How Rabin Memorial Day Changed in Schools

Attitudes toward the day have fluctuated among educators, especially in the state religious system.

Avi Ohayon / GPO

Back in 1997, when the official memorial day for Yitzhak Rabin was approved by the Knesset, it was decided that the recently established Rabin Center would collaborate with the Education Ministry to prepare lesson plans for teachers, to be handed out ahead of each anniversary. The first kit was designed, in the words of its formulators, to “help schools present Rabin’s memory and legacy,” and to help foster debate on “the lessons to be learned from the assassination.” This was done by tackling the most explosive debate raging in Israel’s political realm and presenting students with two case studies: in the first, a strong right-wing government annexes the West Bank; in the second, a strong left-wing government decides to evacuate the occupied territories.

Over the years the political divide became more blurred, with “polarization” eventually being replaced by a narrative that talked about “reconciliation.” The actual murder, the perpetrator and his motives, and the sources that inspired him, were pushed aside, making way for an expansive (some would argue exaggerated) focus on Rabin the person. Dealing with his biography also assumed a clear hierarchical pattern, stressing the consensual aspects – such as his service in the Palmach (the pre-state elite strike force of the Haganah) and as chief of staff, uniting Jerusalem and achieving peace with Jordan, even describing his family life. His striving for peace with the Palestinians became something that was mentioned increasingly fleetingly. And the kit handed out to elementary and high-school students on the 14th anniversary of his murder, in 2009, no longer included the name of his assassin.

At the Givat Gonen High School in Jerusalem, the marking of the anniversary has been “rebooted” – here, too, with the glaring omission of the murderer’s name. The new format replaces the ossified ceremony, with a whole week being dedicated to education toward democracy. A token ceremony takes place on the actual (Jewish) anniversary of the assassination.

According to Oren Teller, a homeroom teacher and coordinator at the school, “Rabin serves as a trigger who is present in the background – but we try not to have him as the focus. The emphasis is on the current situation that is relevant to Israeli society. We deal with the dangers threatening to divide this nation and blur our democratic values, while celebrating democracy.”

What drove this change?

“During the first years after the assassination, the memorial day took on the character of a day of mourning, devoted to Rabin’s legacy. But I don’t think that would be justified today. It would be unfair to hold a day of mourning for a subject that is identified with the agenda of a particular political party, especially since most of our students oppose this agenda. Students stopped identifying with the ceremony, saying, ‘If things continue in this vein, we won’t participate.’ This was a real protest on their part. Despite that, they also wanted to take part in the school’s tradition and we saw great value in keeping this day.”

Is Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, mentioned at all?

“No, and I insist on that. Yigal Amir is not the issue. There is no reason to give him any publicity. He did what he did and was punished. Our society and our future are the main issues.”

Isn’t the fact that the killer came from religious Zionism relevant to understanding Israeli society at that time?

“For years, there were open and concealed attempts to use this in order to assail and delegitimize religious Zionism. This created a powerful backlash that only generated antagonism toward this day of commemoration. I don’t see how raising this issue would help.”

Political minefields

The attempt to disconnect the anniversary from its historical context, while at the same time disposing of concrete symbols such as Oslo, Amir and even the figure of Rabin himself, is much more evident in the state-religious education stream. This translates into two interconnected trends: a neutralization of political minefields, dissolving them into a watery mixture that is easy to handle in the name of ‘universal’ values; and a ‘softening’ of the opposition to the day, making it more palatable for groups that are not necessarily part of the ‘peace camp.’ Thus, while a decade ago there was an assumption, backed by research, that the state-religious education system was following an unspoken policy of ignoring the anniversary, there is now a growing willingness to mark the day.

Yitzhak Greenwald embodies this. Until a few years ago, he was a principal at a state religious school in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. In the past, he elected not to hold a memorial service on the anniversary of the murder, ignoring directives handed down by the Education Ministry, since he felt “uncomfortable” with some of the material being prepared by the ministry. “The directives given out by then-Minister Yuli Tamir [Labor] justified the Oslo Accords,” explains Greenwald. Instead of a memorial service Greenwald went into each class, where he briefly mentioned the occasion. Today, though, as principal of a religious high school in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, he marks the day in a much more comprehensive manner.

