"Speak only good things about the dead." Yes, but does that mean distorting the image of a public figure only because he died? The public image of Rafael (Raful) Eitan, the former chief of staff and cabinet minister who died last week in sad circumstances, was whitewashed after his death to a point where it was unrecognizable. Neither he nor the public deserves this.
When history judges him, his eulogies will sound more than a little ridiculous.
Was this the Raful we knew? The chief of staff of the most criminal war in Israel's history, in which 650 soldiers and thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese were killed for no reason; the person who, along with Israel's current prime minister (who was then the defense minister) deceived the government and who, along with him, was accused by the Kahan Commission of Inquiry of not giving the order that would have prevented the horrific massacre in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps - this person is now being presented solely as decent and upright, as a hero of Israel. This person, who in word and deed educated to racism and hatred of Arabs, is now being described as an educational paragon. As in the case of Rehavam Ze'evi, the assassinated tourism minister, here, too, memory is being refurbished, to the point where the portrait of the man becomes a blur. Only Asaf Harel, the host of a late-night talk show on Channel 10, dared: "There are hundreds of soldiers who wanted to attend Raful's funeral," he said, "but they were stuck at Kiryat Shaul" (a military cemetery).
Eitan was certainly a bold soldier and a farmer who loved his land. He was apparently also a modest public figure, had a somewhat coarse sense of humor and even had a certain rhyming ability. But focusing only on those qualities and disregarding everything else does an injustice to his memory. He was one of the major contributors to the process of the dehumanization of the Arabs. Fully 21 years ago, he uttered the words that afterward became one of his most famous quotations, when he likened the Arabs to drugged cockroaches in a bottle. Is it conceivable that there is no connection between that attitude and the failure to stop the carnage at Sabra and Chatila, or between it and his decision, which at the time sparked a fierce controversy, to reduce the sentence of Daniel Pinto, who was convicted of killing prisoners in Operation Litani in Lebanon? A European leader who spoke that way about Jews would be ostracized. But it didn't stop Eitan from advancing.
Underlying his worldview was also the assumption that accompanies dehumanization - that the only way to talk to the Arabs is with the language of force. Even before the Lebanon War he suggested bombing from the air a packed stadium in Beirut. On the eve of the Sabra-Chatila massacre, in September 1982, he promised, with his famous sense of humor, that "the Phalange [Israel's Christian allies in Lebanon] will organize tiny little houses for the Palestinians." On another occasion, as a senior officer, he said, "It's a pleasure to see how the Arabs are killing one another," and also, "To punish parents for their sons' deeds works well with Arabs." As agriculture minister, he proposed cutting off the Bedouin in the Negev from their sources of water and electricity and preventing them from marrying women from the territories.
Rafael Eitan should have been remembered as a disgrace and should have disappeared from the public landscape only because of his part in the Lebanon War and his responsibility for the massacre at Sabra and Chatila. But the mark of Cain he should have borne in the wake of "the grave conclusions about his deeds and his failures," which the Kahan Commission reached, and because of the hundreds of bereaved families in the wake of the Lebanon War, didn't prevent him from continuing his public career.
Here, too, the same pattern repeated itself. The representatives of the party he formed turned out to be a miserable group of opportunists whom Eitan collected indiscriminately "from the threshing floor and from the wine press," without any procedure of democratic elections. Yet, miraculously, he continued to enjoy the image of the honest and decent politician. The officer who was known for his silence turned out to be an indefatigable prattler, the blunt and courageous trooper emerged as the leader of derisory and dubious individuals, from Gonen Segev to Alex Goldfarb and Modi Zandberg - there are few parties the latter hasn't joined at some point - and all of them together are partners in the "Raful heritage," though no one knows what that might be. It was only after a few years that the public became fed up with the party and it failed to get enough votes to enter the Knesset.
Perhaps the most maddening contradiction between the eulogized figure and the actual person was in the depiction of Eitan as a model educational personality, as the "educator of the generation." Even Meir Shalev, a writer known for his support of the peace process, wrote of Eitan on Friday that he was "the only chief of staff who treated education as a nonpareil value."
Education to what, exactly? To more hatred of Arabs? To the value of the use of force? To not speaking the truth? MK Yossi Sarid once quoted a chief of staff who told him that there was a standing order in the General Staff not to rely on information that arrived from the head of Northern Command, namely Eitan. True, the project of "Raful's Kids" was apparently very successful, and Eitan devoted a lot of time to it, but that pales in the face of the spirit in which he educated the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. Raful's IDF, like the IDF of today, is an army that educates its soldiers to view Arabs as "drugged cockroaches."
The truth has to be said: Last week, a former chief of staff and minister died who possessed personal courage but was also crude of character and a racist. The many who loved Raful forgave him his dubious moral attitudes. That is their right, of course. But it's a long way from there to refurbishing his image. Raful, like everyone else, should be remembered exactly for what he was: an officer but not a gentleman, and certainly not an exemplary figure.
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