When It Comes to Rabin’s Murder, Some Israeli Schools Avoid the Topic Altogether

Schools that do address the tragedy tend to focus more on rifts in Israeli society and less on the assassination or the political atmosphere that led to it

A memorial corner for Yitzhak Rabin at the Dror school in Jerusalem, November 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

“List his date of birth, the positions he held, his date of death,” a worksheet marking the 24th anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, which falls on Sunday, instructed fourth-graders at one state school.

“That’s the terminology of the past decade,” says civics teacher Merav Ayalon of Kibbutz Ein Gedi. “They talk about ‘Rabin’s death.’ But he didn’t die; he was murdered.”

Ayalon believes the education system avoids directly addressing Rabin’s assassination and the public atmosphere that preceded it. Indeed, while the civics curriculum once mandated discussion of the murder, it no longer does so.

Some schools still do address the topic, but teachers say the discussion generally focuses more on rifts in Israeli society and less on the murder or the political atmosphere that led to it.

“There was a serious political schism that exists to this day, yet we don’t talk about it, because teachers are forbidden to express their opinions in class,” Ayalon says. “But we have to talk about how to prevent the next murder.”

There are schools that do talk about this issue. For instance, Dror, a state religious school in Jerusalem, devotes the anniversary of the murder to discussing divisions in Israeli society.

One year, principal Rani Hazon Weiss says, she invited the religious feminist group Women of the Wall to speak to the students; the next year, she invited ultra-Orthodox speakers. Both sparked fierce discussions, but her goal was “to create something positive from it, about tolerance.”

Maya Boodaie, a civics teacher from the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Midrashiya high school for girls in Jerusalem, takes a similar approach. “We talk less about the murder and more about the values we must learn in its wake,” she says, citing “democratic values like tolerance, the boundaries of debate, stereotypes. If the memorial day for Rabin’s murder focuses too much on the man himself, it creates antagonism among people who don’t agree with him.”

In many religious schools, however, the anniversary of Rabin’s murder is marked simultaneously with the death of the matriarch Rachel, which falls one day earlier on the Hebrew calendar.

“Rabin’s murder posed an enormous challenge for the school system,” says Prof. Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, director of Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. “The school system knows how to deal with death and tragedy ... but this is the first time it had to deal with an enemy who came from within rather than from without.”

A memorial to Yitzhak Rabin at a school in Beit Shemesh, 2017.
Moti Milrod

The law that established the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Day requires schools to hold activities about “his character and deeds” and about “the importance of democracy in Israel and the danger of violence.” It doesn’t mandate holding a ceremony, and many schools don’t.

“There’s something boring and alienating about a conventional ceremony,” Hazon Weiss explains.

A., a civics teacher from the center of the country, agrees. “Ceremonies are meaningless,” he says. “Most students don’t listen; they’re buried in their cellphones.”

Every year, the Education Ministry posts 45-minute lesson plans for the day, written together with the Tel Aviv-based Yitzhak Rabin Center. This year’s lesson is titled “A place for everyone: From unraveling to healing.” It focuses on the need to create and preserve a shared life, including “sensitivity for the other, mutual responsibility and social responsibility.”

But aside from one sentence describing the murder itself – “the prime minister was shot in the back by a Jewish assassin who opposed his diplomatic moves, above all the Oslo Accords” – the lesson says nothing about the murder or its historical background. Rather, it says the murder “sparked bitter disagreements and disputes.” It’s as if “the murder were what began the schism in Israeli society, rather than telling the truth, that the murder happened because of the schism,” Vinitzky-Seroussi says.

Nor does the lesson address current events. Instead, students are asked to examine a poster and explain how its design contributes to understanding its message, and then to read John Lennon’s song “Imagine” and discuss whether its vision is realistic. Religious schools can substitute a song by Israeli songwriter Ehud Manor or sections of the prophet Isaiah’s vision for “Imagine.”

“The lesson focuses on finding common denominators, but it doesn’t address the question of what happens when there is no common denominator, which is the heart of the matter,” Vinitzky-Seroussi says.

