A Slain Israeli Prime Minister, Lynched Eritrean Migrant, and a Dream of Jewish Sovereignty

In their deaths, Yitzhak Rabin and Habtom Zarhum raise a similar question: How do we cope with the challenges of renewed statehood?

Calev Ben Dor
Calev Ben-Dor
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A billboard with the portrait of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015.
A billboard with the portrait of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015.Credit: AP
Calev Ben Dor
Calev Ben-Dor

Even had he not been felled by an assassin’s bullet 20 years ago, it’s unlikely Yitzhak Rabin would ever have met Habtom Zarhum, the Eritrean mistaken for a terrorist who was brutally beaten by a crowd of vigilantes after he was shot in the Be'er Sheva Central Bus Station two weeks ago. The two were dissimilar in all aspects of life. One a decorated war hero and sitting prime minister attending a peace rally on the day he died, the other an African migrant on his way to obtain a visa.

Yet in their deaths, both Rabin and Zarhum raise similar questions. How do we cope with the challenges that renewed statehood poses? How can we manage to successfully discuss our political and ideological differences – issues of security and safety, human rights and democratic norms – in a constructive manner? How should we act toward those who are different to us, the strangers in our midst?

These are challenges specific to a sovereign nation. Neither question was of consequence in the shtetl.

Despite the political platitudes of the prophetic era, the Jewish people’s historical memory offers few clues for dealing with this challenge. In a 2010 lecture on The State of Israel - What It Means to be Sovereign, American political theorist Michael Walzer argued:

“In the long centuries of the exile, we ruled only over ourselves (when we ruled at all.) The autonomous or semi-autonomous communities were radically homogenous in that they consisted only of Jews. But what is most important is that no group of others ever looked to us, to our power and might for protection. Nor did they ever count on our help or argue they were entitled to it... Being responsible for the common good of a pluralist society, for the wellbeing of strangers takes getting used to. When we answer 'yes' to the question 'am I my brothers’ keeper,' we usually have in mind a parochial notion of the brethren we have to ‘keep.’ In politics however, the people we have to ‘keep’ are not only our brethren.”

This Jewish historical inexperience of political governance extends to the religious arena as well, with Jews traditionally finding God, according to Jonathan Sacks, in the when rather than the where, in sacred time rather than in tangible, territorial space. Moreover, the evolution of Jewish law, halakha, assumes the absence of Jewish statehood as a prior condition for the fulfilment of its prescriptions.

Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz argues that over the centuries halakha primarily developed for a community “free of responsibility for internal and external security, foreign relations, national economy, administration of the body politics, and even for a judicial system operating with state sanctions.” According to Leibowitz, Jewish community life as guided by the halakha depended historically on gentiles, who provided the matrix law and order within which it functioned.

Looking back to Zarhum and Rabin: Perhaps – given our many years of exile – we should not be shocked by the existence of an inherent national distrust of state-sanctioned law enforcement to do its job, or deep suspicion regarding the wisdom of democratic checks and balances to ensure our people’s safety. Perhaps, as Walzer argues, responsibility for distant others is a political virtue best understood in long established political elites, of which, due to unfortunate historical circumstances, the Jewish people are lacking.

Yet we are shocked. Because, despite the many challenges of re-establishing a Jewish state, our dreams did not extend to political assassinations and mob violence.

Almost 50 years ago, in 1966, Jewish philosopher Ernst Simon asked a piercing question that continues to resonate. “Can we remain God’s witnesses under the traditions of a normal modern state?” Simon explains that it’s too easy to make the appearance of super normality in subnormal political and social life, as is done in some Diaspora circles. The real task, according to him “is trying to be a nation in the making, with all its attributes, wrestling with the temptations.”

We should be grateful for the opportunity to become a nation in the making while wrestling with temptations of statehood and the challenges of power. Similarly, we should be thankful that we no longer live in a parochial, ethnically homogenous community, that we – rather than the gentiles – provide the matrix law and order of everyday life. But as Rabin and Zarhum’s deaths remind us, we are still far from being able to answer Ernst Simon’s penetrating challenge satisfactorily.

Calev Ben-Dor grew up and was educated in England before making aliyah in 2005. He has previously worked as an analyst for the Reut Institute and the Foreign Ministry’s Policy Planning Division. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and lectures and writes on topics of Jewish interest.

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