On Saturday evening, two very different gatherings took place in different parts of Israel. In Rabin Square in the center of Tel Aviv, approximately 20,000 people attended the annual gathering in memory of assassinated prime minister Yitzchak Rabin. At precisely the same time, some 70,000 people visited the gravesite of Rachel, the Biblical mother of the Jewish people, who – according to the Biblical narrative – was buried on the roadside just outside of Bethlehem.

The polarized ends of Israeli society were at the two gatherings. Although this year, for the first time, there was a presence of some members of the religious Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva, the Rabin ceremony by and large consisted of a secular, left-wing, pro-peace audience.

The much larger gathering at Rachel’s gravesite, in the shadow of the ugly concrete separation wall surrounding the city of Bethlehem, was composed of religious, mostly ultra-Orthodox, Israelis. While issues of war and peace were not on their immediate agenda, recent public surveys show that the ultra-Orthodox population have long shed the image of being more moderate in terms of their attitudes towards the occupied territories and the Palestinians.

The Rabin gathering was a one-off, three-hour event, with additional ceremonies being held at schools and on university campuses during the course of the following day. The Yartzheit of Rachel also continued for the next 24 hours, more spontaneously, with tens of thousands of religious Jews flocking to the site over the course of 24 hours – in far greater numbers and with greater spontaneity than the carefully planned Rabin ceremonies.

There had been talk a few years ago of discontinuing annual Rabin remembrance ceremony in Tel Aviv.

Over the years, attendance numbers had gradually decreased. Politicians had only attended because they were aware that the ceremony took place during prime time on Saturday evenings. In recent years, the Rabin ceremony organizers have moved away from inviting politicians, regardless of their political affiliations, in an attempt to stress the message of non-violence, to focus on Israel as a democracy, a society in which differences of opinion are resolved in the ballot box and in the Knesset, not by the bullet of an assassin.

There were those who objected to the presence this year of the leaders of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, arguing that they were part of the problem, not the solution. For their part, the national religious youth, who strongly identify with the West Bank settlements and were vehemently opposed to the political pro-peace policies of Rabin, argued that the fact they have been excluded from the remembrance ceremonies in the past is indicative of the fact that Rabin’s memory has become an exclusive symbol for the left-wing pro-peace camp, rather than an anti-violence message for the entire society.

The dense crowds at Rachel’s tombs were not interested in mundane concerns of war and peace, democracy or elections. They had come to pray that this ancestral figure would intercede on their behalf before God and that this would result in a better world, individually and collectively. For them, peace with the Palestinians, the prevention of nuclear missiles from Iran, the cessation of Hamas and Hezbollah rockets from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, would only come about through Divine intercession – and who better to intercede on their behalf than Mother Rachel.

At Rabin Square, the crowd were mixed, dressed casually, with the general atmosphere of a Saturday evening out, following which they would retire to the many restaurants and coffee shops in the vicinity. At Rachel’s tomb, at precisely the same moment, the crowds were highly segregated between men and women, were intense and serious in their prayers, following which they would return immediately to their homes, many of the men perhaps proceeding to the study houses to continue their daily and nightly learning schedules. The idea of moving on to a coffee shop in Jerusalem was unheard of – this would be no more than a waste of valuable Torah study time.

The physical distance between the Rabin Square and Rachel’s Tomb is about 80 kilometers. The distance can be traversed in an hour, or even less. But the cultural and perceptual divide is far greater. Their world outlooks, their alternative understandings of what makes the world tick and what are the critical questions and problems which have to be dealt with, bear almost no relationship to each other. They live in the same country, pay taxes and vote for the same government, but as each becomes increasingly polarized, they bear little, if any, connection with each other.

A few more haredim (ultra-Orthodox) entering the army which doesn’t really want them or know what to do with them, a few more ultra-Orthodox men and women receiving a higher education and entering the workforce, will be good for the economic standing of their own communities, but it will not, unfortunately, bring the two sides any closer together.

The Rabin remembrance has become no less a religious ritual than are the prayers which are recited at Rachel’s tomb. The songs, the content of the speeches, the movies of Rabin’s life, are unchanged, similar to those to be found in the prayer books.

Mother Rachel and General Rabin will have to learn to live side by side. Live and let live, something which Israeli society is not very good at doing. The heritage of Rachel, perceived as the mother caring for her sons, the Jewish people, will live on for many years to come, just as it has for thousands of years. Whether the heritage of Rabin, a military and political leader whose importance has probably been blown out of proportion relative to other Israeli leaders due to his brutal assassination, will live on into the next generation, remains to be seen.

The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. The views expressed are his alone.

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