The Myth of a Rabin Legacy

Rabin is being appropriated as a symbol by groups across the political spectrum, creating a legend rather than a legacy.

Every time Yitzhak Rabin was asked to name his favorite song, he would mention "Shir Ha're'ut" (the song of friendship). Unlike the forced choices made by public figures in similar situations in order to make an impression, Rabin's choice seemed completely authentic. One of the nicest lines in this melancholy song goes: "We will remember them all, the handsome and the carefree youth."

After his death, the song associated with him was intentionally changed to "Shir Hashalom" (Song of Peace). Stacks of words have been written and said about the fact that it was the last song the prime minister sang before the assassin's bullets struck him. The lyrics of this song say: "Don't look back, let the people be." On a deeper level, the hidden message of those lyrics contradicts Rabin's own choice of "we will remember them all." This contradiction or the duality in these two songs is the essence of the unresolved gap between Rabin the man and what is referred to today as "Rabin's legacy."

"Legacy" is a nice word, but hard to define. Usually legacy refers to everything a person leaves behind - his creations, writings, interviews and what he sought to bequeath to future generations. Professor Ella Belfer, who holds the chair on Society and Judaism at Bar Ilan University, says that throughout Jewish history, the definition of "legacy" referred only to community and society and not to individuals.

"In its Jewish roots, legacy is something collective. Even Moses doesn't have a legacy and I've never heard anything about Herzl's legacy. I have no idea when we started doing this, talking about the legacy of an individual person."

It seems that since we began doing so, the concept of "a legacy" has been gaining momentum. In the six years since his assassination, Rabin's legacy has yet to be clearly defined and already there is talk of "Gandhi's" legacy [in reference to the nickname for slain Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi]. Exactly 48 hours elapsed after the assassination of Ze'evi, a controversial politician, and already he had a legacy, which the education minister wanted to include in the school curriculum. One can only speculate that Ze'evi, a provocative and sharp-tongued individual, would have chuckled upon seeing the sticky "program sheets" with the word "transfer" missing that the Education Ministry distributed to schools immediately after his death. It is doubtful that Ze'evi's legacy would ever have entered this world had he departed from it under natural circumstances. Perhaps the same is also true of Rabin's legacy.

In the Israeli model, unnatural death has become a prerequisite for the existence of a legacy. In the United States, for example, the focus of activities on Martin Luther King Day, which has become a national holiday, is actually the Atlanta church where he preached. The site of the assassination and the assassination itself are marginal. Here, the assassination is the essence.

"The memorializing of Rabin is torn between the possibilities," says Dr. Michael Feige, of the Ben-Gurion Research Center at Ben-Gurion University. "The question is what should be memorialized - what he did and said or the way in which he died. This tension is transforming the memorializing of Rabin into something ambivalent. We aren't paying tribute to Rabin, but to `Shalom Haver,' the graffiti and the candles, all of which are things that happened after his death."

The depth of the confusion over "the Rabin legacy" could be seen and heard this week at the commemorations marking the anniversary of his death. Rabin's legacy is the idea of compromise (according to Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg), the Rabin legacy is the eternal unity of Jerusalem (according to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) and the Rabin legacy is the Oslo process (according to opposition leader Yossi Sarid). The Rabin legacy for advanced students is that it is not nice to assassinate a prime minister and for younger students, the schools simplify his legacy to "it's not nice to hit people." One of Dr. Feige's relatives, a newly observant resident of a settlement even argued vehemently that Rabin's legacy is his book "Pinkas Sherut" (service record) and what it says about Peres. Usually, Rabin's legacy is simply used to continue the debate over whether Oslo is a solution or a tragedy. Thus Rabin's memory is becoming a hostage to the way history will judge the Oslo Agreement.

"It's an offensive phenomenon," says Professor Yaron Ezrahi, an expert on political science at the Hebrew University, in reference to this selective appropriation of Rabin by various groups and individuals. "It's similar to the worms that infest a person's body."

According to Ezrahi, the phenomenon stems from Israeli society's lack of respect for the individual's voice. "In a society where man's uniqueness is appreciated, nothing can replace his voice. That's not the way it is here. When a person dies in such a way that his death generates a lot of energy, a nauseating phenomenon occurs here. That is what happened immediately after Gandhi's assassination, when Sharon in his speech included him in the pantheon of the state's greatest leaders. Even the attorney general saw fit to eulogize him: otherwise he would not be part of this energy.

"Martin Luther King left his many speeches as his legacy. If you take Gandhi's speeches, no one would want to post them on a wall. So they say that he spoke Hebrew nicely and had good handwriting, with which he wrote the word `transfer' in script. It's like saying, `no matter what you say about Baruch Goldstein, he was an excellent shot'."

