Crossing the Threshold of Fear

The shock of Rabin's assassination, Peri claims, did not traumatize Israeli society or help repair its rifts. Instead, they have only grown wider.

"Yad ish be'ekhav − retzakh Rabin vemilkhemet hatarbut beyisrael" ?("Brothers at War: Rabin's Assassination and the Cultural War in Israel"?) by Yoram Peri, Babel Books, 406 pages, NIS 88.

No one knows with any degree of certainty whether Yitzhak Rabin would have advanced the Oslo process. Considering his image as a peacemaker, perhaps it is better that he died before being put to the test. By the same token, nothing he ever said indicated that he would have dismantled settlements in Gaza, as Ariel Sharon did. One can only speculate. The sky's the limit, as they say.

Yoram Peri is suitably qualified to reflect on "what would have happened if ..." He was the editor of the now-defunct daily Davar, and he knew Rabin personally. But Peri, a professor at Tel Aviv University and chairman of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Communications, Society and Politics, has chosen to barricade himself in the world of academic terminology. This is not exactly helpful in advancing the major thesis of his new book. Rabin's assassination, he claims, did not traumatize Israeli society and it did not repair the rifts, which have only grown wider.

The first 100 pages of Peri's book introduce terms he has picked up from the latest lingo on American university campuses. If his proposal is to be adopted, Israeli society will no longer be divided between "right" and "left," but between "retro" and "metro." He claims these terms articulate different cultural outlooks, and not just differences of opinion on certain subjects. Most "retro-Israelis" define themselves as "Jews," whereas most "metro-Israelis" define themselves as "Israelis." These are the two camps facing off in Israel's cultural war, says Peri.Of course, there is no reason why we have to use terms like "left" and "right," which are derived from the history of French politics. They could be replaced with American political terminology in the same way that an old upholstered armchair can be replaced with a new one from molded plastic. In practice, there is no accepted word pair that succinctly sums up the myriad differences between Israelis. Consider this statement by Peri, for example: "Tel Aviv is Israeli to the core. It is the absence of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox that makes it so." But the Tel Aviv that Peri sees in his mind's eye is Tel Aviv without Jaffa, without the central bus station with its African population, without the Haredi ?(ultra-Orthodox?) community living in the vicinity of Sheinkin Street.

Peri says that Tel Aviv is not like Jerusalem, "where there is no tolerance." But there is a kind of tolerance in Jerusalem, one that is perhaps not so easily discerned. And Tel Aviv, that bastion of "Israeliness," is the city where Yitzhak Rabin was murdered and the home of Bar-Ilan University, where his murderer went to school.

The late Jerusalem philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergman distinguished between two kinds of Jews. There are two currents within the Jewish people, he said, and they have always been engaged in eternal battle. One group espouses separatism, despises "the goyim," and cultivates the "Amalekite" complex. No opportunity is missed to remind their fellow Jews to remember the terrible things done to them by the non-Jews. The other group could be summed up in the verse "Love thy neighbor as thyself." What these Jews pray for is to be allowed to forget Amalek. Their Judaism is one of love and forgiveness.

I find Bergman's distinction much more useful in a book devoted to historical reflection than quasi-scientific technical terms like "trans-active leadership patterns," "liminal situation" and "mnemonic struggle."National memorys a fine job of tracing the political and media battle over Rabin's historical persona. Shaping a society's national memory is one of the most fascinating of all political pursuits. Peri describes how the left, which perceived Rabin as its leader and spokesman, tried to glorify his image and impose it on the nation, as if Rabin were a national hero and his political approach were the only possible one. The ight fought against this. The outcome has been the perpetuation of a compromise.

The chief problem for the right wing was how to denounce the assassination without admitting that Rabin was justified in going to Oslo. It was not easy. The period immediately after the murder was quite repressive. Expressing misgivings about Rabin's political policy was considered siding with the murderer. In one of the book's most interesting chapters, Peri describes how the Rabin myth was concocted by the media. The late leader's real biography was dissected and sewn back together to conform with the desired image.

A decade after Rabin's death, we should be able to establish how the assassination affected Israel's dealings with the Palestinians, if at all. We should be able to determine how it affected Israeli society. When Amir murdered Rabin, did he kill the peace process, too? Peri has trouble answering these questions. His assessment is that unlike Ehud Barak, Rabin would not have steered the talks with the Palestinians into a corner. But if the second intifada had erupted in his day, he would have handled it with the same toughness as Barak and Sharon. Peri points out a few differences between Rabin and Sharon, but basically he thinks Rabin went to Oslo for the same reason that Sharon drew up his withdrawal plan. It was a response to Palestinian terror, and not because he was any more committed to compromise than Sharon. Maybe on the 20th anniversary of Rabin's death something more |meaningful will be said.

Peri's thoughts on how the assassination affected Israeli society are based on a telephone survey he conducted while writing this book. His findings indicate that the rifts in Israeli society have widened. Seventy percent of the leftists defined the assassination as a trauma and only 30 percent regarded it as an ordinary murder, whereas 72 percent of the rightists considered it an ordinary murder and only 28 percent defined it as a trauma. More than half the "Israelis" could not remember the date of Rabin's assassination.

Peri's findings, like those of other studies, show that Israeli society is moving rightward, mainly as a consequence of Palestinian terror, and that the level of violence has risen. More Israelis have begun to accept violence as a part of everyday life. "One would think that the shock of the murder would trigger a counter-response in Israeli society," writes Peri, "but it turns out the opposite is true ... There is a sense that the threshold of fear has been crossed with respect to political assassination, and that the first murder will not be the last ... On the contrary, it has granted [political] violence a certain degree of social sanction."

Peri places great emphasis on the culture war being waged in Israel, and his research does expose some divergence on fundamental values, as anticipated. Occasionally, however, the gap between "retro" and "metro" surprises in being less gaping than one would think. The "Israelis" cite the democratic character of the state as their top priority, while the Jewish character of the state comes first for the "Jews." But the percentage of "Israelis" who say that peace is their highest value ?(approximately 40 percent?) is only slightly higher than the percentage of "Jews" who said so ?(32 percent?). The book does not present the questions and answers in full, "which is a shame," as they used to write in Davar.Peri, who regards himself as a "metro-Israeli," of course, makes many remarks about the settlers' anti-democratic rejection of Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan. It is not clear when the book went to print, but one gets the feeling that Peri has not yet grasped how much self-restraint the settlers exercised during the evacuation. It's almost as if there was a conscious effort to make a laughingstock of "metro-sociology." Apart from an isolated few, the settlers did not cut themselves off from the state. They stopped short of a violent clash with democracy.Like the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Gaza's withdrawal has not left the country traumatized.

Israeli democracy is apparently resilient enough to take that, too.