It is 20 years since maybe the saddest day in the history of Israel – the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
For many American Jews of a certain age that day conjured up that other uniquely sad moment, the murder of John F. Kennedy. In each tragic case, there was a profound sense of personal loss far beyond the political.
While the two leaders were radically different people – Kennedy a star, a subject of adoration and youth to his followers, Rabin a shy individual who avoided glitz and hyperbole – they each connected to their constituencies and offered that most precious commodity, hope for the future.
While JFK’s hope was associated with his youth and a new generation, Rabin’s was directly linked to the quest for peace.
So many eulogies for the Israeli leader noted that he had gone through a huge transformation, from a military leader to a peacemaker. I think the case can be made that he didn’t truly evolve so much, that in each phase of his life he was doing what he could to protect and enhance his people. When it required the talents of a soldier and military mind, as in Israel’s wars, he was there. And when it required diplomatic leadership and statesmanship he was there, too.
When we think of Rabin all these years later and about his premature death, two things continue to eat away at us.
First, if he had lived would there now be peace between Israelis and Palestinians? And what should today’s Israeli leaders and would-be leaders learn from Rabin’s life?
Second, what has Israel learned from the harsh reality that an Israeli Jew could murder and Israeli Prime Minister? Is the Rabin assassination a useable lesson in the need for civility and respect in public discourse and behavior, or is it too fraught with politics that it only serves to further divide Israel?
My guess is that it’s simplistic to suggest that peace would have reigned had Rabin lived. Surely, while Arafat was alive and the dominant Palestinian, peace was unlikely. It is questionable whether he ever truly wanted to end the conflict.
Of course, the right in Israel sees Rabin, the proponent of the Oslo accords, as the man responsible for the terrorism that followed. This, too, is an overreach. The history of Palestinian violence is not a consistent one. Sometimes it breaks out during a time of Israeli inaction with claims that one should not be surprised that violence broke out because Palestinians had lost hope. This was so in December 1987, the beginning of the first intifada, which was attributed to the rigidity of the Shamir government. And it is so today, when the current round of Palestinian outbreaks is blamed on the inaction of the Netanyahu government.
On the other hand terrorist violence erupted shortly after the signing of the Oslo accords, which offered both sides a reason to hope that peace was possible.
And again, after the Barak government offered the Palestinians a chance for a state of their own, they turned it down and returned to terror.
One must be cautious in trying to comprehend the Palestinian love affair with terror. Rabin’s legacy in trying to achieve peace, whether one agrees with his policies or not, should not be tainted by the glib accusation that Oslo brought on the terrorists.
The case still can be made that Rabin’s example of taking an initiative for peace without a guarantee of success is a good one and should always be taken into account by Israeli prime ministers. Three have tried since – Barak, Sharon, and Olmert – none with good results.
Still Rabin’s examples remains critical both for keeping hope alive for peace within Israel and for letting the world know and believe that Israel is the real party for peace.
Finally, there is the challenge of extremism in Israel. In a region dominated by the brutalities of Iran and ISIS, in the wholesale absence of human rights and democratic values, Israel remains a beacon. But within that light there is the darkness of extremism and violence, which in some ways have gotten worse since the assassination.
The Rabin assassination did not happen in a vacuum. For months, the prime minister was maligned by opponents of the Oslo accords in the most inciteful ways, accusing him of betraying his country, Judaism and the Jewish people. Too few leaders, particularly in the opposition camp, stood up to denounce the incitement. Today, the price tag incidents, the burning of the Palestinian home, the murder of an innocent Palestinian after the horrific kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youngsters, all are symptomatic of lessons not learned from the Rabin tragedy.
Israel has gone through many stresses in the years since the assassination. And the world, in its invariable indifference to those stresses, plays into Israeli cynicism.
But there is no excuse for extremism, for unwarranted violence, for denigration of the other. Israel has to do a much better job of educating its youth to be more respectful of those who are different, whether in Israel itself or in the territories, without ignoring the fact that the nation also faces some very great threats to the country and its Jewish population. This education must come from and toward all sectors of society, right and left, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi.
Let’s not be glib about what things would be like if Rabin had lived. Let us instead use the commemoration to recommit to certain values: A commitment to finding ways to peace while recognizing it may be difficult and surely requires a concomitant commitment to Israel’s security; a rejection of extremist rhetoric which sets the stage for extreme and violent behavior; and a recommitment to the ideals that made Israel a light unto the nations.
Yitzhak Rabin was a great soldier, prime minister and, above all, leader. We still have much to do to live up to his greatness.
Ken Jacobson is deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League.