The American Jewish world was gripped by shock, grief and then outrage at the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of a right-wing Jew who reportedly said he was acting in the name of God.
Anguished soul-searching about the community’s wrenching rifts over the peace process was accompanied by charges that both lay and religious leadership here did not do enough to condemn the vitriolic debate.
Vigils and memorial services were scheduled in synagogues and community centers in almost every large Jewish center in the nation, according to the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.
In an apparent effort to find a redeeming aspect to the killing, some voiced hope and prayer that Jews would be unified by their shared horror at the tragedy.
“We have to take a very deep look inward and see how we have been responsible,” said Rabbi Rolando Matalon, leader of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue here.
“The leadership has not spoken loudly enough against those calling Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres traitors and murderers. It has not disciplined them or delegitimated them,” said Matalon, who joined Jonathan Jacoby of the Israel Policy Forum to lead a vigil of hundreds opposite the Israeli Consulate in the hours after Rabin’s death.
Israeli writer Amos Oz cautioned at the vigil against allowing the act to further polarize the Jewish community. He called for “soul-searching” and said Jews “must be careful not to just blame it on all the right wing.”
Rather “there are certain individuals who should go to synagogue and kneel before the ark to apologize for the reckless words they’ve uttered,” he said.
Susan Shapiro, a religion professor at Columbia University who was at the vigil, said: “I don’t think only the right has to do teshuvah,” she said, using the Hebrew word for “repentance.”
“Everyone must take responsibility – it’s the only way to pull together.”
“We call upon American Jewry to denounce and reject the malevolent rhetoric which has corrupted parts of our community and intimidated many into silence,” Seymour Reich and Karen Rubinstein, heads of the American Zionist Movement, said in a statement.
Ambassador Colette Avital, consul general of Israel in New York, called a news conference after the assassination where she said the “incitement” against Israel’s leaders through violent rhetoric created an environment that made the killing possible.
“This act probably could not have happened if there had not been a certain climate of verbal violence,” which included “comparing him [Rabin] to a Nazi,” said Avital, clad in black and looking pale and subdued. “I believe violent language leads to violent acts.”
Twenty-four hours earlier she had sat in the same room with some of the same reporters, viewing a new video on the peace process produced by the consulate to be distributed nationwide to counter a campaign of “misinformation” by the opposition.
Much of the Jewish public debate has been based on “ignorance,” said Avital, who added that the tape was aimed at creating a “more educated” kind of discussion.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which recently passed a resolution calling for civility in public discourse, condemned the killing and “the kind of rhetoric, which, when pushed to the extreme, can lead to terrible deeds.”
“This senseless act of violence, completely against Jewish values, follows a campaign of verbal violence launched over the past months by extremist elements in Israel and in the Diaspora,” said the conference statement.
Leon Levy, the conference chairman, appeared at the vigil prior to his departure Sunday for Israel as part of a special delegation to the funeral of Rabin, whose death he likened to that of John F. Kennedy.
In both instances, he said, “someone was erased who was molding history.”
The assassination “is not an accident and did not come in a vacuum,” said Jonathan Wolf, a N.Y. resident and participant in the vigil, which was attended by a sizeable Orthodox contingent.
The act “comes out of a political context in which a lot of the right wing, especially the religious right, has said Rabin and Peres were traitors and murderers and wanted the State of Israel to be destroyed,” he said.
“If you say that enough, something like this can happen and I hope these people are doing teshuvah,” Wolf added.
Avital, Wolf and others cited the proclamation in June by Orthodox Brooklyn Rabbi Abraham Hecht that Jewish law permitted the assassination of the prime minister because of territorial concessions he was willing to make for the sake of peace.
Ironically, Hecht penned a letter to Rabin in late October repudiating “any words and actions of anger” that “have caused hurt.”
Hecht could not be reached, but many Orthodox and other organizations opposed to the peace process took pains to issue statements in the wake of the killing that said that even though they disagreed with Rabin’s political course, they mourned his death and condemned the murder.
Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, called the killing a “heinous crime” and a “horrible tragedy.”
“At times we disagreed with his approach but never with his goals or his mission” for “peace and security with Israel’s neighbors,” he said.
“The responsible voices of our community have consistently rejected and renounced extremist acts and calls to violence, while calling for civility and comity in debate,” Ganchrow added.
Chaim Kaminetzky, president of the National Council of Young Israel, said, “We and the other opponents of the Oslo agreements have always shared [Rabin’s] goal of achieving a real peace, with security, for the Jewish state, and putting an end to the bloodshed, which has once again stained the land we hold holy.”
“While we have strongly disagreed with the process,” he said, “we have always believed that peace can never be achieved by one Jew perpetrating acts of violence upon another.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-AMCHA, called for deep soul-searching for all Jews.
Weiss, who describes himself as “an ardent but mainstream opponent of the peace process” said it was nevertheless critical for both camps in the debate to rein in those on the fringes.
“It is my responsibility whenever I’m present and there are words that are explosive, to raise my voice and say it’s not acceptable,” he said. “I do do that and it hasn’t been easy.”
“The central challenge today is to ask ourselves how have we sunk to this level and what we can do to replace hatred with love, how to show respect to people with whom you disagree.”
Meanwhile, Rabin’s chief spiritual adviser, Rabbi Efraim Zelmanovich, was in New York when Rabin died and appeared at the vigil outside the consulate.
“He gave his whole life for the peace process, which we believe is the best thing to happen to Israel since its establishment,” said Zelmanovich, who heads the Israel Rabbinical Forum, a group of about 300 rabbis who support the peace process.
“Each person who called Rabin a murderer or a traitor has part of the responsibility for this murder,” said Zelmanovich, calling the act “chillul haShem” or “desecration of God.”
“I hope God will forgive us that we are a holy people in a holy land” in which someone “did so terrible and horrible a thing.”
The rabbi said Rabin sought frequent consultation with him in his search for Jewish sources supporting his peace policies.
Meanwhile, memorial services were scheduled throughout the country this week.
In Louisville, Ky., the local board of rabbis was coordinating a service with the local Jewish Community Relations Council to “try to pull the community together,” said Marie Abrams, former chairwoman of the JCRC and a current vice chairwoman of the NJCRAC.
Abrams described Louisville, where a 35-member mission just returned from Israel, as “stunned and distraught.” The service was planned to give people “a chance to express their grief and recommit themselves to the peace process.”
Jerry Milch, director of the community relations council in Bergen County, N.J., where Orthodox opposition to the peace process is fervent and the community is deeply divided, planned to call for healing at a service designed to be completely “apolitical.”
“I hope it would bring us together and make us understand we can disagree but we can never allow disagreements to descend into violence,” said Milch.
A national service was scheduled for Tuesday at New York’s Carnegie hall sponsored by the Presidents’ Conference, the JCRC of New York and the Israeli Consulate.
At her news conference, Avital recalled that Rabin was asked only a few weeks ago in New York whether he was frightened for his safety. “He shrugged and said he’d lived through more difficult situations in his life and had a mission to fulfill.”
She later mused she had spoken with Rabin only hours before his death, which she learned about while hosting a lunch at home for Jordanian ambassadors and members of the royal family.
“It was chitchat, just chitchat,” she said, of the conversation with the prime minister, obviously shaken.