Rabin’s Legacy Means Nothing in Russian

'The collective mourning is incredibly repulsive. It reminded us of Stalin’s personality cult,' one Russian-speaking Israeli says.

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“Today I told my six-year old that she had an important day at school the next day. For the first time she would be told a lie at school. Israel is currently commemorating the 20th anniversary of [slain Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s death. Traditionally, leftists at school frame this event as a tragedy. Parents of first graders were asked to prepare their children. Here, Soviet history came in handy. I explained to my daughter how to stay away from ideology.”

This short Facebook posting was written in Russian by an Israeli in the high-tech world. It elicited numerous responses, some supportive and others critical. The post and the discussion around it reflect the deep alienation felt by many Russian speakers in Israel towards what they term the “brainwashing” regarding everything linked to Rabin’s assassination and legacy.

Recently, the Russian-speaking journalist Gaby Wolfson wrote an op-ed which suggested that that the narrative imposed by the mainstream media and the school system regarding the assassination is mendacious. As an example, Wolfson cites the coffin, supposedly intended for Rabin, which was carried around in 1994 at a protest at the Ra’anana intersection. “In fact”, he wrote, “the coffin bore the words 'Rabin is killing Zionism.'" Wolfson claimed that in the years following the assassination, the left exploited the murder in order to silence any criticism from the right.

In conversation with Haaretz, Wolfson says that the right did not incite against Rabin, but rather waged a legitimate political campaign. “The combination of a personality cult with a witch-hunt, which the left has engaged in over the last 20 years, is a deadly mix for the average Russian speaker. They turn on their TV, see a ceremony commemorating Rabin and immediately switch channels. It’s not because they haven’t settled in here and don’t know enough about Rabin — enough time has elapsed. It’s because of the revulsion evoked in anyone who grew up in the Soviet Union when encountering fingers pointed accusingly at anyone who thinks differently, and upon seeing the sculpting of a saccharine personality, who indeed was murdered, which is terrible, but who was not so sweet in life.”

In contrast, political scientist Michael Filipov, whose Ph.D. thesis deals with the political views of those who migrated from the former Soviet Union, argues that being revolted by indoctrination is only an excuse that is brought up in order to justify the rejection of liberal positions. He says that immigrants to Israel, just like those who went to Germany, still employ the same toolkit that they acquired in their country of origin, even 20 years after migrating.

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According to Filipov, Russian media, which in 1995 was the almost exclusive source of information for many newcomers, played an important role in shaping the community’s views on the murder. The media at the time expressed deep concern for the fate of free speech and the Greater Israel concept, and demonstrated a spirit of forgiveness and compassion for Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin. “The style, rhetoric and content of Rabin’s policies caused sharp pain to many people in this country, a personal pain for many. Rabin’s opponents lost, when in one single case [the assassination] this pain contradicted the voice of reason," wrote Dov Kontorer, a senior columnist in the Russian daily Vesty, on November 9, 1995.

Ilya Spitzerov, a 33 year-old architect and social activist, came to Israel with his parents in 1990. He studied at a national-religious school in Haifa where, he says, he was witness to incitement. “I saw a boy smashing a chair against a wall, saying ‘that’s what we’ll do to Rabin.’” He subsequently studied at an arts high school in the city “switching to the competing elite," he jokes, remembering that “what I saw there after the assassination was a collective grieving. For Russian immigrants, collective mourning is incredibly repulsive. It reminded us of Stalin’s personality cult. It disgusted me that kids around me were crying. I didn’t understand why they were crying — did their father die?” Spitzerov emphasizes that he understood the historical impact of the event but not the personal manner in the youths around him responded.

Hagit Schwartzman, who is a coordinator of programs for Russian speakers at “Dror Yisrael," the adult branch of the HaNoar HaOved Velomed (Working and Studying Youth) movement, blames the ideological camp she belongs to for the disconnect between Russian speakers and the youth who light candles at memorials. “The youth movements in general, and in the context of Rabin’s murder more specifically, didn’t think of trying to reach out to this population. They thought the door was open, and the city square actually is, and that anyone could join. But we needed to invest in order to bring to the square someone who has only been in the country for six months. It’s not a self-evident step they would take. Many doors in Israeli society are supposedly open to them, but not truly open.”

In recent years, relates Schwartzman, her movement has greatly expanded its work with Russian speakers. Instructors undergo special training in order to appeal to this community. In “memorial tents” erected by the movement across the country there are specific meetings with Russian speakers and instruction in their language. In such meetings, the importance attributed by Russian speakers to democracy is highlighted, as well as their social concepts of equality and opposition to violence.

Michael Kahanov, 50, who came from Uzbekistan in 1990, recently attended one such memorial meeting in Mitzpeh Ramon. “The instructors didn’t have much to teach us,” he tells Haaretz. “On the contrary, we told them since they were children at the time and I was an adult and no longer a new immigrant.” Russian speakers at the meeting said that “our children are brainwashed at school, with this issue presented to them from a political perspective, but adults have their own opinions.” When asked about his thoughts on the murder, Kahanov claimed that Yigal Amir was not the assassin. “It’s like the Kennedy assassination. He was murdered years ago and his murderers have not been found yet.”

According to Filipov, conspiracy theories flourished among Russian speakers in the years after the murder, flooding the first Israeli-Russian websites. The relatively closed nature of this community made the conversation more extreme: “These websites were full of political poetry. Rabin was vilified and Yigal Amir lauded as a hero.”

The theme of Saturday night's large memorial event in Tel Aviv was “remembering the murder —protecting democracy.” But that message, which links the memory of the assassination to a condemnation of the violence and racism spreading through society, is not being heard among many Russian speakers. Spitzerov, interviewed last week, did not think many Russian speakers would attend Saturday night’s memorial at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv since the topic doesn’t interest them. “Rabin is foreign to Russian speakers and his murder is irrelevant to them.” Referring to debates about Rabin’s legacy, some of which appeared in Haaretz, he adds: “What does it matter what his legacy was? Do what you think is right.”