Trying to Deal With the Loss of Rabin Through Art

20 years after Rabin’s murder, Israeli culture still finds it difficult to grapple with the trauma.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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'Untitled' (2015), from 'After 20 Years – Shaping Rabin’s Memory.'
'Untitled' (2015), from 'After 20 Years – Shaping Rabin’s Memory.' Credit: Yonatan Gold and Ami Faytchevitz
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

A few months after the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Etgar Keret wrote a short story called “Rabin is dead.” In Keret’s story, Rabin is a street kitten, shivering with cold, picked up in Rabin Square. Some children find it there, give it some milk and adopt it. The proposal to name it “Shalom” is rejected, since that is a Yemenite Jewish name. The name chosen for the kitten is Rabin. At the end of the story the kitten, like its namesake, dies as well, after being run over by a motor scooter. The offending driver beats the kitten’s owners and is then severely beaten in turn.

Last week, Keret recalled the backdrop behind that story. “The story documents violence that is motivated by pain and by an inability to admit this pain,” he says.

With that, it deals with the complex issue of memory. “The story touches on the tension between personal and collective memory, and with codes that society imposes on us after depriving us of individual memory,” says Keret.

'Untitled' (2015), from 'After 20 Years – Shaping Rabin’s Memory.' Credit: Yonatan Gold and Ami Faytchevitz

Twenty years have passed since Rabin’s murder, which shocked the country and changed its history, but Keret’s story remains one of the few artworks that deal with the murder, and it too does so in a roundabout way.

“Israeli culture has not paid attention to the murder in a satisfactory manner, and its handling of it is very flawed,” says Prof. Michael Gluzman, head of the literature department at Tel Aviv University.

He embraces a possible explanation deriving from one of his research topics – theories of trauma. “Trauma is never comprehended at the moment of its occurrence, only when it is replayed,” he says. “The whole mechanism, described by Freud as the ‘return of the repressed,’ is connected to this. Thus, Israeli and Hebrew culture don’t confront the murder of Rabin in a satisfactory and comprehensive manner, since the event was so traumatic and overwhelming.”

“The event was so traumatic that even the texts that did address it did so through humor or allegory,” he adds. “Rabin is mentioned there as a glimmer, in a very minor way. He flashes, bubbles, shivers and boils under the surface of the text. When Rabin is mentioned, if at all, it occurs in the context of the private, not the public domain. He seeps into the story but not as its focus.”

Open wound

Just like Gluzman, Dr. Nurit Cohen-Levinovsky, director of the educational department at the Rabin Center, talks of the trauma in the context of the paucity of cultural works dealing with the murder. “We too felt the lack of the written word – the scarcity in art associated with Rabin doesn’t surprise me since we feel that the murder is still an open wound in Israeli society, a deep crisis that remains unresolved. The murder has not been dealt with and is almost not spoken of. Thus, during memorial services it’s easier to avoid this and talk about Rabin as a man, since this allows one to not talk about the conflicts and arguments that took place before the murder. It seems quite reasonable that a national trauma of this magnitude would not find artistic expression so early. It had immediate expression right after the murder, but for deeper and more significant expression, more time is required.”

Last month, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the assassination, Cohen-Levinovsky (together with Prof. Anita Shapira) edited a collection of articles called “Three shots and 20 years – reflections on the Israeli mosaic” (published by Am Oved), which came, in her words, as a “response to the empty void.” The book includes texts by senior publicists as well as writers such as Haim Gouri, Dorit Rabinyan and Ronny Someck, who already expressed his feeling about the murder 20 years ago.

Rabin is forgotten while Netanyahu is forgiven. Credit: Michal Sahar

A few hours after the murder, Someck went to the site of the shooting and wrote a poem called “Malkhei Yisrael Square – the day after.” Despite his poem, Someck feels that Israeli culture was silent after the murder. “A few things were done, but if these were like puzzle pieces the puzzle is incomplete. I believed that the Kennedy model would take on an Israeli version. I believed that account-taking would happen and take center stage, but we are apparently a society that doesn’t believe in memento stores, and that’s a pity. I thought that such a murder, such a shock, would impact things much more, entering our cultural veins. So far it’s been only drops, a puddle, not yet an ocean that I believe will eventually percolate and have an impact.”