In Rabin's case, Ezrahi believes, the same phenomenon was even more clearly apparent. Every group tries to appropriate the person and his legacy and enlist him in their own interests, without him having the option of objecting. That is how the fight over the appropriation of a person as a symbol continues, based on total disrespect for the individual and the conflicts which made a person into an individual.

"A liberal approach refuses to transform a person into a symbol or a martyr, out of respect for individualism," says Ezrahi. "Here, the collective voice swallows up the individual's richer and deeper voice," he says. "He is being transformed into a stereotype so that he will fit a group's banners. The speed and willingness with which people are willing to replace the voice of the individual with the voice of the collective is a testament to the paucity of liberal values in Israel."

However, Ezrahi believes there is a way to memorialize Rabin that will unite the right and left. Undoubtedly, Rabin the soldier made a sudden turnaround in his life when he chose not to search for a military solution to the conflict, but to use the army as a support system for a diplomatic solution. The essence of the turnaround, according to Ezrahi, is to have a "joint" legacy from which would emerge differing opinions regarding the results of this turnaround. "This is a kind of solution for a person who I think did not have a lifetime endeavor, but did have a moral and political spine."

Between legacy and myth

Feige experienced firsthand the complexity involved in trying to find the right content and tone for memorializing Rabin. By virtue of his occupation and his work at the Ben-Gurion Heritage Center, he was invited in the past to talk to different groups about Rabin's legacy. Once, when he was invited to talk to schoolchildren, the students complained that they had too many memorial days when they had to wear a white shirt and behave nicely.

Another year, he was invited to talk about Rabin to a soldier's course. The commander asked him to comment critically on Israeli society. It was not what the soldiers wanted to hear. On the base, there was a memorial niche with candles and pictures of Rabin and they treated him as a saint. "Basically, it isn't clear to everyone why we need this," says Feige. "Unlike Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, which also marginalize small groups that are not part of the way these days are commemorated, Rabin Memorial Day still needs to establish itself. This memorial day is an achievement for Meretz and the right doesn't want people memorializing Rabin to also use the opportunity to say that Oslo was an accomplishment. If Oslo becomes an accomplishment, Rabin will be transformed into a Martin Luther King or Mandela."

Feige, like Ezrahi, talks about ambivalence, even on the left, when it comes to the way Rabin is memorialized. "It's a camp that doesn't like to memorialize. Commemorations are associated with the right and with national myths, whereas the peace camp sees itself as rational. I feel uncomfortable with the word `legacy,' especially in reference to Rabin."

And yet who in the history of Israel has nevertheless left behind a legacy? Even that question does not get an unequivocal answer. Feige says Ben-Gurion had a legacy, which was classic Zionism. And there was the vision of the Negev and Ben-Gurion's hut, impressive in its simplicity, which broadcast a message of something positive that has been eroded, but it's still hard to say what it is.

The "season" (when the pre-state paramilitary organizations fought each other) and the Altalena incident are erased from Ben-Gurion's legacy. Trumpeldor left behind a sentence that became a legend, "It is good to die for our country," but not a legacy. Menachem Begin has a heritage center, but it's hard to recall any endeavor that emerged from it. Professor Yoav Gelber, of Haifa University, contends that today a legacy is really not what a person meant to leave behind, but what people do with it. "It's part of post-Modernism that allows you to select from the texts and whatever a person left behind and do whatever you want with it. Moshe Sharett actually left behind a clear legacy. It's called Yossi Beilin. Everything that Beilin says today, Sharett said in the 1950s as an alternative school to Ben-Gurion, with regard to our place in the expanse and how to survive in it.

"Rabin's legacy is a problematic concept because he really didn't leave much behind and didn't write much. He was a man of action who did important things and was a very important kind of builder who built up the IDF, but did not contribute any values. Gandhi's legacy? I've no idea what Education Minister Limor Livnat was referring to with that concept, but she has said quite a few silly things in her lifetime. Gandhi's legacy is transfer in the political sphere, love of the land in the spirit of Ze'ev Vilnai. To the same extent, you could say, `Vilnai's legacy,' but I don't think that's what the minister of education meant."

It seems that Israel will flounder around for many more years in the twilight zone between "legacy," which is the real thing a person leaves behind, and "legend" which emerges from symbols and symbolism. In the meantime, rather than "Rabin's legacy" being formulated, the Rabin myth is being built up while using the word, legacy. A myth indeed requires tragic heroes, but a society that claims to be rational does not like to use the word "myth." Legacy sounds much more dignified.