The Meaning and Significance of the Rabin Assassination

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Twenty years have passed since Yigal Amir murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Both for political reasons and for the sake of national unity, Israeli society has avoided a fundamental and straightforward examination of the background, meaning, and implications of this event. But unity cannot be based on whitewash or false symmetry between left and right. The following is an invitation to conduct the kind of inquiry that is necessary.

Twenty years have passed since Yigal Amir murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Both for political reasons and for the sake of national unity, Israeli society has avoided a fundamental and straightforward examination of the background, meaning, and implications of this event. But unity cannot be based on whitewash or false symmetry between left and right. The following is an invitation to conduct the kind of inquiry that is necessary.

A political assassin like Yigal Amir must have a brazen ideology, a group to represent, and a public climate that ensures varying degrees of support for his action. Viewing the assassination as nothing more than the act of a lone wolf, lunatic, or "stray weed" fails to consider the background of this event and the factors that could lead to the next political assassination.

The Rabin assassination strikingly demonstrated, not for the first time, the devastating potential that religious zealotry has when mixed with extreme nationalism, against the backdrop of the occupation and the settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria. When people see the sanctity of the entire Land of Israel as a religious imperative, arguing that it has been given to Jews alone by Divine promise, and when they see the ban on transferring any part of Israel to non-Jews as an absolute value that does not have to be weighed against other values, the murder of a leader who threatens these tenets is almost inevitable. An outgrowth of this radical view is the belief that the future of the territories should not be determined by Israel's political system.

Alongside this religious zealotry, a secular narrative has taken root, which sees the Palestinians by their very nature as the eternal enemy of the State of Israel and its Jewish inhabitants. This view sees Israel's permanent control of Judea and Samaria as justified and regards any attempt to reach a peace agreement as both dangerous and foolish. This view also makes it legitimate to treat Palestinians—including Palestinians who are citizens of Israel—as if they are sworn, eternal enemies of the Jews and the Jewish state. The despair and enmity sown by this view undermine the foundations of Israeli democracy. This type of view precludes any diplomatic solution that would involve evacuating Jewish communities, for fear of violence or insubordination and the possibility that parts of the military will avoid carrying out the government's orders.

The mixture of religious and nationalist extremism, whether combined or separate, explains the logic behind the madness. This is the ground that gave rise to Baruch Goldstein, Meir Kahane and his followers, the "Jewish underground," price tag attacks, and the unrelenting wave of racist violence that has spread throughout Israel since Operation Protective Edge—a wave that peaked with the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir and continued with murderous hatred toward homosexuals and Jewish terror directed at Palestinian civilians. This is the same fertilizer that nourished Yigal Amir and his supporters.

What makes the problem worse is the understanding and forgiving attitude exhibited by the right-wing camp—whether religious or secular—toward the "good boys" who commit these crimes, who are seen as motivated by "our" ideology, which is radically right wing or an expression of religious fundamentalism. This attitude is also often held by the government, including the merciful Justice Department. As long as such ideologies are widely held by the public and by a significant portion of Israel's political leadership, there will be people who will act upon them, engaging in provocations or committing atrocities against Palestinians. Condemnations won't help in the least. These crimes are the logical consequence of such worldviews. The perpetrators of these crimes know this and count on it. They assume that behind the public condemnations of their activities, there is actually understanding, and even tacit approval and satisfaction that cannot be expressed openly.

Israeli public discourse is characterized by extraordinary polarization. On one side are those who believe that the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is a moral imperative and a vital national interest. On the other side are those who see the establishment of such a state as a disaster, whether for reasons of ideology, values, or national security. Each side sees the other’s position as a distortion and an existential danger. It is essential that this debate be conducted with tolerance toward the intolerable position of the other side. In recent years, however, the radical right has worked to stifle the opposing view. The Boycott Law, the Nakba Law, the attempts to clip the wings of the Supreme Court and limit civil-society organizations, and the efforts to restrict the activity of Arab members of Knesset all illustrate an attempt to end arguments by intimidating and silencing political adversaries.

Recently, we have witnessed scathing attacks on the Supreme Court in response to its decision not to prevent the demolition of houses in Beit El that were built illegally by Jews on private Palestinian land. The call of Knesset Member Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) to raze the Court with a bulldozer is worthy of the most extreme fundamentalists in Iran or Afghanistan. Statements such as those by Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), which convey seething hatred of the Court and severe delegitimization of judges who are doing their jobs properly, are even more dangerous. Hatred and delegitimization aid and abet rioters who violently oppose the implementation of legal orders by security forces; such statements sow the seeds of violence toward the justices of the Court themselves. Make no mistake: the attacks on the Court that we witness each time it issues a ruling that is not to the liking of the extreme right (which is radical, but is neither marginal nor small) are intended to damage the Court's independence, which is its very soul and the foundation on which it rests. The attackers do not want the Court to serve as a house of justice; they want it to be a house of spineless puppets that upholds every whim and caprice of the government.

The Rabin assassination confirmed a well-known truth: the slope that leads from hatred of Arabs to hatred of Jews who support Arab rights—to the point at which such Jews may actually be murdered—is much too slippery. Anyone who accepts racism and tolerates violence and incitement of violence against Arabs is inviting violence and incitement of violence against Jews as well.