Dr. Tammy Hoffman of the Israel Democracy Institute and Kibbutzim College adds that the anniversary of the murder should focus on democracy, not values like “mutual responsibility.”

And a teacher from the north complains that “the one thing we don’t talk about” in school – on that day or any other day – “is the dispute over the status of the territories.” The result of this silence, she adds, “is ignorance and a simplistic, radicalized discourse.”

The official lesson plan for Rabin’s memorial day exemplifies a broader problem: The Israeli school system does little to teach about democracy and civic involvement. In most schools, Hoffman says, issues like racism, incitement and freedom of expression are confined to high school civics classes.

These classes are the only place most students might hear about the murder, aside from on the memorial day itself. And even in the civics curriculum, it isn’t required; the only mandatory historical event in that curriculum is the founding of Israel. Teachers can use historical examples to illustrate the principles discussed in the curriculum, but they don’t have to do so.

Once, the Education Ministry did recommend discussing Rabin’s murder. A decade ago, for instance, the ministry’s guide for civics teachers said it was “important to discuss the danger posed to society and the democratic state by ideological/political crime,” and in this context, teachers should discuss Rabin’s murder.

But the latest guide for civics teachers, published six weeks ago, doesn’t allude even indirectly to the murder. Moreover, though it says ideological crimes should be viewed negatively because they endanger the peace, it also notes that some people support such crimes because they identify with the ideology behind them. The civics teacher from the north charges that this sends a “forgiving” message about political crimes.

Yet despite its absence from the guide, teachers say Rabin’s murder generally is addressed in class. “It’s impossible to talk about political violence without mentioning the murder,” says Boodaie. “I don’t know any civics teachers who don’t mention it.”

A. agrees, saying the murder came up several times over the course of the year. “Theoretically, it’s possible to score 100 on the matriculation exam without a word about current events,” he says. “But that’s not what I’m here for.”

Moreover, while the official curriculum is devoid of historical examples, textbooks have them in abundance. For instance, the 2016 civics textbook describes Rabin’s murder as “a criminal act by a citizen who put himself above the law, tried to solve a controversial problem with violence and caused severe damage to democracy.”

That book deemed incitement to political violence “unacceptable,” but also stressed that “freedom of expression, including harsh criticism of political figures, is the life breath of democracy.” As for whether incitement led to Rabin’s murder, the book offered two viewpoints.

First, it quoted Prof. Arie Nadler, a social psychology professor at Tel Aviv University, as saying that political and religious leaders “who called Rabin a traitor didn’t pull the trigger ... but they paved the way for a moral disengagement, and at the end of this road stood a murderer with a smoking gun in his hand.” It then quoted Menachem Mazuz, the former attorney general and current Supreme Court justice, saying, “It was never proven that the prime minister’s murder resulted from incitement,” and that “any public atmosphere has an influence, but it can’t be used as a pretext for gagging people.”

Some civics teachers object to this approach. “Putting a question mark over the connection between the incitement and the murder is politically motivated,” one charges. “It’s an attempt to evade responsibility for the violent discourse that took place long before the murder itself. It also teaches a warped version of history.”

But A., like many other civics teachers, doesn’t use the approved textbook anyway. He considers textbooks outdated and prefers giving his students “current examples from YouTube.”

On Rabin’s memorial day, A.’s school offers a lesson on Rabin’s character, another on the reasons for his murder and an activity about tolerance. What do the students know after all this?

“Very little,” he admits. “They know he was murdered, that he was a leftist. And that’s it. I just left an 11th grade class; there were one or two who knew about Oslo. Some thought Rabin was murdered because he promoted a peace agreement with Egypt.”

“I don’t blame them,” he adds. “For them, it’s like you were teaching them things that happened in the 1960s.”

But they don’t come with conspiracy theories about the murder, he notes. “I’ve never heard a student say, ‘But the Shin Bet security service murdered Rabin.’”

However, he has heard a student say, “It’s good that Rabin was murdered.”

“The last time that happened, we spent an entire class on the significance of the murder,” he says. “I managed to convince the student that the murder was unacceptable, but in his view, the result was still positive.”