Commemoration vs denial

The struggle between our two cultures, the metro and the retro, continues.

rabin special 298 (photo credit: )
rabin special 298
(photo credit: )
Ahead of the 10th anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin there are those who wish to commemorate the slain leader and those who wish to minimize his image and erase the memory of the murder. This has happened every year since that bitter day of November 4, 1995. This year the battle will be much fiercer. This can already be seen on both sides. On the one hand the monumental building of the Rabin Center will be inaugurated in Tel Aviv with showy events attended by world leaders. On the other hand Yigal Amir's younger brother publicly expressed support for the assassin and justified him "because Rabin was a criminal." Twenty percent of respondents in a public opinion poll said last week that Amir should be pardoned, while the principal of a prestigious Tel Aviv high school suggested the Rabin murder be commemorated along with the murder of cabinet minister Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi. She overlooked the fact that one was murdered by a nationalist Jew and the other by a Palestinian enemy, or the fact that one wished to make peace with the Palestinians and the other wished to "transfer" them. What seemed more salient to her was that "both men were ministers and both were murdered in the month of November." The struggle between the two camps is not only about the meaning of the assassination, the image of the victim and his legacy, or the appropriate patterns of commemoration. It is a unique struggle over shaping of Israeli society. WE ARE the only society that does not have recognized borders. When the country does not have a physical boundary, it is not clear who belongs to the national collective and who does not belong. Thus, there are some in Israel who think Diaspora Jews should not be automatically entitled to Israeli citizenship under the law of return. That not every Jew is an inseparable part of the Israeli collective. On the other hand, in the next elections one party will propose severing Umm el-Fahm from Israel by turning the area - and its citizens - over to the Palestinians because it perceives them as not really an integral part of the Israeli nation. Secondly, Israel has a very high level of "illegalism." Not only do many Israelis break the law, but large sections within the government turn a blind eye or actively assist in such behavior. This is reflected in the legal authorities' forgiving attitude toward personal offences by senior politicians in the ruling party on the one hand, and the dismissal of the findings of several commissions - from the 1985 Yehudit Karp Report to the 2004 Talia Sasson Report - about lawlessness in the territories. Thirdly, too many Israelis are unenthusiastic about the rules of the democratic game. This view is prevalent among those who think Israel should not be run according to democratic principles, but by Halacha. Indeed, in the study "A decade after the Rabin assassination," which I conducted a few months ago, more than 35% of Israelis responded that they consider decisions by rabbis to be of equal weight to those of the Knesset. Moreover, when respondents were asked how they would behave in the event they did not agree with government policy, 85% said only legal means should be employed, but 15 out of every 100 Israelis said it is permissible to use illegal means. Four percent of respondents also said violence was justified. THE RABIN assassination was the direct result of the fierce culture war being waged in our society. The assassination did not lower the intensity of that war, but on the contrary, heightened it. Therefore it will not be the last one. The assassin may have been an religious nationalist, but those who attributed the assassination to the friction between Right and Left, or Orthodox and secular, were very wrong. The struggle is between two cultures, the metro and the retro. Those who belong to the metro culture tend to define themselves as "Israelis," while those who belong to the retro camp define themselves first of all as "Jews." The former want Israel to be part of the family of nations. The latter believe that we should be "a people that dwells alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations." Adherents of the metro culture think the state should be run according to humanistic and universal values. Retros believe in Jewish national uniqueness. Metros are political-nationalists, while retros are ethno-nationalists for whom the Holy Land comes before the state. Since 1995 the memory of Rabin has become an arena of competition between the two camps. One camp uses Rabin as an icon, an exemplary figure according to which our society should be shaped. Therefore it wishes to remember the Rabin heritage, a central pillar of which is peace with the Palestinians. And it does so by acts of commemoration which are sometimes banal, like naming institutions, organizations, buildings, streets and sites after Rabin, as if the name by itself will carry the essence. Meanwhile the other camp makes the unfounded claim that there is no worthwhile "Rabin heritage" and it strives to deny the assassination and erase the memory of the dead prime minister. IN TURKEY, the hands of many public clocks are frozen to show the time that the founding father of modern Turkey, Kamal Ataturk, died. In Israel, the deep split between the retro camp and the metro camp is responsible for the fact that about half of all Israelis do not even remember the date of the murder. And many of them think the commemoration activities are excessive. Everything that has to do with Rabin, his image, his heritage, the motives for the murder, the commemoration project and the need for remembrance, all reflect the gaping abyss between the two Israeli camps fighting to shape our future. And since one camp's dream is the other's nightmare, there are those who are unwilling to make any compromises and wish to decide this war at any price, even if it requires the use of a gun. The writer is head of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society at Tel Aviv University. His book Brothers at War: Rabin's Assassination and the Cultural War in Israel, was published in Hebrew by Babel-Yediot Aharonot last week.