I interviewed Yitzhak Rabin on the last evening he spent in America.
Our meeting took place around the dining-room table in his suite at the Waldorf Astoria on a Saturday night in October 1995. The prime minister, wearing an open white shirt and with a cigarette never far from his mouth, spoke with three Jewish journalists in his usual taciturn style, though he seemed to me more shy than cold in nature.
He talked about his just-completed meetings in the U.S. and his plans to convince his countrymen, upon his return, to trust him that making peace with the Palestinians would increase, rather than diminish, security in Israel. He had credibility because he was a military hero with a tough, sober approach to Israel’s needs, a pragmatist who based his policies on strategic analysis. “No longer is it true that the whole world is against us,” he told his countrymen on his election in 1992, seeking to counter a widespread Israeli sense of victimhood. His goal, he said, was for Jews and Arabs “to live together on the same soil in the same land.”
What I remember most vividly about that night was the surreal scene outside the Waldorf after our interview, as the Rabin motorcade was about to leave directly for JFK Airport and the flight home to Tel Aviv. I marveled at the amount of security in the area, with streets closed to traffic all around the hotel and dozens and dozens of police cars, lights flashing, at the ready.
I remember thinking how extraordinary the level of precaution was to protect this one man.
Exactly two weeks later, on leaving a huge peace rally in Tel Aviv, Rabin, who refused to wear a bullet-proof vest in his own country, was shot at point-blank range by Yigal Amir, a 25-year-old Israeli Jew and law student who believed he was fulfilling the mitzvah of rodef, the obligation to pursue someone who seeks to bring harm or death to others.
In this case, Amir symbolized those who believed Rabin’s concessions to the Palestinians would result in national suicide for Israel. Critics of the Oslo Accords, initiated two years earlier, had asserted in increasingly large and angry public demonstrations and media statements, that the prime minister had to be stopped, at all costs.
Looking back at The Jewish Week’s reporting on the political climate in Israel and among American Jews in the months leading up to the assassination, I recall how ugly the debates were within our own community at the time. With the stakes so high — Israel’s continued existence at stake — some on the hard right characterized Rabin in the harshest of terms. Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the former and future prime minister, was criticized for speaking at a large rally where some demonstrators shouted that Rabin was a traitor, a murderer; there were posters depicting the Israeli leader as a Nazi.
A number of Orthodox rabbis here and in Israel spoke out against the peace agreement in religious terms and some called on Israeli soldiers to defy any army orders that would cede Jewish land.
In an instant, the deep religious and political tensions within world Jewry spilled over from hateful words to a deadly deed.
It’s difficult to convey the degree of shock, anger and shame prompted by the murder of the prime minister at the hands of a fellow Jew. There was an overwhelming outpouring of grief, and a sense of respect and affection from world leaders as well as the world Jewish community for the soldier-turned-peacemaker. I wrote at the time of the feelings of remorse and responsibility many of us felt for words not spoken and actions not taken as the bitter factionalism grew. Neither the proponents nor the critics of the Oslo peace process were blameless.
Many of the most vocal and angry critics of the deal were observant Jews living in communities in the West Bank who believed the ground was holy and feared their homes and land would be displaced. They, in turn, were marginalized by many Israelis as less worthy of protection than their fellow Jews. Rabin himself referred to them as “crybabies” and an obstacle to peace.
One tragic lesson was that there was no longer a distinction between character assassination and assassination.
“It is now our burden to make Rabin’s death the tragedy that opens Jewish eyes and hearts to our self-destructive nature,” a woman from Kings Point, N.Y., wrote in a letter published in The Jewish Week a few days after Rabin’s state funeral. “His death must be the catalyst that enables us all to accept our fellow Jews, one to another, and recognize with dignity the differences that divide us.”
Describing a feeling shared by many, she wrote: “Rabin’s greatest legacy may not only be peace between Jew and Arab but peace between Jew and Jew.”
But her heartfelt words ring hollow two decades later. For a short time Oslo brought hope, but it turned out to be a false hope. The dream of conciliation has become a nightmare of unresolved conflict. Arab frustration with the status quo has led to murderous attacks on Jews, confirming Jewish fears that many Palestinians want Jewish victims, not Jewish neighbors.
Peace between Palestinians and Israel is now but a distant dream as yet another wave of terror threatens Jewish lives — and Jewish life — in Israel. Sadly, too, we Jews have not learned to treat each other with respect, to appreciate that our differences are grounded in a common concern for the Jewish future. Rather, our internal debates, whether on Mideast peace or, most recently, the Iran nuclear agreement, have grown increasingly hostile, each side convinced the other’s policies would bring disaster.
In death Yitzchak Rabin was able to accomplish what he could not in life — to unite us as Jews, if only for a brief moment. But that moment of sadness and soul searching soon evaporated like the tears shed at his funeral. And the man who hoped to lead the way from resistance to reconciliation is mourned for who he was and the promise he stood for. Today he is remembered as the one who might have made a difference had he lived. But we will never know.