding, it appears that there is a relatively low level of political violence in Israel—a fact that may be surprising given the intense rifts that split Israeli society. The internal divide between Jews and Arabs in Israel is the kind of chasm that in other countries leads to bloody civil wars or endless terror attacks. In Israel today, however, while there are occasional reports of Arab citizens being arrested for involvement in a terror organization, these are generally isolated incidents. Similarly, the political rift between right and left in Israel, and especially the rhetoric of the different camps, often leads one to expect that the situation may soon descend into violence. Here too, however, with the exception of horrific incidents such as the Rabin assassination and the killing of Emil Grunsweig, Israeli society is generally not characterized by political violence between right and left.
Even the events surrounding the Rabin assassination itself prove that there is relatively little political violence in Israel. In a violent society, it would be natural for such a murder to trigger a wave of violent clashes between members of the opposing camps, as it does in countries neighboring Israel. In contrast, however, the Rabin assassination gave rise to countless meetings aimed at dialogue and led to the establishment of many conciliation organizations. Similarly, while social-economic protests often degenerate into violence in other countries (including some prominent Western countries), the social-economic protest in Israel was relatively subdued, as noted by foreign observers who have a basis for comparison.
The reason for this can probably be found in what might be called "the paradox of the external conflict." On the one hand, because Israel faces external danger, the rhetoric of the political conflict—often between left and right and sometimes between Jews and Arabs—is sharp and very pointed. This is because the issues being debated are not merely part of a theoretical "salon discussion" but are existential issues—matters of life and death—for all the camps embroiled in the debate. At the same time, however, the external conflict raises deep concern about the possibility of internal conflict. As a result, Israelis exercise extreme caution to prevent internal conflict (both in the political and social-economic spheres), lest such conflict be added to the external threats and endanger the very existence of Israeli society. It appears that this caution even affects Israel's Arab minority, which in theory does not have to worry about the external conflict; alternatively, it is possible that the caution of Israel's Arab minority stems from their acknowledgment that despite their arguments against Israel and despite the status that they have in Israeli society, their situation is still positive and it is not worth endangering it by resorting to armed conflict.
In recent years, however, a new force has been developing that has been systematically undermining these assumptions. The youth of the extreme right—who are called the "hilltop youth" although they often are not young and do not live on hilltops—have been systematically using political violence in recent years, especially since the Disengagement from Gaza in 2005. Although their attacks usually target Palestinians, more and more often they are targeting IDF soldiers and government officials, such as staff of the State Attorney's office. The "hilltop youth" have even targeted Christian churches, which are certainly not part of the regional conflict.
It appears that these young people have become so estranged from the mainstream Israeli experience that the fear of the external conflict, which concerns the vast majority of Israelis, does not worry them, and they are not concerned that their actions might intensify the conflict. Although the clear majority of right wing Israelis, including the religious right and the settlers, takes exception to the actions and worldview of the hilltop youth, it appears that the alienation that has become widespread within the religious right has granted a certain legitimacy to the violent conclusions of these young people, even among those who do not agree with those conclusions. It similarly decreases the motivation and ability to take active steps against the actions of these youth.
Accordingly, it is clear that it is insufficient to respond to these violent actions with condemnations, or by implementing more stringent enforcement measures, which are obviously justified in and of themselves. A process of soul-searching is necessary with regard to the alienation of these youth from the state. Is their sense of alienation justified? Do the difficult circumstances of the Disengagement of 2005 and of other measures used against the settlers over the years justify a sense of general alienation? In this context, it is worth remembering that over the years, many communities suffered because of steps taken by the State. In those cases, the members of the Religious Zionist community always demanded that the measures be seen as isolated events that should not overshadow the big picture and result in a sweeping sense of alienation from the country. That, for example, was their response when ultra-Orthodox Jews expressed outrage at "secular policy," when the lower classes objected to the further lowering of their status, and when the political left criticized the Lebanon War and controversial military operations. Is it legitimate for this community to abandon this attitude only when the Religious Zionist camp is the victim?
Parallel to this soul searching within the Religious Zionist community, a process of soul-searching and introspection must also be undertaken by the opponents of the settlement movement. They too must check if their actions have crossed the red line that divides legitimate argument from hatred and slander, two elements that contributed to the alienation of the religious right. It is similarly worth considering whether relating to the entire right-wing religious community as anti-democratic and violent was a self-fulfilling prophecy that pushed the members of this community to the extremes, which has enabled members of the left today to say "we told you so" without examining the role that they played in the process.
Yair Sheleg is a Research Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.