Today marks 20 years since the saddest event in the history of Israel – the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. For Americans, we felt the profound sense of personal loss in the murder of our young president John F. Kennedy. Like Kennedy’s death, I think every one of my generation remembers where she or he was on that terrible day.
I was working in the Clinton Administration for Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. It was the heyday of Oslo optimism—and I was as caught up in the prospect of a New Middle East as anyone. In fact, I was a member of a team that had been directed by the Secretary to work on the economic underpinnings of a new day. We had travelled to the West Bank and Gaza with American Jews and Arab-American investors to encourage investment in commercial ventures and infrastructure projects. These were envisioned as the cornerstones of a new paradigm of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.
But on November 5, 1995, everything changed. I think we knew immediately, intrinsically, that Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination called into question everything that we had been working on, everything that we could look forward to in the region.
But what was wrenching, what was inexplicable at first, was the revelation that it had been a Jewish zealot who had struck down the prime minister while he addressed a surging crowd of hopeful Israelis yearning for an end to blood and tears. It was incomprehensible to imagine such internecine violence within Kol Yisrael.
Many eulogies for Rabin focused on how this man had undergone a huge transformation - from a military leader to a peacemaker. I think the case can be made that he did not truly evolve so much. It was his reading of the strategic landscape, his interpretation of the impossibility of maintaining Israel’s policies indefinitely which motivated him to make peace. In each phase of his life he was doing what he could to protect and enhance his people—when this required the talents of a military mind or the vision of a statesman.
Indeed, much of his heroic leadership in war, as his visionary leadership to reach peace emerged from the same instinct. And it was Rabin’s strategic assessment that led to the breakthrough of the Oslo accords. It was not that Rabin was a dove, but rather that he felt that Israel’s long-term security required coming to an arrangement with the Palestinians to face more difficult threats on the horizon.
Rabin’s legacy in itself does not provide us a compass in navigating the today’s complex challenges. Yet Rabin’s assassination—all these years later—still seems to us so raw. It is not only the sadness of his premature death, but that the lessons of his death remain unfulfilled.
His dream of ending the conflict between his country and its neighbors seems now a faraway fantasy amidst the regional turmoil, the lack of a legitimate Palestinian leadership, and the current campaign of terror.
And amidst all this there are unanswerable questions. First, if he had lived would there now be peace between Israelis and Palestinians? And connected to that, what should today’s leaders learn from Rabin’s life?
Second how would Rabin have dealt with the challenge of extremism within Israeli society—the same extremism that struck him down?
In a region dominated by the brutalities of Iran and ISIS, and the wholesale absence of human rights and democratic values, Israel remains a beacon. Yet the vital lesson is that extremism can take root even in a democratic society if it is not confronted.
That darkest day in Israel’s history did not take place in a vacuum. In the months prior to the assassination, Rabin was maligned by opponents of the Oslo accords in ways which legitimized violence against him. They accused this hero of Israel’s wars of betraying his country, Judaism and the Jewish people. Far too few leaders of the opposition camp stood up to denounce the incitement.
Today, the embers of this terrible fire continue to burn; in the so-called ‘price tag’ attacks, the burning of the Palestinian homes and holy places, the torture and murder of an innocent Palestinian after the horrific kidnapping of three Israeli youngsters. These are all symptomatic of lessons not learned from the Rabin tragedy.
Israel has gone through many stresses in the years since the assassination. And the world, in its invariable indifference to those stresses, plays into Israeli cynicism.
But there is no excuse for extremism. There is no excuse for unwarranted violence, for denigration of the other.
Israel has to do a much better job of educating its youth to be more respectful of those who are different. Rabin perhaps realized that without solving the conflict through territorial compromise, Israel could not overcome this.
Without ignoring the fact that the nation also faces some very great threats to the country and its Jewish population, a great effort must be made to bring together all sectors of society, right and left, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Jewish and Arab.
It is not worth dwelling on simplistic ideas of how easily peace might have come if Rabin had lived. After all, we know the history of that elusive quest marked by successive Israeli offers of peace—by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert—and frustrated by perennial violence of those who oppose it. Let us instead use the commemoration to recommit to certain values: to finding ways to peace concomitant with Israel’s security; an absolute rejection of extremist rhetoric which sets the stage for extreme and violent behavior; and a recommitment to the ideals that has made Israel a light unto the Nations.
Yitzhak Rabin was a great man, a great soldier, a great prime minister, above all a great leader. We Israelis and Jews around the world still have much to do to live up to his greatness.
Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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