November 4, 1995: The Day the Sabra Died

Yitzhak Rabin was not a great orator, but his gruffness and candor were the marks of the quintessentially Israeli ‘sabra’ who was gunned down for trying to make his country face reality.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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The memorial for Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv, November 3, 2005.
The memorial for Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv, November 3, 2005.Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Yitzhak Rabin made several memorable speeches over his six-decade career. In 1967, he captivated the nation in an address on Mount Scopus in which he extolled “the man and not the metal” as the key to Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. In 1993 he electrified the world at the White House signing of the Oslo Accords by declaring “Enough of blood and tears, enough” with Yasser Arafat at his side. Appearing a year later with King Hussein before a joint session of Congress, Rabin once again enchanted one and all with his poignant opening line about the warrior turned peacemaker: “I, military ID number 30743 ... a soldier in the army of peace.”

But Rabin wasn’t really a great orator. His delivery was cumbersome, his texts often written by articulate assistants. His prepared remarks won’t be his main linguistic legacy anyway: Long after Rabin’s speeches fade from the nation’s memory, it is his endless stream of off-the-cuff comments and incisive invectives, sometimes fueled by a shot or two of Johnny Walker Black Label, that will forever prevail.

Israeli linguist and slang expert Rubik Rozental recently reassembled Rabin’s “full dictionary” to mark the 20th anniversary of his assassination. Among Rabin’s greatest hits one can find his prescription for the first intifada (“Break their arms and legs”) and for the siege of Beirut (“Tighten, tighten”), as well as his bleak pre-Oslo observations on Gaza (“would be better off drowning in the ocean”).

Arafat would take care of terrorists “without the High Court or B’Tselem,” Rabin famously but wrongly predicted. Golan Heights settlers were “propellers,” Jewish settlements in the West Bank “Ariel, Emmanuel and Schlemiel,” and Israelis living in America “a fallout of wimps.”

Rabin’s mouth was like a bulldog that never let go, especially if your name was Shimon Peres: “Indefatigable conniver” he tarred his perennial rival for eternity, “the stinking scheme” is the term that will forever define Peres’ 1990 effort to topple Yitzhak Shamir. “You don’t build leadership by whining,” Rabin retorted when Peres complained. Even Yossi Beilin, guilty by association, was branded for evermore “Peres’ poodle.”

Rabin didn’t mince words, didn’t go in for niceties and had no patience for fiddlers and procrastinators: His inside was like his outside, as the Gemara says, his heart and his mouth were the same, as the Mishna puts it. Though he often lapsed into convoluted long-winded answers, he was the ideal interviewee for journalists: If you persisted long enough, you were virtually guaranteed yet another rough and uncut diamond that would slice someone to pieces and make everyone else’s day.

But Rabin’s well-known taunts, barbs and slights were only the attention-grabbing tip of the solid, no-nonsense rock that lay underneath. It’s what made Rabin such a popular figure among his comrades in the army and his peers on the international stage. He was as candid and honest in his private conversations as he was in his public pronouncements. He was credible and he was a man of his word: If Rabin promised you something, most people said, it was like money in the bank.

Rabin spoke “dugri,” that once quintessentially Israeli lingua franca in which you bluntly spoke your mind and to hell with all the rest. Descended from Turkish and imported from Arabic, the word originally meant straight; whoever speaks it is thus a straight-shooter. It is a term that was unique to those who lived in pre-state Palestine and one that came to define the original sabras, that first generation of mostly Ashkenazi Jews reborn and remade in their ancient land.

Rabin, in some ways, was the prototypical sabra; he was certainly the standard bearer for no-nonsense dugri. As University of Haifa Professor Tamar Katriel wrote in "Dialogic Moments: From Soul Talks to Talk Radio in Israeli Culture," "though there were other Israeli politicians who were just as blunt, it is the figure of Rabin that has been inscribed in Israeli memory as the epitome of the dugri-speaking Sabra, the man who never hesitated to say what he thought and who always meant what he said.”

Rabin’s biography was a road map of the landmarks on the way to establishing the new state; his sabra credentials were second to none. He was born in Jerusalem to actively socialist parents, grew up in appropriate poverty in Tel Aviv, acquired his earth-tilling Zionist ratification at Kadoorie agricultural high school, joined the archetypal elite fighting unit Palmach at 16, served requisite time in British Mandate detention, was a legendary brigade commander who helped save Jerusalem at 26, a major general by 32, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff at 41, the architect of the Six-Day War victory and once again the liberator of Jerusalem at the age 44. And he’d only just begun.

IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin with David Ben-Gurion.Credit: Government Press Office

When Rabin came to the United States in 1968 as Israeli ambassador, Americans were awe-struck. Here was the poster boy of the Zionist miracle, a modern-day Maccabee, Paul Newman’s Ari Ben Canaan incarnate. With his bashful smile, boyish good looks, military reputation and bracing honesty, Rabin took Washington by storm. Unlike some of his successors, he didn’t speak with a New York or Florida accent and no one mistook him for an American-Israeli hybrid. He chain-sawed his way through English, but was nonetheless the toast of the town.

Rabin was no stranger to America: His Ukrainian-born father had spent a dozen years in the U.S. before coming to Palestine to join the Jewish Legion. Rabin himself visited America several times during his army career.

Nonetheless, his typically sabra, Israel-centric and Diaspora-phobic attitude toward organized American Jewry was obvious from the outset: “The reality I discovered was alien to me,” he wrote in his curiously untranslated autobiography “Pinkas Sherut.” “The Jews maintained traditional Diaspora customs and exercised their influence through lobbying: In the ‘court’ of every president there was a ‘court Jew’ who had the president’s ear and served as a conduit between the president and the Jews and, moreover, as the Israeli representative to the president.” Imagine if someone would write such a thing today.

A quarter of a century later, Rabin hadn’t changed his tune: His first meeting with AIPAC after his election as prime minister in 1992 was tense and testy. He was unhappy with the role organized Jewry had played in the confrontation between his predecessor Shamir and President George Bush Sr. over loan guarantees. The New York Times’ Clyde Haberman reported that Rabin’s remarks were “delivered with characteristic gruffness and looks that could freeze mercury.” Israel, he said, would determine its policies alone; it did not need intermediaries.

Many American Jews looked up to Rabin but learned to keep their distance; they found him aloof and condescending. Rabin was nothing like his predecessor Golda Meir, who spoke fluent American, or his successor, Menachem Begin, who was a master of Jewish pathos. As the late Reform leader Alexander Schindler notes in JJ Goldberg’s “Jewish Power,” “Rabin had always struck me like a Canaanite who didn’t give a damn about world Jewry, except as a pawn. Begin really cared.”

Tweny years after his murder, Rabin's image remains.Credit: The Associated Press

But the differences between Rabin and Begin and his right-wing successors weren’t just personal. The Likud party, by its very nature, relied on American Jewish support far more than Mapai/Labor to offset the criticism that its more hawkish policies engendered. And though its right-wing policies may have unnerved American Jews at first, Likud’s tone and temperament ultimately struck a deeper chord: Likud was more rhetorical and less pragmatic, more capitalist and less interventionist, more traditional and less godless, and, most importantly, more Jewish and less Israeli.

Rabin’s daunting biography and brusque manner accentuated the gap between Israeli Jews and all the rest. The founding Labor movement’s concept of creating facts on the ground by “one more goat and one more dunam” was alien to American Jews, most of whom had never seen a goat and had no idea what a dunam was. But they were swept away, as they still are, by soaring slogans such as “We are One,” “Eternal Jerusalem,” “The whole world is Against Us” and “Never Again.”

Likud leaders, most notably Benjamin Netanyahu, portray Israel as one more link in an endless Jewish chain of persecution and anti-Semitism; Rabin confounded Diaspora Jews by projecting Israel as a revolutionary, self-confident break from the past.

When he became prime minister again in 1992, Rabin sought to free Israelis from the sense of eternal Jewish isolation that 15 years of Likud rule had rekindled: We don’t have to be a ‘nation that dwells alone’ he told the Knesset. His years in office were marked by a dramatic opening of Israel to the outside world, enabled by the much-maligned Oslo Accords and the concurrent liberalization of the Israeli media. Rabin hardly ever compared Israel to helpless Holocaust Jews or its enemies to Nazis: That would negate the very rationale of Israel’s rebirth.