Other important authors also wrote about Rabin, including Amos Oz and his poem “Kiddush,” or Meir Wieseltier in a poem called “Israeli confrontation”. However, says Gluzman, this is not yet the “great Israeli novel.”

Dr. Uri S. Cohen from the literature department at Tel Aviv University proposes an additional way of thinking about it, in an attempt to assess the impact of the murder on Israeli art. “The right dictated limits to Israeli democracy by this shooting. Israel heard this warning clearly, internalized it and accepted it,” he says.

Art adapted as well – it was silenced not by the murder itself but by its becoming “redundant,” he says. “The art world that was connected to the world Rabin came from disintegrated after the murder. In that world art was important, authors had something to say and people listened. After the murder everything became superfluous. The minute limits were set, art lost its relevance. This also explains why the murder is not represented in art.”

An interesting test case is illustrated by playwright and screenwriter Motti Lerner. A week after the murder he was called on by the Cameri Theater to write a play about it.

Bronze plaque with the word 'murderer.' Credit: Boaz Arad

“There was a sense that one had to write about it and understand it. I said that I couldn’t write out of a sense of hatred and great terror, since these feelings were not conducive to writing about such a terrible thing. One needed some perspective,” he relates.

He started writing after three years, but by then the Cameri was no longer interested. Lerner’s play, called “Rabin’s murder,” has at its center the inmates of a mental institution who are suffering from battle fatigue. From their disjointed imagination and wild delusions comes a play dealing with Rabin’s murder, which was ultimately staged in Germany, the United States and the Tel Aviv University theater.

On the difficulty of staging the play in Israel, Lerner says that “it stems, obviously, from Israeli society’s fear of dealing with this murder in its different aspects, and of deciphering its significance, which is weighty and tragic. It shows a lack of courage and fear of treating the deepest questions relating to our existence here, and it shows theaters that hide behind the consensus, fearing to challenge it. It was hard to stage it in Israel, since other countries can more readily accept a play that doesn’t deal with a disease lingering within them.”

Besides Lerner’s play, only a handful of plays have dealt with the murder. These days the Habima theater is staging “Ten minutes from home,” written by Maya Arad and directed by Shai Pitovsky, which portraits bereaved mothers from the past and future, troubling Rabin’s rest.

The makers of TV dramas remained mostly silent after November 4, 1995. An exception is Amos Gitai’s new film called “Rabin – the last day,” a feature film that incorporates archival footage. At its center is a commission of inquiry that investigates the incitement that preceded the murder. Assi Dayan also dealt with the murder in a short feature movie he directed 1998 called “A guide to ass-covering,” in which he played a leftist from Ramat Aviv who exploits peace demonstrations as an alibi for an affair he’s having.

Documentaries tackled the murder more than other art forms did. Lerner believes this isn’t enough. “Almost nothing has been done in terms of artistic representation of the murder. There were a few not-bad documentaries and I don’t, God forbid, dismiss their power, but documentaries usually present the reality in which the murder took place. They have trouble in showing the concealed sides of reality. That’s the role of drama and literature.”

To soon for a feature film

Erez Laufer’s “Rabin in his own words,” produced for the Yes Docu TV station, is an exceptional documentary that was released this year for the 20th anniversary of the murder. It connects archival footage, some of it rare, in order to portray Rabin’s life in his own voice. The first station on the way to making the movie was the Palmach museum in Ramat Aviv, in which lay a hitherto unknown treasure of recordings made in the 1940s. Another recording found there was of Rabin telling about his childhood in 1967. Other visual and audio material was found in the archives of Kol Yisrael radio and the Herzliya studios.

The movie Laufer produced is an important historical document which reveals and reminds one of forgotten and less known chapters in Rabin’s life. Rabin tells of the illegal immigrant boy he carried ashore on his shoulders in 1945, in defiance of the British. The boy was so excited that he urinated on Rabin. He also relates how his buddies asked him to turn off the radio and go to sleep instead of listening to the broadcast of the declaration of independence in 1948, and of his embarrassment at being asked to dance with U.S. First Lady Betty Ford. “I simply don’t know how to dance. Not at all. I’m afraid of stepping on your toes,” he told her in 1974.

