Struggling for democracy

Eighteen years ago, an anti-Rabin rally was held in Zion Square in Jerusalem.

Rabin rally 2013 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Rabin rally 2013
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Eighteen years ago, an anti-Rabin rally was held in Zion Square in Jerusalem. People held signs of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in an SS uniform. Others burned his effigy and carried a coffin for him. Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu, two future prime ministers, gave speeches to the crowd, standing above a sign that read “Death to the Murderers.”
The crowd screamed “Rabin is traitor!” about the general who won the Six Day War. Eventually they chanted “Death to Rabin!” and lit preemptive yahrzeit candles for him.
Yet the leaders remained silent and the Israeli media paid little attention.
Shortly thereafter, Rabbi Yosef Dayan and Avigdor Eskin, a settler leader, went to the Prime Minister’s Residence on Erev Yom Kippur to perform a “Pulsa Denura,” an ancient Aramaic ceremony meant to invite the angel of death to visit someone prematurely. It was October 1995, and Eskin explicitly called for Rabin’s death within a month.
Again, the press was not very interested.
Political figures, except for those aligned with Rabin, were not eager to issue condemnations. Consequently, the public paid little attention.
A month later, Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. He had just finished singing “Shir Le’shalom” (“A Song for Peace”) at the largest rally in support of the peace process in Israeli history. It soon became known that Yigal Amir was his assassin, and he alone pulled the trigger.
But the larger environment of incitement and hatred enabled him.
Amir wasn’t insane. He made multiple attempts before his successful one, and actively conspired with other members of the extreme Right. At his trial, he admitted his deed and expressed satisfaction with the result.
His only defense was that his action was in keeping with Jewish law, a thought he surely had not conceived of himself.
We must always member that Rabin’s assassination was not the result of a lunatic’s actions. Nor was it the failure of the Israeli intelligence services. It was a failure of Israeli democracy. Free speech and open disagreement are the basic pillars of democratic government; violence and malicious incitement are its perpetual foes.
Israel is deeply divided on political, religious and ethnic lines. These disparate groups, however, still need to disagree with each other peacefully, to abide by the rule of law and accept the codes of the democratic process. When a group or individual abandons these sacred principles, we must not accept it. Rabin’s murder teaches us that we cannot be silent, that we need to fight to defend our democracy. Passivity is not an option when so much is at stake.
Israel’s democracy still faces many threats, which is why the Fighting for Democracy Coalition held a rally Saturday in commemoration of the 18th anniversary of Rabin’s murder. We need to learn our lessons and deal with the threats that exist today.
“Price tag” attacks have become a favorite tool of the extreme Right.
Three happened in the past week alone, and they seem to have lost all boundaries. Sometimes they’re in response to something in the Palestinian territories, and sometimes they’re random. Sometimes they’re against all non-Jews, and sometimes they’re against officers of the IDF. They represent an unwillingness to tolerate others and a refusal to accept the decisions of the democratically elected government.
Racist incitement has become dangerously common among Israel’s political and religious elites. The chief rabbi of Safed called for Jews not to rent apartments to Arabs, yet was nearly appointed one of Israel’s two chief rabbis this year. Eli Yishai, then interior minister from the Shas party, declared that most of Israel’s African migrants were criminals last year. Likud MK Miri Regev then called them a “cancer” at a rally which ended in attacks against Africans in south Tel Aviv.
Even the most basic lesson about democracy from Rabin’s murder has been ignored. Every time an Israeli leader makes a serious overture toward peace, he is subject to incitement and death threats made in broad daylight.
When Sharon pushed for the disengagement from Gaza, people carried posters depicting him as Stalin, and a wall in Tel Aviv was graffitied with “Rabin is waiting for you, Ariel!” Ehud Olmert faced similar treatment while negotiating with the Palestinians.
Even Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, has received the Pulsa Denura death threat, simply because he has reduced funding for ultra-Orthodox institutions.
Enough is enough. This year, a coalition of organizations, youth movements, and public figures from across the political spectrum gathered to commemorate Rabin’s assassination by marking our shared commitment to democracy.
We have many disagreements about the deepest questions facing this country. Israel is still a deeply divided society, with people from different sectors and children from different youth movements rarely meeting one another.
But last night we assembled, 35,000 strong, to declare in a loud and unequivocal voice: violence and incitement have no place in Israeli society.
All organizations – Left and Right, Orthodox and secular, Jewish and Arab – signed a rare joint declaration denouncing racism and exclusion in Israeli society, which was also signed by a number of Jewish Federations in North America. A new front for democracy in Israel has been created, and it will only grow from here.
If you think democracy is worth fighting for, whether you live in Israel or abroad, I hope you will do what you can to support the effort to keep Rabin’s legacy alive. And I hope I see you next autumn in Rabin Square.
The author is a member of the Remembering the Murder, Fighting for Democracy Coalition. He lives on an urban kibbutz in Haifa and is a member of Kvutzot Am, the Network of Educators’ Kibbutzim of Habonim Dror Olim.