The metro-retro divide

Yoram Peri, author of new book on the culture war that led to Rabin's assassination, talks to the 'Post.'

rabin graffiti 88 (photo credit: )
rabin graffiti 88
(photo credit: )
This week, Israel officially commemorates the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. In the midst of the public meetings, school ceremonies and dedications, one thing is painfully clear to Yoram Peri: Contrary to what so many people had anticipated and hoped 10 years ago, if there were lessons to be learned from the assassination, Israeli society hasn't learned them. In his recently released book, Brothers at War: Rabin's Assassination and the Cultural War in Israel (Babel Publishers, 2005, Hebrew), Peri, head of the Haim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society and professor of political sociology and communications at Tel Aviv University, has produced the first comprehensive analysis of the events that led to the assassination and the manner in which Israeli society has coped with its aftermath. From the perspective of the decade that has passed, Peri, 61, reaches the conclusion that the assassination of Rabin was the symptom of a culture war. He also warns that another political assassination is on the horizon. Brothers at War, like the author's life, enmeshes politics, journalism and academia. With degrees in political science from the Hebrew University and London School of Economics, Peri served as Labor Party spokesman during Golda Meir's term as prime minister. Later, he served as a personal political advisor to Yitzhak Rabin. He left politics to become a journalist and publicist, as well as editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Hebrew daily, Davar. Among his previous publications are The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin (Stanford University Press), Between Battles and Ballots: Israel Military in Politics (Cambridge University Press) and Telepopulism: Media and Politics in Israel (Stanford University Press). The analyses he puts forth in Brothers at War, that emphasize the role of the media in establishing collective memory, are based both on personal experiences and academic research conducted over the past decade. Some of the data was previously published in academic journals, but as a whole, this book marks the first comprehensive study of Israel's first political assassination that is available to the average reader. Peri's journalistic background enables him to present abstract theories and complex social phenomena in a user-friendly way, providing illustrations from popular culture, including bumper stickers and graffiti. It is this combination of depth and simplicity that make the book such a compelling read. Peri reveals that he began his research on the night of the assassination. "My family and I had been at the rally [where Rabin was assassinated], but we had left early and come home. I heard the news on television. As the hours passed, I began to think of texts I had analyzed, theories I knew. Suddenly, I was seeing these things enacted in front of my eyes. "My daughter said to me, 'You're so cynical.' Instead of being emotionally involved, I was analyzing what I heard and saw. It is natural for me to use my analytic skills to understand a situation, but I also know that this was my own way of dealing with the pain and the loss." You worked very closely to Rabin for many years. Yet your book is an analysis of Israeli society and not of Rabin, his life or his legacy. I had high regard for Rabin, but I never worshipped him, and I did not want to write a biography about him. I knew his weaknesses. He was unbelievably closed and suspicious by nature. And he hated intellectuals. I worked very closely with him, yet we were not close, and we were never truly friends. Rabin was also a very fair person. And he was very direct and to the point. He was able to see the broader picture and think of the greater good. He thought of people in an instrumental fashion, but in the positive sense of the word, in the sense that he evaluated how people could help to advance his work, not how they could advance him personally. He believed in real politik. But I consider myself an anthropologist of Israeli society. I do the work I do in order to have an effect on Israeli society. It is my form of tikkun olam, making the world better and contributing to civil society. From my studies and experience, I know that a political assassination is a dramatic event that can teach us much about Israeli society. And I have written [this book] because I am very worried and concerned about Israeli society. You argue that Rabin's assassination was a symptom of Israel's ongoing culture war. I see Israeli society as made up of two main camps, which I call the "metro" and the "retro." This distinction is much broader and deeper than the divisions that we usually talk about - Left-Right, secular-religious, and so forth. It includes many more components. The struggle between metro and retro is a struggle over the character of our state, over the way in which we want to live, over the basic values of our society. It is a struggle between the metro, who believe that the country should be run according to humanitarian and universalistic principles, and the retro, those who believe that Israel is inherently different and separate, that, as the Bible says, Israel is a nation that will dwell alone, and that we must always "remember Amalek." The metro are largely urban, tend to be liberal and secular, and place a high emphasis on Western, democratic values. They define themselves more as Israelis than as Jews. The retro tend to be religious and to define themselves more as Jews than as Israelis. And since one camp's dream is the other camp's nightmare, we can see the depth of the culture war. Isn't this a rather simplistic distinction? Of course, metro and retro are ideal types. It isn't possible to point to an individual and say, "This person is metro" or "That person is retro." And, of course, each of us is comprised of both types. I consider myself metro, but my Jewishness is very important to me. There are very few metros who are really as humanistic and universalistic as the ideal type, and certainly not all religious people - not even all haredim - are completely retro. These are ideal types, and the question is whether they help us to understand something about Israeli society. I think they do. This culture war isn't unique. It's happening all over the world. As you note in the book, Benjamin Barber wrote about this in Jihad vs. McWorld, and Thomas Friedman in The Lexus and the Olive Tree. What is special about Israel? Our problem here in Israel isn't the struggle. It's the situation in which this struggle is taking place. Under other circumstances, the struggle could continue for many years and would never deteriorate into violence. But the struggle here is particularly dangerous for three reasons: First, Israel is the only society with no agreed-upon borders. Without clearly defined borders, there is no clear definition of who is part of the national collective and who is not, who is in and who is out. For that reason, we actually have a political party set to run in the next elections on a platform supporting removing a section of central Israel - where hundreds of thousands of people were born and continue to live - because they are Arabs. Second, we have a high level of illegal behavior in this country, tolerated by even the highest authorities. There is little respect for the law from the highest