Last year, for example, he invited former Labor Party chairman Amram Mitzna to talk to his students. “The emphasis was mainly on Rabin’s image and the personal ties between the two men,” says Greenwald, adding that Yair Lapid was scheduled to attend this year.

He intends to make it a tradition, something that’s only possible because “something has changed in the left’s dialogue, whereby it no longer tries to glorify Rabin,” explains Greenwald. “Today, one can speak more of Rabin the person and deal with the more controversial questions regarding his policies. Attitudes toward the religious public have also softened. We became defensive following the murder, in the face of the attribution of collective guilt and silencing. Even those among us who wanted to mourn were not allowed to do so. Time has passed and the atmosphere is calmer, allowing a dialogue to take place.”

The Midrashiya Girls High School in Jerusalem also marked the anniversary more extensively this year, bringing in outside speakers. The key figure was Erez Eshel, who talked about “changes I experienced following Rabin’s murder, and how they affected my life’s work.” Eshel was one of the founders of Dor Shalem, a sociopolitical group that was established in wake of the shock of the assassination, calling for the need for a peace accord. He currently heads the Ein Prat Academy for Leadership, lives in the settlement of Kfar Adumim and is considered on the right of the political spectrum.

Efrat Gispan, an educational social coordinator at the school, sees no problem in the anniversary memorial services being led by someone who has, over the years, distanced himself from Rabin’s legacy. “Erez’s lecture won’t deal with his political views,” emphasized Gispan, noting that girls at the school have for the last three weeks been preparing a special ceremony for the day, in which they planned to impart lessons and activities on the topics of pluralism, democracy and acceptance of the “other” to younger pupils.

Rachel and the rain

If there is a trend in the state-religious education system to engage more in Rabin’s legacy, it applies only to the more moderate and liberal sections of religious Zionism, not its more radical pockets. In any case, this trend contradicts the findings of Shmulik Chichek, who, as part of his MA studies at the Achva Academic College, conducted a poll which showed that in 16 out of 17 state religious schools (“all inside the Green Line – I deliberately stayed away from extremist ones”), the day was not marked at all. “The results shocked me and I started talking to the teachers there,” relates Chichek. “Some weren’t embarrassed by this fact and were even proud of it. Their reasoning was, ‘Since I don’t believe in Rabin’s legacy, I don’t bring it up.’”

A similar trend showing the erosion in attention devoted to Rabin in the state-religious school system was discerned in earlier research, conducted by Prof. Vered Vinitzky-Serussi from the sociology and anthropology department at the Hebrew University. She sampled 30 schools from the secular and state religious systems, examining how they commemorated Rabin’s murder in 1997. She returned to the same schools eight years later to see if anything had changed in their approach. Her research showed that there was a growing trend in religious schools to downplay the importance of the anniversary. This was expressed, for example, in the cancellation of the request that students come to school wearing white shirts on the day, and a decline in the involvement of pupils in ceremonies that took place. Vinitzky-Serussi also found that two additional components were added to the 2005 ceremony: commemorating the death of Rachel; and adding a prayer for rain, to mark the onset of fall.

According to Shmuel Shetah, who heads a movement called Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah (Believers in Torah and Work), the fact that “religious Zionism dredged up the traditional day noting Rachel’s death is a sign of evasion and an attempt to avoid any significant mention of Rabin.” He says the religious public took this step as a “countermeasure” against its exclusion from the collective narrative of grieving.

“When I used to come with my Bnei Akiva youngsters to Rabin’s grave shortly after his murder, people gave us looks that sent a very clear message: You’re to blame, you have no place here,” he relates. “Our first instinct was to take a step back, and we stopped going there. A similar thing happened in the education system. The messages that were dictated to us from above made us feel we weren’t part of it. When I speak about the erosion of democracy, I don’t want to hear about the evacuation of settlements. Over the years, secular society has matured and the left no longer takes ownership over the murder. There was a shift in the public’s mind-set, with an understanding that the content needs to reflect the entire makeup of the state, not a pining for peace in its political context.”

But the murder was a political act...

“Of course. Rabin was murdered by someone who opposed his political path. That’s why the message should be that every political path is legitimate, so long as it follows the rules of democracy. This doesn’t imply a justification of Oslo.”