What happens to the Jewish sense of national unity, of a people linked in common destiny, when a Jew assassinates the prime minister of Israel?
What happens to the collective self-image of Jews as “a light unto the nations,” as a people that believes that in behaves – or should behave – just a little bit better than other peoples.
What impact will this act have on the Jewish national psyche, the collective Jewish consciousness that holds Israel up as the embodiment of its spiritual and national aspirations?
Not since Gedalia Ben Ahikam, who governed Judea under the Babylonians 2,000 years ago, has a leader of the Jewish people been assassinated by another Jew.
When a Bar-Ilan University law student cut down Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Saturday night, Jews in every corner of the world felt a profound sense of loss – for the ma and for something much larger and more profound than any one individual.
“The idealization has been shattered,” said Simkha Weintraub, a Conservative rabbi and rabbinic director of the National Center for Jewish Healing.
“One of the legacies of the Holocaust was to try and rebuild ourselves in our own eyes. If we couldn’t count on anyone else, we wanted to reach for the best and hope for it about ourselves, to believe that our people and way of life was really going to be a light to the nations.
“It’s very hard to let go of that” notion, said Weintraub, who is also a certified social worker and psychotherapist.
The murder of the Israeli prime minister “is a painful indicator that the state we founded really is a state like any other.”
“We have found the enemy and it is us,” he said. “There can be no healing without addressing this.”
According to Tsvi Blanchard, an Orthodox rabbi and senior teaching fellow at CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, “When a Jew kills another Jew, especially in Israel, which is almost like our spiritual center, it means we no longer see ourselves as a charmed people who have transcended the destructive aspects of nationalist politics.”
In addition to being engulfed in a profound sense of grief, “everybody in Israel is now doing a `cheshbon nefesh,’ an internal accounting of their own souls,” to come to grips with having allowed the anti-Rabin climate to escalate to the point that it did, Steven M. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew University’s Melton Center for Jewish Education, said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
The last time that Israeli citizens – and Jews around the world – felt called to introspection may have been when Emil Grunzweig, a student demonstrating at a Peace Now rally in 1982, was killed when someone tossed a hand grenade into the crowd.
Except for the Grunzweig murder, extreme political violence committed by Jews against other Jews has been rare throughout the history of the Jewish state.
It was precisely because no one believed that such a thing could happen among Jews that the fierce rhetoric and incidents of violence from those opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords escalated, said Rabbi David Gordis, director of the Wilstein Institute for Jewish Policy Studies.
Pictures of Rabin with a Gestapo uniform superimposed on his body were circulated at anti-government rallies in the last year or so and demonstrators often chanted, “Rabin is a traitor! Rabin is a Nazi!”
In recent weeks, protesters threw stones at cars carrying ministers of the Israeli government.
It was this escalation, many contend, that created the context that allegedly allowed law student Yigal Amir to plot the assassination of the prime minister and then say that “God told me to do it” after he shot and killer Rabin.
“The context means that it’s not irrational, but an extreme expression of something which is essentially rational,” Gordis said.
“It opens enormous questions about the effects of demonization of the other, the nature of public responsibility and how one disagrees.”
For Rabbi Irving Greenberg, the founder of CLAL, the price that the Jewish community may pay for allowing the rhetoric to grow as violent as it has may be “a loss of innocence and trust.”
“I hope we’ll learn from the American experience” of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy Jr. “and not let that sense of trust be lost,” Greenberg said.
“A lot of it depends on whether we rally together rather than let this become another stepping stone on the slippery slope of polarization,” he said.
Several of those interviewed said Rabin’s assassination should compel the Jewish community to re-examine what it means to be the bearers of a unique ethical system.
The concept of Jewish ethics has developed in recent years, they said, as has the internal Jewish expectation of a higher standard of behavior.
During the Lebanon War, for example, when Christian Phalangist forces massacred Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut in 1982, after they were sent in by Israel to rout remaining Palestinian Liberation Organization forces, “the idea of `taharat haneshek’ was cast into a more critical view,” Weintraub said.
Taharat haneshek, or the purity of arms, was the concept central to the Israel Defense Force that weapons should only be used for defense. It was a creed that permeated Israeli society, where nearly all adults go through military service, and where many are licensed to carry personal weapons.
Another watershed moment in this devolution occurred when Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein mowed down Palestinians praying in the mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in February 1994, and people in some quarters of the Jewish community, particularly in Orthodox spheres, celebrated his actions.
Now, in the wake of Rabin’s assassination, some of these values need to be reconsidered, some said.
“Some features of idealism, which have stressed Jewish strength, power and domination have to be re-evaluated,” said Blanchard.
At the same time, “the part that stresses Jews as bearers of universal values as a light unto the nations has to be re-emphasized.”
For Gordis, the whole devolution of internal expectations of Jewish behavior must also be examined.
“The notion that Jewish ethics means that we’re no worse than everyone else rather than aspiring to being something better” has guided the response to the rhetoric against the peace process, said Gordis.
“Well, we’re not better than anyone else,” he said, adding that “this ought to be very sobering in a very introspective way.”
Said Blanchard: “Any nation can believe that it has a special spiritual mission without needing to destroy others.
“Now we’re at the point where we have to wonder, can we do without destroying parts of ourselves?”