The news of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a fellow Jew sent waves of shock and profound grief throughout the world.
Adding to the tragedy is the knowledge that the base level of discourse surrounding the peace process helped create the current climate of hate and extremism nurturing individuals who would put into action that which many were preaching.
World Jewry is under siege. Not just by the hate of anti-Semitism and anti- Zionism, to which we have become accustomed and to which we know how to respond.
Rather, by Jew-against-Jew hatred. Today, we do not know how to react.
Throughout history, Jews have borne the brunt of hateful words resulting in violent, destructive action. Just more than four years ago, cries of “Kill the Jew” by a mob in Crown Heights led to the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum.
Now, within our own community, the rhetoric which has surfaced has been uncivil at best and inciteful at worst.
Those who have employed this rhetoric and those who have been silent in the face of it bear responsibility for creating the environment that is the backdrop for Rabin’s murder. Contrary to the childhood adage “Sticks and stones may break by bones but names will never harm me,” words do kill.
It bears repeating over and over again that the issue is not one of differing political views about the peace process. Debate and dissension are critical to a healthy, vibrant democracy. Those who vigorously voice their opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process and to government policies are exercising their democratic rights.
But, those who over and over again called Rabin “Nazi,” “traitor” and “murderer” nurtured a climate in which extremism thrives.
Those who regularly burned his body in effigy fostered the notion that action must be taken against him. Those who repeatedly chanted “death to Rabin” at rallies and demonstrations dehumanized a democratically elected leader and for someone like Yigal Amir, in effect, legitimized his murder.
When certain rabbis in Israel and in the United States assert that it is permitted under religious law to kill leaders who take actions that harm the Jewish people, is it unthinkable that someone would abide by the ruling. When a prayer is distributed in some synagogues calling on God to “Thwart the conspiracy of those destroyers and demolishers who desire to tear apart the land of our heritage,” is it shocking that someone felt justified to take it upon himself to do just that?
Over time, we witnessed the escalation of this lethally incendiary rhetoric. First Rabin and Peres were called “murderers” and “traitors.” Then they were cast as “Nazis,” commanders of a “death march” and leaders of Jews to the gas chambers.
We heard that Israeli government leaders are willful accomplices in the shedding of Jewish blood. We heard that American Jews who support the process are members of the “Judenrat” – the councils is the ghettos that played a part in executing Nazi policies and transporting Jews to the death camps.
Against this background, it is not difficult to see how the stage was set for what happened. Rabin was no longer a fellow Jew, a human being, with whom you disagreed vehemently. Rather, he was an enemy, leading the Jewish people to a future of death and destruction.
The prime minister was violating God’s law. And, according to this mindset, he had to be stopped from further carrying out his evil designs.
It is tragic that too many members of our religious and political leadership largely tolerated or dismissed this demonization of Prime Minister Rabin and other Israeli government figures.
Even after Rabin’s assassination, many have yet to learn or acknowledge the relationship between words and deeds. On the day of Rabin’s burial, an Israeli teacher walked into school and expressed support for the actions of the murderer.
Others, both in Israel and in the United States, assert unequivocally that they do not condone murder but, after all, Rabin did deserve to die. Some rationalize that the assassin was forced into this heinous act because he felt his community was being marginalized and abandoned by the government.
We are concerned that when the shock wears off, many will still fail to confront the truth.
They will argue that like Baruch Goldstein before him, Yigal Amir is nothing more than an aberration within the Jewish community. A lone fanatic who went too far. After all, Jews do not kill.
At the other extreme will be those who will condemn Orthodox Judaism in its entirety and will cast all opponents of the peace process as responsible for the murder. All individuals, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, are entitled to be against the peace process. They have a right to believe that the process runs counter to religious law. Rabin’s death must not lead to a backlash against responsible opponents of current Israeli policy.
Yitzhak Rabin’s death must spur us to unite as a community against extremism and intolerance within our midst. The obligation to speak out falls most heavily on those who can best influence those most susceptible to the message of intolerance and hatred. If extremists on the right engage in brutal speech, leaders of the right must reject it. If extremists on the left do so, leaders of the left most speak. And, if individuals defend their right to engage in such talk on religious grounds, it is the rabbis who must repudiate this justification.
It is not a sign of weakness to recognize that there are problems within our community. It is a mark of strength and a symbol of our renewal. We must condemn, in the strongest possible terms, rhetoric that carries the potential to incite violence. Silence in the face of this accelerating breakdown in discourse is tantamount to complicity.
As we mourn the slain prime minister of the State of Israel, let us unite and dedicate ourselves to this goal.