to the most grass-roots level. My studies show that fully 15 percent of the public says it is legitimate to oppose government decisions by using illegal measures. Four percent of the public even justifies the use of violence. Third, we do not have a constitution, and large portions of the public are not committed to the rules of democracy. Forty percent of Israelis give the same weight to rabbinic dictates as they do to decisions taken by the Knesset. For one half of the population, the [Rabin] murder was a traumatic, even a defining, moment in their lives. The other half can't even remember the date of the assassination. Eighty percent of the religious population believes that Rabin's assassination was just "a regular murder," and 72% of the Right gave the same answer. Under these circumstances, the culture war is ripping our society apart. This is why the Rabin assassination didn't create national unity or reduce violence. Yet disengagement passed without violence. I don't know where this sense of relief about disengagement comes from. Disengagement did not pass without violence. Ten people were killed in the two weeks of disengagement. Remember the levels of illegal behavior - the disdain for the authorities, for the army and the police. And there were terrible threats against public leaders. I believe the only reason they didn't come true was because of the tremendous security surrounding those leaders. Our prime minister is the most guarded leader in the western world. Are you concerned that the culture war you speak of will lead to a civil war? No, not in the sense of army against army. There are too many things that bind us together: a sense of common history, our common language and heritage. And we have a sense of common destiny. But the hatred between the groups is so strong that I do believe we will see more fourth-level war, that is, personal terrorism. Including another political assassination? Yes, of course. The public has convinced itself that because it hasn't happened again, it won't happen again. I disagree. The assassination of Rabin was the result of the culture war and not its cause. As the culture war continues, under the conditions in which we live, another political assassination isn't only possible, it's very likely. Did Rabin leave a legacy around which the public could unite? Of course he left a legacy. Every human being leaves a legacy. Rabin's legacy is very clear and he was so successful that we simply take it for granted. Until Rabin, most leaders believed that Israel must make peace with the Arab states, under what was known as the "Jordanist" doctrine. Rabin was the first who came to power as a "Jordanist," then recognized that the Palestinian problem was the key to the conflict. This was a radical change in Israeli doctrine and thinking. Is there anyone of any importance today who does not accept that thesis? We forget that Rabin was the first to adopt it. Second, Rabin was the first to act on the concept that this conflict cannot be solved by force. He tried force and he realized that we must maintain our strength, but force and strength alone will not resolve the conflict. Is there anyone of any importance today who doesn't accept this? Even Sharon has come to accept this legacy, and so have 85% of the Israeli public. You don't mention Rabin's social legacy. Yet his administration's investments in infrastructure, education and the Arab sector were higher than they had been in decades. Yes, Rabin did have a social agenda. But that agenda was a function of the end of the conflict. He understood that until we ended the conflict, we would not be able to move forward. In that way, he was very similar to French president Charles De Gaulle and the Fourth Republic. He understood that France would never be part of European unity until they got out of Algeria. So on this anniversary, what should we be observing and commemorating? We should be dealing with the real questions that we are facing here, the questions of the real conflict. We should be asking, "What do we want the character of the state to be? How do we make ideological and moral decisions? What are the goals of Israeli society? What is the role of religion in our society? What is the role of democratic procedure?" These are the real questions, the ones behind the assassination. The commemoration of the assassination has been hijacked by the conflicts among us. The Right - fearful that the assassination will have discredited it and pushed the peace process forward - is trying to avoid dealing with the assassination at all. Some of the ultra-Orthodox schools aren't even officially observing the day, even though the law says they must, and some officials in settlements like Elkana planned to use the day to tell students that Rabin had armed Israel's enemies. And the Left - fearful that they won't be able to put their worldview in place any other way - has tried to claim Rabin for themselves, creating events that the Right simply can't attend. So the real issues are not dealt with. Instead, the country is busy naming every tree and electricity pole after Rabin. As if putting his name on a school or a hospital will help us remember what really matters. Instead, many of the newspapers have been ridiculously discussing the conspiracy theories, as if that were the main issue. A teacher proposed that we mark the murders of Rabin and Rehavam Ze'evi on the same day, since they were both ministers and both were killed in November. The fact that one was murdered by a Jewish citizen of Israel and the other by a Palestinian enemy, or that one tried to create peace with the Palestinians, while the other wanted to transfer them out of Israel - those points aren't even relevant to her. I can't believe she is that stupid - I think that this suggestion is part of the general attempt to make us forget the real issues. We are still unable to decide if Rabin was the leader of the country or of one camp. Leah Rabin was wrong when she tried to make him the leader of a camp. In the past few years, their daughter, Dahlia Rabin, has tried harder to remember Rabin as the leader of our nation, of all of us. How did you personally commemorate the assassination? First of all, I was at Rabin Square on Saturday night. I attend all the rallies in that square - not only out of identification, but out of my professional interest, too. The event on Saturday expressed everything I have been talking about. As a member of the Left, I found it uplifting. For the first time in four years, there was a sense of hope and energy. The speakers talked about peace, which was, after all, Rabin's way, and we can't not talk about it. The speakers provided an alternative, spoke openly about the Oslo Accords and the end of the occupation. It was the first time in four years that we heard a true opposition. But on the other hand, it was clearly a left-wing event. With the exception of Justice Minister Tzippi Livni's outstanding speech, it was one-sided. The organizers should have brought in a wider variety of speakers, a religious representative, for example, who, like Livni, could have spoken about opposition to a political policy and opposition to violence. As for me, in a way, because of my relationship and because of the book, I, too, have become part of the "Festival of Rabin Commemorations." But I have spoken with groups of teachers, young officers, students - anyone who will listen to the real questions. And I think it is much more important than singing another sad song or lighting another memorial candle.