Rabin and ‘the old Israel’

It is right to mourn the old Israel Rabin personified. Its passing, like that of the man, is tragic.

L'ancien Premier ministre Itzhak Rabin (photo credit: REUTERS)
L'ancien Premier ministre Itzhak Rabin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Standing in the middle of 100,000 people is a heady experience. All the more so when they are brought together by collective mourning and trauma.
Last Saturday, the mourners filled Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to mark the 20th anniversary of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, whose death gave the square its name and traumatized a nation. Yet it seemed as if those thousands were not so much mourning a man but a place – the old Israel that Rabin personified.
The Israel of the Zionist Left, the remnants of which had gathered to mark his passing.
That Israel was the first Israel.
The Israel founded by the Labor movement, which gave us the Hagana and the Palmach, the War of Independence, the kibbutz, Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, the stunning victory of the Six Day War and the trauma of the Yom Kippur War, and its final bid for history, the Oslo Accords.
And it was these accords, for which Rabin both fought and died, that finally demolished that Israel.
Once hailed as the key to Israel’s final redemption, Oslo represented the possibility of peace with Israel’s oldest and most ferocious enemy. An Israel finally prosperous and accepted by the world we always feel is against us. Bill Clinton spoke of this possibility on Saturday when he said that the youth attending the ceremony would now have to write the “final chapter” of Rabin’s life and legacy. It was the chapter that the old Israel hoped to write, and ultimately could not. The old-new Israel proved impossible.
Indeed, after the trauma of the Palestinians’ rejection of peace, the second intifada and persistent terrorism – which in recent weeks has flared up yet again – Israelis have more or less quietly concluded that the old Israel was wrong.
Indeed, polls show that a majority of Israelis now believe that Oslo was a mistake that severely damaged Israel’s security. And Israelis have reached the inevitable conclusions: The Palestinians, they believe, never really wanted peace and will never accept Israel’s legitimacy or existence. The most Israel can do is hold fast, keep building its own prosperity and military strength, and try to contain Palestinian violence as much as possible.
As a result, the old Israel and its remaining partisans are moribund.
The Right feels its opposition to Oslo has been vindicated, and voters appear to agree. In a terrible irony, Rabin’s final electoral rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, may soon be Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. The Left is politically powerless, culturally isolated and in collective disarray.
In many ways, its annual commemoration of Rabin’s death is less a show of strength than a demonstration of its continuing inability to find a way up from the troubling legacy of Oslo.
And the truth is that the old Israel was dying for decades before Oslo finally killed it. Beginning with the Yom Kippur War, it began to fracture and dissipate.
A new Israel began to emerge. A new Israel in which communities the old Israel had marginalized made their bid for power. A new Israel led by the Zionist Right the Labor movement once thought was defeated. A new Israel driven by capitalism and individualism.
A new Israel that was more prosperous, but less equal. A new Israel in which the values of service and volunteerism passed into the hands of the settlement movement.
A new Israel that was more diverse, but less unified. A new Israel whose faith in the possibility of peace was shattered by Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism.
A new Israel in which the old Israel is barely a memory.
Indeed, the old Israel that gathered on Saturday seemed to be paying tribute not so much to Rabin as to itself. At long last, it seems, it has given up on the possibility of restoration. It chooses to live in mourning and watch as the new Israel marches on without it.
For many, this is something to celebrate. But I cannot bring myself to do so. Because a great deal of what the old Israel stood for was not only admirable but essential to any decent country. It was based on the twin causes of Zionism and social justice. Volunteerism, service and collective action were its highest values. It was avowedly secular.
It believed as fervently in democracy as it did in Jewish nationalism.
It rejected racism and political violence.
It did not always live up to its ideals, but its hypocrisy was indeed the deference its vices paid to its virtues. Virtues that no thinking person can reject without slouching into barbarism.
I do not despise the old Israel.
Whatever its mistakes, the new Israel would not exist without it.
It is right to mourn the old Israel Rabin personified. Its passing, like that of the man, is tragic.
The author is associate editor of Tower Magazine.