A similar slope can be found when public figures are delegitimized. The recent branding of Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (Likud) as a "post-Zionist" because he opposed legislation that would require Arab judges to sing "Hatikva" is similar to the epithets hurled by the "Im Tirtzu" organization at leaders such as Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak (Labor). Know this: members of the camp engaged in systematic delegitimization of its opponents may also find themselves victims of delegitimization, anytime their opinions or actions diverge from the views of the most radical extremists, who see themselves as having a monopoly on legitimacy. Anyone whose actions are based on even a modicum of national responsibility will not be able to escape the sword of delegitimization.

Since this matter has never been examined thoroughly, there has not been any change in the State Prosecutor’s policy toward written or verbal communication that primes hearts for violence by declaring people to be worthy of death, permitting murder, and inciting to racism. We have not internalized the lesson that political or ideological violence such as the Rabin assassination takes place when the ground has been prepared with the legitimization of violence and when political opponents have been delegitimized and transformed into enemies. The decisions of the State Attorney's office not to prosecute in the cases of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who penned a letter saying that Jews should not rent apartments to Arabs, and of the rabbis who authored Torat Hamelekh, a book of Jewish law that discussed the permissibility of killing Arab children because they will grow up to be a threat to Jews, are a badge of shame for Israel's law-enforcement system and for Israel as a Jewish state.

Moreover, we never learned the necessary lessons regarding what is needed in the Israeli education system. Israeli schools, in all sectors, are becoming more and more removed from the commitment to human equality. In fact, Israeli education is moving in the exact opposite direction, and is instilling extreme nationalist particularism that is arrogant and hostile toward Arabs and non-Jews.

The wave of racism that reached unprecedented heights during Operation Protective Edge—backed by Israel's national leadership (sans Israel's President), whether tacitly or overtly—did not serve as a wake-up call for Israeli society to the dangers of continuing on the impossible path it has chosen.

It even seems that during the two decades since the Rabin assassination, precisely the opposite lessons have been learned, and they are misguided and dangerous. The law that bars family reunification for Palestinians that was approved by the Israeli Supreme Court and the Defense Minister’s plan to ban Palestinian workers from buses that transport Jews in the West Bank attest to an unbearable willingness to give in to security concerns, even if they are imaginary, at the expense of the human rights of Israeli citizens and Palestinian residents of the West Bank. These are examples of the flagrant disregard of the principle of equality.

It was not only Yitzhak Rabin who was murdered. The various banners he waved are being trampled: the preference for peace over war (based on an understanding that continuing the occupation endangers Israel's security and moral fiber), the genuine commitment to national security and peace with our neighbors, and the understanding that we have the power to change the situation. Instead of these values, Israeli policy is dominated by the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people in the territories. This policy is based on a sense of superiority on our side, for if not, how can we justify the denial of civil rights to Palestinians for two generations? This policy has one effect: to turn the Palestinians into our bitter enemies.

The narrative that portrays the Palestinians as our eternal enemies does not reflect reality; it creates reality. Continuing the current policy in the occupied territories will indeed create an eternal enemy and a conflict that has no end. The idea that we may be able to make the Palestinians disappear or to destroy their desire for independence is fundamentally racist and disconnected from reality.

In the face of this situation, the political camp that was headed by Rabin is demonstrating weakness, cowardice, and a lack of direction.The radical right sees Rabin’s brand of Zionism—which was sober, confident in its path, grounded in reality, and committed to its vision, refusing to be led astray by illusions and incendiary rhetoric—as anti-Zionist. The commitment to cultivating Israel's relationships with its friends in the international community and the profound recognition of the limits of physical force, which were the hallmarks of Rabin's political thought, have been abandoned. These principles have been replaced with frequent measures that are ostensibly aimed at protecting Israel from boycotts and from its enemies by silencing voices that criticize the government's behavior.

A good example of this is Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotoveli's appeal to countries with friendly relations with Israel to refrain from providing financial assistance to some of the human rights organizations that are critical of Israel's actions in the territories, of attitudes toward Israel's Arab citizens, and of certain Israeli actions during Operation Protective Edge. Such acts on the part of the government are the work of the devil—they damage the democratic nature of the State of Israel, weaken Israel's ties with friendly democracies, and provide ammunition to Israel's enemies. They strengthen those who call for international criminal jurisdiction to be imposed on Israel, based on the claim that Israel is actively preventing the revelation and investigation of suspected war crimes. Rabin's domestic legacy, which emphasizes investment in education as vital for societal resilience and the inclusion of Arab citizens of Israel as political partners on the road to peace, has been left by the wayside.
My hand trembles as I write what follows: Many people see the Rabin assassination as a political event that wreaked a deep and dramatic change in the situation in Israel. It may even have tipped the balance completely. According to this view, it is hard to think of a political assassination that had a greater payoff. That is why the temptation to commit another political assassination—should potential killers deem it necessary—is so great.

Yitzhak Rabin was not perfect. As a leader, he had foibles and weak points and was not infallible. For this reason, we do not devote Rabin Memorial Day to a cult of personality. But it is impossible not to long for some of his other attributes, both as an individual and as a leader. We long for his willingness to take personal responsibility (whether for his wife’s foreign bank account or the failed rescue of Nachshon Wachsman), his lack of arrogance, his readiness to listen and change, his directness, his credibility, and even his weak oratory. The gap between Rabin's leadership and that of Israel's current political leadership is enormous. Precisely for this reason, it is a great mistake to avoid dealing with his murder and his legacy. Israel desperately needs a vision, role models (even imperfect ones) and a process of soul searching. Against the backdrop of the reality in which we live today, dealing with this is more necessary now than ever before.