Remembering Rabin and changing attitudes

A step forward in bridging the gaps between religion and democracy in Israel.

Thousands attend Yitzhak Rabin annual memorial 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Thousands attend Yitzhak Rabin annual memorial 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Seventeen years after the tragic murder of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, I found myself at the Tel Aviv memorial service witnessing a fundamental change in Israeli society that could spell the beginning of a new, and much healthier, era. This can be seen because, in recent years, a new group has overtaken Rabin’s memorial – particularly amongst Israel’s religious community.
By a quirk of fate, in the Hebrew month of Heshvan, Israeli society seems divided between two characters of the past: Rachel the Jewish matriarch (Rachel Imenu) and prime minister Yitzchak Rabin. The former is central to our biblical history and the latter is more modern. Their deaths are separated by about 3,500 years: the redemption from Egypt, two destroyed temples, 2,000 years of Diaspora that has included the Spanish inquisition, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.
The connection between these two memorialized figures is their shared demise on the Hebrew date, 12 Heshvan. In the 3,500-year period that followed, there has never been more interest in the yahrzeit (memorial day) of Rachel Imenu than in the last seventeen years – i.e. since the death of Yitzchak Rabin. The memory of Rachel Imenu has been resurrected to bury the memory of Rabin’s death, but perhaps now, things are finally changing.
Rabin was murdered by a young religious man hell bent on stopping the Oslo peace process that began with Rabin’s government. The fact that the assassination had been preceded by controversial demonstrations equating Rabin to late PLO leader Yasser Arafat or an SS officer, at which mainstream right wing politicians were present, sowed the seeds for later blame games. Once the initial grieving period was over, the aftermath became an outpouring for many on the Left to accuse the entire political Right – and in particular the religious community – for playing a part in creating the atmosphere that led up to the murder.
Even in the immediate aftermath, there were those on both sides of the political and religious divide that understood that this traumatic event had a much wider context than the specifics of the peace process. Indeed, at least to a limited extent there was a general sense of soul searching and the political dialogue focused on our ability to live together, in spite of real and fervently held but divergent beliefs. Panel discussions were held, tents of dialogue were erected, organizations created –all in the spirit of finding common ground, while understanding that we will continue to disagree on many things.
In many ways, the annual event held in subsequent years in the renamed Rabin Square (the scene of the crime) reflected how this mood of reflection and bridging the gaps has gradually withered. Ostensibly, this can be attributed to the left side of Israeli politics which insisted on making the memorial event about the political legacy of Oslo, effectively barring the attendance of religious and right-wing leaders.
Excluding the Right, meant excusing them from reflection on their contribution to the status politico, which had clearly gone awry in the lead-up to the murder. Instead, defense mechanisms were created to avoid the issue altogether.
This is where Rachel Imenu comes back into the picture. At the same time that Rabin Memorial Day was becoming an official part of the educational calendar, the religious schools and related NGO’s were developing a parallel series of events to focus on Rachel Imenu for the same day. Anyone with children in Israel’s religious education system is familiar with this: there is a short ceremony dedicated to the murdered prime minister (if at all) but the main focus of the day is always on Rachel Imenu.
In psychological terms, this is denial on a grand scale. That’s not to say that there should be group guilt or blame for the actions of the assassin, Yigal Amir, but if the glove of discomfort on this issue fits, then it was certainly worn with gusto. It is simply unsavory to use the memory of Rachel Imenu to deflect attention on the lessons to be learned about the assassination of a democratically elected prime minister.
This year’s rally in the square was initially arranged as the alternate rally, and was led by the Kibbutz youth movements. These groups had been dissatisfied with previous rallies that placed the emphasis on Rabin the politician and the peace process, and not the defense of democracy. In a decision that required leadership and courage on both sides, the organizers invited Israel’s religious community to actively join in the rally. Bnei Akiva, the Religious Zionist youth movement, was thus present and the significance of this cannot be overstated. With over 70,000 active members across the country, groups like Bnei Akiva represent the heart of Religious Zionism today and this partnership was a message to millions of like-minded Israelis.
That night, the atmosphere of the crowds at Rabin Square was warm and embracing and by the end of the event people felt at ease with this new and improved memorial.
Whereas in recent years, the religious alternative to Rabin’s memorial on the 12 Heshvan was to commemorate the death of Rachel Imenu, perhaps now Israel is finally yearning for unification between the two sides. History will judge us by our ability to take Rabin’s murder and integrate it into the calendar alongside our matriarch. At a deeper level, it is simple for us to connect these two figures in our history. Rachel is famously described as praying and crying for her sons and is buried on the way to exile in order to pray for their return. The Rabin we should be remembering is the son of immigrants to Israel, a great warrior who opened Jerusalem in 1948 and who led the army in 1967. Rabin was also the first Israeli-born prime minister and as such should be an icon of the Third Jewish Commonwealth created through the State of Israel.
Our youth movements and their leaders took an important step on Saturday night towards bridging the still glaring gaps between different parts of Israel society. We have the opportunity to move in a better direction and the responsibility to heal a seventeen-year-old rift.
The writer is the chairman of Gesher, a Jerusalem-based organization devoted to bridging the differences between Israelis and strengthening a shared Jewish identity.