JFK vs. Rabin: How America and Israel Remember

The media coverage of anniversaries in the U.S. and Israel reveals how differently each country relates publicly to tragedy and loss.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
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John F. Kennedy, 1963. Determined to find a solution to the refugee problem.
John F. Kennedy, 1963. Determined to find a solution to the refugee problem.Credit: AP
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

As the holiday season arrived, Americans and the U.S. media marked two tragic anniversaries; 50 years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the one-year mark of the Sandy Hook School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. The broadcast onslaught was profoundly American in style and substance, serving as a sharp contrast with the Israeli media's codes of mourning.

The surfeit of JFK specials on American television recounted how a nation became unmoored. His murder in 1963 and its aftermath were lived through television in a way that made his loss feel personal to every American and primal in a way that FDR’s death in 1945 had not. The seismic impact on Americans was much like the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin would for Israelis. Kennedy’s death left Americans a gaping hole with no place to direct their rage, as even the murder of his assassin remains mired in equivocation.

Fifty years later, the JFK commemorations were marked by a far greater degree of emotional distance. With so few Kennedy-era principals left alive, the focus was more about perspectivizing than mourning. Kennedy’s halo has been tarnished, with critics deriding his personal behavior and damning his achievements as thin. The Camelot defenders focused on Kennedy’s brightest moment – staring down Khrushchev to prevent the Cold War from going nuclear – and his inspirational essence as the embodiment of America’s fantasy of itself: Young, idealistic, attractive, articulate, wealthy and hopeful.

But much of this year’s JFK fanfare was about the reporting itself; how during its four-day coverage of the assassination and funeral, television supplanted print media and radio as America’s primary source of news, information and iconic imagery. TV had not yet invented the language to package tragic events, which we are overly familiar with in Israel; somber narration, music, and montages all in place. Instead we had Walter Cronkite, the nation’s anchor, tearing up as he announced the president’s death on CBS News; Jackie in her blood-stained dress; John-John the toddler saluting his father’s coffin; and the startling live broadcast of Jack Ruby leaping out of a crowd of reporters and shooting Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. These images are icons of the American visual psyche.

If Kennedy was an Ivy League gallant reaching for the stars, Rabin was the a plain-spoken soldier of modest living and few indiscretions, but who seemed to embody Israel’s own best traits. Rabin was neither picture perfect nor glamorous, and his international acclaim was accrued in a way similar to Nelson Mandela’s; for changing course, risking the gun for reconciliation.

Israel television in 1996 was slicker than its 1963 American counterpart, but the unceasing coverage was reminiscent of the JFK tragedy, producing its own iconic images: From the Rabin’s family’s sadness and fury, to Clinton’s farewell, to Yigal Amir reconstructing the crime. Israel is a small place, and we did not mourn only in front of the small screen. Rabin Square provided a national gathering place.

And we knew exactly why Rabin was killed. Even those of us without illusions that peace would have come quickly or easily had Rabin lived, believe that his murder sabotaged the peace process. There was a brief period of grace after the assassination, and an out-of-control witch hunt for his assassin’s spiritual sponsor, but right-wing leaders quickly resumed efforts to demolish Rabin’s legacy.

Rabin’s assassination is experienced today as a national trauma, much like the JFK shooting, with television documentaries and school ceremonies, but in a neutered form, without political overtones. After 18 years, the energy in the public square has dissipated. Those who try to shift the tone from amorphous concern for democracy to targeted blame, are dismissed as archaic whiners.

The Nelson Mandela memorial began just as the JFK commemorations wound down, and ended just as the first anniversary of last year’s attack on the Sandy Hook elementary school arrived. Twenty very young children, a principal and five teachers were killed. Families of the Newtown victims chose not to do a memorial event and asked the press to refrain from descending upon the town. Reporters restrained themselves, not wishing to appear ghoulish.

Israeli viewers are all too familiar to tributes to murdered children, but the American variant has its own operating code, almost as if a positive message must be extracted from every experience, no matter how horrific. It’s a specifically American way of dealing with loss and healing, and the media serves as its public midwife and guardian.

Much of the reporting detailed the heart-rending good works that followed the murders, “to honor the children’s legacy,” both by victims’ families and strangers. This focus on resilience rather than unremitting grief is perhaps the nexus between Christian rebirth, the Hollywood happy ending and our contemporary therapeutic ethos. It is extremely appealing, to us in Israel as well, and probably healing, but just not Israeli.

Israelis also establish memorials and public service programs in memory of their lost children – and such actions are, of course, praiseworthy, inspiring, astounding.

But if the JFK tributes seemed dispassionate, nostalgic and overly devoted to contextualizing, in the Sandy Hook coverage, I sensed a troubling insistence on transforming the most terrible loss into gain. It felt as if there was no tolerance for tragedy that offers no opportunity for redemption, at least in the public sphere. Perhaps it’s a national trait, American naiveté or immaturity or a limited experience of the cruelty of our world. Which is not to say it’s a bad thing.

Israeli history is tragic, America’s hopeful. In Israel, we are more willing to dwell in our misery, for better and for worse, and to regard unmitigated, irredeemable pain as authentic, even on television.

Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel for the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation working to strengthen civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV-1’s The Promised Podcast.

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