How the Rabin rally tries to be everything, to everyone, and fails

Attempts to depoliticize a political assassination ring hollow, and the organizers are trying to walk a "non-partisan" tightrope while placating nobody.

President Reuven Rivlin speaking at the Rabin memorial service  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
President Reuven Rivlin speaking at the Rabin memorial service
Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin mentioned peace 17 times in his last speech before being murdered, yet the word is MIA from advertisements for the 22nd memorial rally of the assassination this Saturday night in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. While rally organizers call for national unity, many long-time, left-wing attendees pledge to hoist posters calling to “end the occupation” and threaten to heckle some of the listed speakers.
In what is a stark change from previous annual rallies, Saturday’s event was organized in a non-partisan manner by the centrist groups Darkenu and Commanders for Israel’s Security. Most years, left-leaning politicians speak from the rostrum in an attempt to rouse attendees to support the peace process. In 2016, the Zionist Camp/Labor Party picked up the tab for the event.
On Saturday, the two centrist groups – which strive for “separation” from the Palestinians, not “peace” – are organizing under the motto of “We Remember: We Are One People.” They post a photo of Rabin and the Israeli flag in the background in their call for national unity and support of Zionism.
It may seem like a good idea to reach out to polarized Israelis with a call for national unity. Parents who send their kids to four different school systems based on ethno-religiousity increasingly don’t interact with each other. While it is important for right-wing and left-wing Israelis to talk and dialogue, it’s not possible to create a non-partisan kumbaya at a Rabin anniversary rally.
The murder of a prime minister is political, as it seeks to replace a democratically elected ruler not through the ballot box but by a vigilante. Attempts to depoliticize a political assassination ring hollow, and the organizers are trying to walk a tightrope as they placate nobody and alienate everybody.
The Knesset annually hosts a ceremony in the murdered prime minister’s honor. The Rabin family also gathers at the gravesite of Yitzhak and his wife, Lea, on Mount Herzl. While those settings can function as non-partisan memorials, it is unlikely that a constantly- shifting mass rally (as each year a different political party or NGO sponsors the event) can be apolitical.
“The rally is all over the place,” said Noam Sheizaf, a Tel Aviv-based journalist and co-founder of the radical left +972 Magazine. “This year, you have settlers [speaking]. Some years, you have people who want to connect with the peace process. There are deeper problems than that, with the Zionist left and nostalgia for the Rabin government. They don’t have a set of unified values that have some form of continuity over the year, except for deep concern over where Israel is headed and opposition to what Netanyahu is doing.
“If you think that the rally should be this broad kumbaya, when everyone gets together and mourns and lights candles, if you want to do that, you can’t go around alienating people. The problem is that the rally is neither here nor there. It’s very nostalgic, so it’s not welcoming to right-wingers in that sense. On the other hand, it’s not a platform for bold politics.”
Efforts at national unity may be difficult even at the event, rally organizer and Darkenu co-founder Nimrod Dweck told The Jerusalem Post. “Everything is political in this world. But we decided to make [the rally] non-partisan. The issue of how our society is being formed and how democracy exists here, and Israel’s security and Zionism, these are all political notions… It is a political message… we are saying something highly political and how it should shape the debate between us.”
At the same time, Dweck underlined the rally’s non-partisan nature, defending it by saying the ends justify the means. “If there’ll be a diplomatic solution [with the Palestinians] in the future, I want to know that religious people will respect it… If we, [on the Left], want to have any kind of change in this country, we need to come to those decisions through respect and dialogue.”
On Wednesday, the Facebook event for the rally was hacked, Haaretz reported, with mottoes such as “Fight the occupation” and “Strive for peace” added to the page. As every year, left-wing parties and movements will be able to hoist stands at the rally and pass out pamphlets and balloons decked with political slogans.
The rally’s keynote speaker will be former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, who in January slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition in biblical terms. “We are being led by a group of messianic people led by [Education Minister Naftali] Bennett, who have renewed the custom of human sacrifices to the Moloch of territory and prefer [territory] over human life.”
In a March 2015 press conference, Shavit asked Netanyahu: “Where is your responsibility? The time has come for you to answer either the tough questions or not stand for elections.” Now, how is that selection of a speaker “non-partisan”?
Dispensing with hosting politicians this year, the organizers instead invited at least three Israelis who live in the settlements to address the crowd. They are Oded Revivi, head of the Efrat Regional Council in Gush Etzion, Esther Brot, a resident of Ofra who was evicted from her home after the High Court of Justice determined that it was built on Palestinian property, and Micah Goodman, resident of Ein Prat and author of the best-selling Catch 67, which describes the leftright stalemate over what to do with the territories won in the Six Day War.
In response to how this year’s organizers tried to dilute the left-wing roots of the event, Ido Even-Paz, a left-wing activist with the controversial Breaking the Silence organization, which publishes anonymous testimonies about Israel’s military control over the West Bank, created a satirical Facebook forum entitled “Rabin’s murder – For and Against.”
Its argument ran: “If you want to include everyone in the conversation – which is what Darkenu and Commanders for Israel’s Security is doing – then why not include the people who were for the murder? They can speak up at the memorial for Rabin, because we don’t say it’s political. And the people who think the murder was right, they’re welcome. And their conversation is welcome.”
While Even-Paz plans on booing some of the settler speakers, other leftist activists say they won’t attend at all.
“I went to the Rabin memorial rallies a couple of times and it just became more and more hollow with every year,” said Tom Pessah, a leftist academic. “Today we feel like it’s a minority that’s nowhere near close to coming to power. On the other hand, the [activist] Left is much more serious about social issues.”
What would Rabin have thought? In a 1976 interview, the notoriously acerbic prime minister slammed the settler movement as an existential threat. “Gush Emunim [the pro-settler, Bloc of the Faithful] is not a settlement movement. It is comparable to a cancer in the tissue of Israel’s democratic society. It’s a phenomenon of an organization that takes the law into its own hands.”
Near the end of his life, Rabin would often say that Israel faced an existential choice. “There are two ways to live here: either in peace or in a state of ‘shall the sword devour [us] forever,’” he said.
Netanyahu made that choice in 2015: “I’m asked whether we will forever live by the sword – yes.”
This rally hints at the political choice between the two men, as it wallows in nostalgia and fails to offer national unity.