It was Rabin’s core Israeli-ness that compelled him to try and kick-start a new relationship between Israel and its Arab citizens: He funneled billions of shekels to the Arab sector to redress decades of discrimination. “A majority is judged by the respect it gives the minority,” he would say. Coupled with his peace efforts and his explicit recognition of a Palestinian claim to the land, Rabin’s efforts were widely admired by Israeli Arabs: For a very brief moment in time, they felt right at home.

Rabin wanted to “normalize” Israel without ignoring its uniquely precarious existence. He endorsed the Oslo Accords as a solution to the Palestinian problem and a diplomatic buffer that could ensure international backing against Iran, while depriving its ayatollahs – perhaps his favorite word – of any reasonable casus belli. But he was also trying to undo the chain reaction and recapture the demons that he himself had released as the architect of Israel’s 1967 “miracle.”

In her book “Israeli Identity: In Search of a Successor to the Pioneer, Tsabar and Settler," Lilly Weissbrod harshly claims that by the time the Six-Day War was over, “the Tsabar (sabra in Hebrew) had jettisoned Jewishness, the Diaspora and even the term Zionism.” The vacuum was filled by Gush Emunim, whose “rejection of Westernization and reemphasis of Jewish uniqueness became increasingly accepted in Israel.”

Perhaps Rabin was trying to turn back the tide: The new widely-acclaimed documentary “Rabin In his Own Words” includes a previously unknown 1976 recording in which he describes Gush Emunim and the settler movement as “a cancer in the social and democratic tissue of the state of Israel.” He then adds: “I don’t think it will be possible to settle over time unless we want to get to apartheid, with a million-and-a-half Arabs inside the State of Israel.”

Rabin’s fear of the consequences of annexation were not new: He had voiced them a few months after the Six-Day War, in a special meeting of top army officers convened by then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. In the midst of the ongoing jubilation over the recent military victory, Rabin soberly predicted that Israel should prepare itself for an extended period of paralysis in the West Bank and Gaza. Of the available peace options, he said 48 years ago, the best would be to establish an independent but demilitarized Palestinian state that would allow Israel to maintain security along the Jordan River. It would take many years before he or anyone else in a position of power would return to the formula that Rabin had so presciently suggested, by which time, it now seems, it may have been too late.

Rabin’s right-wing critics, those who have long refused to account for their own contribution to the hateful atmosphere that preceded his assassination, have recently been adding insult to injury: Rabin was one of us, they claim. Citing a speech he gave a month before his assassination, they cite his stated opposition to Palestinian statehood, to a divided Jerusalem, to a return to 1967 borders. As if he wasn’t posturing before the start of final status talks, as pragmatic leaders do, as if prime ministers, including Begin, Sharon, Olmert and even Yitzhak Shamir, hadn’t reneged on promises when forced to confront reality.

Rabin would have done what he thought best for Israel: First and foremost, he was “a servant of the people,” as many of his eulogizers have noted. He worked endless hours and was an addict for the minutest of details. Unlike your garden-variety sabra, he was a sworn enemy of the Israeli penchant to improvise, play by it ear or wing it. In another one of his famous speeches, he admonished Israelis to stop relying on the catchphrase “yihiye beseder,” things will be all right, because they often aren’t.

Unlike some of his younger Israeli-born successors – Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert come to mind – Rabin was neither arrogant nor gung-ho: He famously succumbed for a day or two to his fears and doubts in the run-up time to the Six-Day War. He was apprehensive about sending soldiers to battle and crushed when some of them did not return.

“You chose a fine chief of staff,” David Ben-Gurion told Eshkol in 1964 when Rabin was appointed, “but he’s too careful.” Not too careful, as Israelis tragically found out on November 4, 1995, as far as his personal security was concerned.

Rabin believed that, like Reagan’s America, Israel could also be “a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”

Perhaps it was just a mirage, as some of his critics claim, a Euro-centric, Western-oriented vision of a liberal and secular Israel that never was or was meant to be. Perhaps Rabin was ultimately gunned down not so much for making peace with Palestinians, but for trying to make Israelis face reality, for trying to steer them in what he thought was the only rational direction, for making one last stand before Israel turned into something completely different.

Rabin was far from perfect, but he was, to borrow from Tom Wolfe, an Israeli in full, from early morning till late at night. He devoted his life to the State of Israel and he worshipped it in the only way he knew: by telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

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