Interesting Times: Thoughts of Rabin on a concrete roof

On this, the 11th anniversary of the assassination, we republish this piece, which first appeared in 2002

November 2, 2006 14:06
saul singer 88

saul singer 88. (photo credit: )


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Though I am not usually among those who write as a form of therapy, seven years ago I sat on the concrete roof of a bus stop - the only free spot - opposite the Knesset, and recorded what I saw and thought: I find it hard to focus on the man. It is 7 a.m. Flowing through the Knesset plaza in front of me is a river of people approaching the casket that contains the body of Yitzhak Rabin. The river has been flowing past this spot since yesterday afternoon, and all through the night. Now the line stretches about a mile. People standing patiently in line, not cutting in, barely moving. Most of them probably will not make it to the Knesset plaza in the three hours before the gates close and the casket is taken to Mount Herzl for burial. It's hard to think about Rabin the man because I keep thinking about the people, the whole people of Israel that is here to pay its last respects. What kind of people are we? Are we really any better than any other country? Are we even good enough to survive? I remember one of the strongest feelings of that time was a loss of innocence - the shock of the idea that a prime minister could be assassinated. Just as Americans felt, before September 11, that terrorism was something that happened elsewhere, Israelis never dreamed they would lose a leader by the gun. It seems too much to expect from a people, any people, to collectively grow, as a person sometimes does, out of a tragedy. That the murderer was an Israeli Jew, a former yeshiva student and law student at Bar-Ilan University, compounds the corrosive nature of the act immensely. This is a test. A test greater than Israel has ever faced. I did not contemplate then a third possibility: that Israel would neither "grow" nor plunge into civil war, but mainly avoid grappling with how the nation came to be so divided over how to achieve peace and security. One striking thing about the crowd was that, unlike most Israeli crowds, it could not be easily characterized as part of one "camp" or another. HOW WILL Israel stand up to this test? The first measure will be whether inciting language - such as calling Rabin "traitor" or "murderer" - becomes unacceptable, and whether those who used or turned a blind eye toward such language express regret. The religious Zionist camp as a whole, with some justice, is on trial here. Will those who find halachic authority for anti-democratic acts be confronted by defenders of a Judaism that supports democracy? Which Judaism will dominate? Again, not much progress here. With some notable exceptions, the leaders of religious Zionism have not gone beyond condemning the murder, and are unwilling to take any responsibility so long as the Left will not admit to its own history of incitement. During the Lebanon War, they note, it was Ariel Sharon who was branded a "murderer." What an irony that Judaism - a religion obsessed with peace and the sacred value of life, with justice and unity of the Jewish people - is now on trial in the Jewish state as an accessory to murder. It will take more than heartfelt condemnations to remove the stain. The majority of the religious Zionist community, who are by and large model citizens, need to be as vocal in defense of true Jewish behavior as the extremists are in voicing their perversion of Judaism. A MORE moderate form of religious Zionism did not obviously emerge, but it is telling that, some years later, Ehud Barak made territorial concessions that even Leah Rabin could not stomach, and yet was not met by protests as wide or as sharp as those of 1995. The extreme Right must be blamed for creating a climate of hatred and violence that led to this unthinkable murder. Those on the mainstream Right who did not do enough to condemn and isolate the extremists should also admit their grievous sins of omission. At the same time, peace process supporters should not dismiss those who live in the territories as troublemakers who are less than full citizens of Israel and whose fear for their homes, and for the fate of the country, are not legitimate. It is said that God favored the house of Hillel over the house of Shamai because Hillel would always begin an argument by presenting the case of Shamai. It is hard to conceive of a better model for Israel today. It is now 9 a.m. I've spent two hours here, but it is very hard to break away. As the sea of people passes in front of the casket, what is happening in their hearts? Are they becoming harder or softer? Closing or opening? Though at first glance it may seem that almost no change has occurred in the intervening years, the popularity of the unity government must be attributed in part to a strong desire to put traditional rivalries aside, particularly while the nation is under fire. Now I am sitting by the six-meter-high Menora across from the Knesset plaza. I never looked at it closely before. Its branches are etched with scenes starting with the Bible at the top and progressing through Jewish history to the founding of the state at the base of the trunk. At the foot of the Menora, in the round, fenced-in clearing of Jerusalem stone pavement, is a carpet of lit candles, notes, songs and flowers. My favorite is a torn paper Israeli flag, taped to the rail, with the word sovlanut (tolerance) written on it in blue. So is this where the dream ends - on a bright sunny day in November, the birds chirping, the helicopters flying, the cell phones ringing? It is as if all Jewish history was funneled into this young country, only to be diffused into a pool of sorrow on a single fine day. That's the way it looks today, as Israel prepares to bury Yitzhak Rabin. After 2,500 years, Jews still fast to mourn the assassination of Gedalia ben Ahikam ben Shafan, the Jewish governor of Judah appointed by the Babylonians. Seven years after the murder of Rabin, the elected leader of a Jewish state, we have barely begun the job of removing the tarnish from the dream of Jewish statehood - a job that may never be done.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11

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