25 years since Rabin’s death: Marking the day is the message – analysis

Rabin’s assassination does not seem so very long ago. The reason: Israel solemnly commemorates the day year after year after year.

President Reuven Rivlin pays his respects to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the latter's memorial ceremony. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin pays his respects to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the latter's memorial ceremony.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
On Thursday night, Israel will mark the 25th anniversary of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, according to the Jewish calendar.
Twenty-five years, a quarter of a century, is a long time.
Think about it. The Yom Kippur War came 25 years after the War of Independence. But for many Israelis in 1973 – Israelis who in the meantime watched as their country grew into a regional power – 1948 was but a distant memory.
World War II, by the same token, ended in 1945. In 1970, 25 five years later, that war seemed a very long way off, at least for those who did not experience it firsthand.
By contrast, Rabin’s assassination does not seem to have taken place so very long ago. The reason: Israel solemnly commemorates the day year after year after year.
The day is marked by rallies at the site of the murder in Tel Aviv, rallies often marred beforehand by disputes about who should, and who should not, be allowed to speak.
It is commemorated by candle-lighting vigils from Netivot to Metulla, by sing-alongs, by the assassination being discussed in schools – although all of the above will be trimmed and largely done virtually this year because of the coronavirus.
And the day is also marked each year by radio and television programing devoted to recounting Rabin’s life story, as well as the events leading up to his murder.
But let us not delude ourselves. The day has not become our kumbaya moment. Along with the rallies and poems and songs, it has also turned into a day of recriminations of one camp blaming the other, of charges of incitement and counter-incitement.
It has turned into a day when political points are made and certain sectors feel delegitimized.
Frequently over the last 25 years, parts of the religious Zionist camp – the camp with which the assassin Yigal Amir was affiliated – dreaded the day because it was when each year they felt as if they were being blamed; as if they were being held under a magnifying glass, their tzitzit being checked, to see if they were commemorating in the proper manner, with the proper respect, paying the proper homage.
And each year the same platitudes predictably rain down: We have not learned. We are still divided. It could happen again.
And that’s all true. We have not learned, if learning means not inciting one against the other. We are still divided, and the coronavirus is making those divisions even greater. It could happen again. There is no guarantee that in this land, where political passions run at such a fever pitch, another Amir might not emerge.
No, the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination has never turned into Israel’s day of national unity. But still, the day is marked, and that in itself is significant. Because when you mark a day, you remember. Not everyone’s memories will be the same, or the lessons drawn identical, but everyone remembers. The moment is noted. People reflect.
Twenty-five years is a long time. US president John F. Kennedy was slain on November 22, 1963. On November 22, 1988, the 25th anniversary of his assassination, there were some documentaries about it on US television – some dealing with conspiracy theories, others reliving that wintry day when he was gunned down – and there were some scattered ceremonies across the land: in Boston, the city of his birth; in Washington DC, where he worked; in Dallas, where he was killed.
But there wasn’t the internal stocktaking that happens annually in Israel on the day marking Rabin’s assassination: questions about what that killing said about the society, what lessons needed to be internalized, what was needed to prevent additional acts of political violence.
Rabin’s assassination has left a lasting scar on the face of the nation.  The day marking his assassination forces us to look at that scar, and we have – without fail and with a heavy pall in the air – every year since.
Jews do memory well. It’s part of our DNA, part of our strength as a people.
With Rabin’s murder, Israel lost not only a leader, an architect of the victory in the Six Day War, a Palmah hero and a symbol of the idealized Israeli – the tough, direct and determined Sabra, with faults but without pretension – the country also lost what remained of its innocence.
It lost that sense that it was somehow different, and that plagues such as these, political assassinations, were the bane of other countries, not our own; that somehow, we were above that, better than that, that we had learned from our history – the internal fighting that led to the fall of the Second Commonwealth – and that we would not make the same mistakes this time around.  
Many are those who will look at Israeli society today – look at its deep fissures – compare it with the Israel of 25 years ago and say we are no better off now as a society than we were then.
But the very fact that as a nation we collectively stop and recognize for a moment the gravity and the tragedy of that day says something: that we have not forgotten, that we do care, that we are concerned, and that even if it is true that as a society we may not be much better now than we were then, the aspiration to be so still remains.