What have we learned?

The Rabin murder anniversary leaves US Jews befuddled.

rabin special 298 (photo credit: )
rabin special 298
(photo credit: )
In the weeks and months before Israel's ordeal of withdrawal from Gaza, American Jews were bombarded with stories about how Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan was bound to set off a civil war or at least a few incidents which would remind everyone of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Those who sought to make the analogy inevitably invoked Rabin's death as a metaphor for the threat to Israeli democracy. Fortunately, those fears proved overblown if not completely misleading. But as we approach the 10th anniversary of Rabin's murder, it can be expected that the same sermon will be read and re-read from pulpits and community lecture halls as the date is commemorated. With each passing year Rabin's transfiguration from general/politician into secular saint is further solidified in Jewish culture. A lifetime of military and political achievement - as well as mistakes - has been boiled down to him being remembered solely as a martyr for peace. The spot in Tel Aviv where he was shot is now a standard stop on any tour of Israel, much like a visit to the new Yad Vashem or the Western Wall. As much as some US Jews have come to appreciate the nuances of Israeli politics, for many there is still the tendency to boil Israeli leaders down to heroic images. After all, if American Jews still idolize Golda Meir as if she had never been driven from office by the scorn of the Israeli public, how can we expect them to think clearly about Rabin and his tragic fate? Predictably, Rabin's death has become an all-purpose metaphor of the dangers of out-of-control dissent and violent rhetoric. Even more to the point, as has been the case in Israel, Rabin's murder has come to serve as a political hobbyhorse for certain Jewish political agendas. Just as the death of John F. Kennedy allowed some to foolishly spin tales about what might have happened in Vietnam had he lived, so too, does Rabin become the fulcrum on which every possible Oslo scenario unfolds. The fact that Kennedy helped initiate and escalate the Vietnam War didn't stop some (paging Oliver Stone) from imagining that he would have soon repented. Rabin's passing, coming as it did just as Oslo began to unravel, allows dreamers of every political complexion to similarly use his murder as a metaphor for all that subsequently went wrong for Israel. IN THE mythology of the Jewish Left, it was Rabin's murder that cut short the peace process. According to that narrative, had Rabin lived, he would have been able to lead Israel's people to accept peace and his strength would have ensured that the Palestinians did the right thing too. This scenario holds Binyamin Netanyahu, who was elected prime minister six months after the murder, responsible for the deterioration in relations and the ultimate doom of Oslo. If only Rabin had lived, peace might have prevailed, we are told. Others believe that Rabin would have correctly read Arafat's intentions far sooner than his successors and halted the process in its tracks. In this counter-factual tale, a wise Rabin would have forestalled not only the bloodshed of the current war but kept the country united in the process. Both these scenarios are inherently flawed. Rabin was just starting to realize in the fall of 1995 that his belief in Arafat's ability to deal with rejectionists Palestinians ("without a Supreme Court" to inhibit his tactics as Rabin often said) might have been misplaced. And the "blame Bibi" theory fails to take into account the fact that he actually continued the Oslo pattern of concessions in the Hebron agreement and the Wye Plantation accord. Those who think Rabin would have eventually shut the process down don't take into account the pressure he would have faced to keep it going no matter how high the number of casualties from Palestinian terror that never really ceased even during the height of the Oslo euphoria. Nor would it have been easy for even a strong personality like Rabin to change directions on Oslo having put so much effort into changing the national conversation about peace. AS MUCH as we American Jews should admire his life's work, all of the speculation about the impact of Rabin's death is an intellectual dead-end. The fate of the peace process was always in someone else's hands, not his. That person was Arafat and if there is anything that we should have learned from Arafat's behavior in the years after Rabin's murder, it is that he was always uninterested in the sort of peace that Rabin advocated. It may be that the memory of Rabin's murder, restrained some protesters against Ariel Sharon, especially here in the United States. The vitriol that was unleashed against Rabin as well as Sharon was despicable. But blaming the huge numbers of ordinary Israelis who opposed Oslo from the start for the actions of one extremist was always unfair and itself an attempt to restrain democratic dissent. Those still bent on using Rabin's murder to prove the "original sin" of the Jewish Right are hardly promoting communal peace. In the end, the impressive achievements as well as the complex and often contradictory policies of Yitzhak Rabin will remain for historians to pick over. As for the rest of us here, all we are left with is a stained-glass image of a martyr for peace. As such, the date of Rabin's death has already become yet another lesson for Diaspora Jews to learn about in synagogue Hebrew schools. It may well be that future generations of Jewish children will continue to draw Yitzhak Rabin peace pictures just as they will do some of the heroic Maccabees a few weeks later. Such a symbol isn't particularly helpful to those who wonder whether a renewed search for peace with the Palestinians will prove as futile as Rabin's hopes for Arafat. But the Rabin icon isn't a bad lesson for the kids. Nor is it one that I suspect even the flinty Rabin would have terribly minded. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. jtobin@jewishexponent.com