Forgetting to Remember Yitzhak Rabin

The shattering lessons of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination 19 years ago next week should be shared by all Israelis, whether or not they agreed with his politics.

Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman
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Conspiracy theories about Yitzhak Rabin's assassination were rife among hardline rightists.
Conspiracy theories about Yitzhak Rabin's assassination were rife among hardline rightists.Credit: Moti Kimche
Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman

As Israel approaches the 19th anniversary of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, the country faces a tough question: how to remember him?

I don't just mean whether he should be remembered as the left see him: a warrior-turned-peacemaker; or as the right see him: a blunderer who brought the Oslo disaster; or as the non-committed see him: a democratically-elected leader cruelly murdered in cold blood.

That's one problem.

The other problem is how to remember someone you never knew in the first place. Not a single Israeli school student is old enough to have any personal memory of Rabin or the national trauma that followed his assassination. How can teachers expect their students to react to the day of mourning and reflection imposed from above?

The mass rallies of the first ten anniversaries have been abandoned. With the passing of time, Rabin's assassination has faded from memory, and with it the urgency of its lessons. For the 43% of Israelis under the age of 24 it has become another chapter in the history books. For them, how can the vile act of Yigal Amir a lifetime ago in November 1995 be any more relevant today than the assassination of a Kennedy or the murders carried out by the Nazis?

Teachers will tell you that attempts to mark the anniversary of his murder through ceremonies and candles leave their students bored and unmoved. Rabin was a great man, but he was no saint and it’s nonsense to expect anyone to remember him that way.

The trauma of Rabin’s assassination still haunts and divides Israeli politics. The law demands a national day of remembrance and mourning to be marked each year on 12th Heshvan - the Hebrew date of his murder - by all state institutions, army bases and schools, with ceremonies and educational programs devoted to commemorating Rabin's life and legacy, promoting and protecting democratic values, and examining the danger that violence poses to society and state. But it's impossible to legislate grief. Half the nation will not be marking the day of his death. For that, the half who will must take some of the blame.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Rabin’s supporters behaved with a scattergun fury born of profound grief, and a passion bordering on madness. Their insistence that the inscription on the memorial plaque erected by the Tel Aviv municipality identify the assassin as a "yarmulke-wearing Jew" forced the half of all Israeli men who wear yarmulkes to feel either guilty or defensive about the murder when all they should have been doing was share the nation’s grief.

In the same way that Shimon Peres mistakenly believed that the assassination would hand him political victory at the polls, the self-proclaimed protectors of Rabin’s memory believed it would beatify his politics. They pursued their advantage in Israel’s schools, imposing a Rabin Memorial Day educational curriculum that demanded children learn about Rabin’s “heritage” as if he were some kind of religious prophet. Their efforts backfired, with half the nation’s schools refusing to teach the prescribed homage to Rabin’s alleged saintliness, and only succeeded in further alienating the vast majority of religious and right-wing Israelis who were appalled at Yigal Amir’s horrific crime.

Perhaps now, 19 years after the event, Israelis can take advantage of the terrible opportunity afforded by that ghastly night in Tel Aviv to share the lessons that apply to all the nation and help to heal the divisions that Rabin himself sought to bridge.

The murder of Yitzhak Rabin was an attempt to subvert the democratic process, silence the freedom of expression, and replace the ballot with the bullet.

From Jabotinsky to Avnery, from Gush Emunim to Breaking the Silence, an insistence on the rule of the democratic majority, freedom of speech and the pursuit of peace has been the bedrock of Zionism. There may have been debates about tactics, but the ultimate aim of a democratic Israel living in peace is shared by all – along with the belief that political differences should be settled using words, not weapons.

The murder of a prime minister is a national tragedy whether you voted for him or not and a shattering reminder that unchecked violence is a direct threat to the fabric of a free society. That is the lasting lesson from Rabin’s assassination, whether or not you agreed with his politics, and whether or not the men in your family wear a yarmulke. Teach that to the children.

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