The movie’s opening scene is dramatic and shattering. Rabin talks about his “sad end.” For a moment one forgets that he’s talking about his resignation in 1977, following the revelation of his wife’s United States dollar account, illegal at the time. It is highly unlikely that any prime minister would tender his resignation over something like that today.

“I allow myself to say that this is a sad ending. A heavy feeling. Heavy, since I feel that I’ve had to end my career prematurely ... I think that Israel has lost a prime minister who had the best chances of advancing peace and preventing war,” Rabin says in his own voice.

Laufer agrees that the time is not ripe yet for a feature film about Rabin. “It’s too soon and will seem unbelievable. Making something like that requires a lot of time. Not because of a film’s producers but because of the public, which won’t accept it.”

Foundational event

Film director Avi Nesher agrees. “People wonder why there aren’t movies that relate to the situation, forgetting that film is a strategic medium, not a tactical one. It requires perspective and patience. Films made from one day to the next look like they were made that way. Movies are best at understanding mythological processes, not historical ones,” he says.

From his perspective, “understanding the Rabin phenomenon does not mean making a movie about him. Making a movie like that will only dwarf the event. Rabin’s murder was a foundational event. It’s a collective primordial sin, just like the Yom Kippur War. In order to understand these things it’s best not to tackle them.”

Nesher sees Rabin’s murder as exerting an indirect effect. “I deal with it in my own way without calling it Rabin’s murder,” he says in a phone conversation from Poland, where he is shooting a new film that deals with release from primordial sin. “The whole significance of this movie lies in how to be liberated from something terrible that happened in the past.”

Artists who did tackle Rabin’s murder in a significant manner were notable painters, photographers, sculptors and designers. The list includes Yigal Tumarkin, Menashe Kadishman, Gershuni, Raffi Lavie, Tsivi Geva, Nir Hod and many others. A selection of their works will be shown at an exhibition starting on November 4, called “After 20 years – shaping Rabin’s memory.” The exhibition is curated by Prof. Dana Arieli, dean of the Faculty of Design at the Holon Institute of Technology. The exhibition and an accompanying book with the same name include works by Miki Kratsman, Eric Bokobza, Jewboy, Glendon and Isabella, Adi Nes and others.

The exhibition includes a photo by Boaz Arad of a bronze plaque with the word “murderer” emblazoned on it. It was set up by the Tel Aviv municipality on the site on which Yigal Amir stood at the time of the shooting. Arad took many photos at Rabin Square in the period following the assassination, trying to explain why it was possible there, of all places.

“One can see in the photos how the place looked at the time of the murder,” he says. “It was like a ‘non-place,’ a middle ground with no defined architecture. It was somehow ex-territorial, a place where no questions are asked. The pictures don’t take a stand but place something in front of your eyes, letting you choose. A leftist will say that the despicable murderer didn’t murder Rabin but rather democracy, but a rightist will read the word ‘murderer’ and consider it unjust, since ‘that person wasn’t a murderer but a liberator, and the word murderer embodies the distorted prism through which the left views the event.’”

“Dealing with the murder through artistic design covers a whole range of themes such as incitement, anxiety, a loss of direction, a fracture, the end of Zionism and more,” says curator Arieli. The common feature of these themes is that many of them don’t deal directly with the events of November 1995. Many designers opted to tackle the murder and its impact on Israeli society in indirect and implicit ways.

Arieli already dealt with the artistic expression of the murder back in 2005, at the 10th anniversary of the murder. She met dozens of prominent artists and then published a book called “Creators in overburden – Rabin assassination, art and politics,” which showed that in contrast to publicly-held opinions, Rabin’s murder did occupy Israeli artists.

When asked why the wider public isn’t familiar with the plethora of art produced after the murder, she replies: “I found out that the reason political art isn’t shown in Israel is not connected to its producers but to middlemen – the museums and their curators. Museum directors don’t need the headache associated with images that are hard to watch, with public emotions, with right-and-left conflict. They prefer putting on popular exhibitions, nice, family-friendly and likable ones.”

Artists, says Arieli, are thus treated unjustly. “If Rabin’s murder were studied through works of art a new horizon would open for dialogue, something which currently is not happening in our society.”

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