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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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