Menu JTA Search

A Year After Rabin’s Death (part 3): Commemoration of Slaying Reflects Division in Israel

The bitter political divisions in Israel, highlighted so tragically by the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin one year ago, are blighting the nation’s attempts to commemorate the murder.

The extent of the divisions was underscored by the Ministerial Committee on Symbols and Ceremonies, which announced this week that Oct. 24, the anniversary of the assassination on the Hebrew calendar, would not be declared a national day of mourning, like Yom HaShoah or Tisha B’Av.

The committee did decide, however, that there would be a state ceremony on the day of his death each year for at least 10 years.

The divisions were also to be seen in the actions of Rabin’s widow, Leah, who expressly requested that neither President Ezer Weizman nor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eulogize the murdered leader at Thursday’s state ceremony.

The two were instead to speak immediately after, at a special session of the Knesset.

Even the date for holding the commemoration has created divisions.

Rabin’s own Labor Party has pointedly scheduled its own memorial event for Nov. 4, the anniversary of the assassination on the secular calendar.

And there are innumerable local and voluntary commemorative events, organized under all banners, each with its own approach.

The school system, moreover, on instructions from Education Minister Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party, was to devote the entire day Thursday to assemblies and classes on the killing, its meaning and implications, as well as to issues of democracy and the rule of law.

If the commemoration period passes without a worsening of the political strife that came to the fore when assassin Yigal Amir fired at the premier, that in itself will be a relief.

For the anniversary, like the murder itself, is proving to be a catalyst of political polarization rather than an instrument or occasion of reconciliation.

Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University, grants that the immediate reaction to the killing was one of collective shock that created a moment of enhanced unity.

“Everyone was united in the sentiment: Look what this can lead us to,” Ezrahi says.

But soon this initial clinging together evaporated, says Ezrahi, and by the time Israel’s national elections were held in May, many Israelis had come to regard the assassination as another link in the chain of terror events, which, for them, represent the peace process.

“For centuries, the Jews’ `secret weapon’ had been their solidarity,” says Ezrahi. “Regardless of the circumstances, they pulled together.

“Rabin’s peace process with the Arabs was seen by many Israelis as threatening, indeed sacrificing, that underlying solidarity among the Jews. Ironically, his murder came to be seen in that same context.

“When the Chabad movement, three days before the election, plastered the country with posters pronouncing that `Bibi is Good for the Jews,’ this spoke to a very profound, atavistic yearning for that modicum of Jewish solidarity.

“Netanyahu’s own slogan, `A Safe Peace,’ was also internalized to mean that there would be an ongoing peace process — but it would be safe from the kind of internecine strife that the Rabin-Peres process had aroused within Jewish Israel.”

That was the subliminal rationale that drew a large majority of Israel’s Jews, in Ezrahi’s view, to vote for Netanyahu.

The margin of Netanyahu’s victory among Jewish voters was more than 10 percent — despite the arguments of Netanyahu’s opponents that this would be to hand a victory to Rabin’s assassin.

But Ezrahi believes that the deeper and longer-term effects of the assassination have yet to make themselves felt on Israeli society.

He says national traumas such as the Holocaust, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the Scud attacks during the 1991 Gulf War took many years until their true impact on Israeli society could be discerned by scholars.

He says that among secular Israelis, the assassination has already produced a discernible heightening of awareness of how fragile democracy can be — and how prone it is to dangers from within.

“Other, older democracies learned this lesson hundreds of years ago,” Ezrahi adds.

Another leading academic, Nissan Rubin of Bar-Ilan University’s sociology department, says many in the Orthodox community regard the killing of Rabin as something of “a miracle” — in that it saved Israel from his peace policy.

To these people, Netanyahu’s election victory reinforces and vindicates their view of the assassination.

Beyond the core of such believers, says Rubin, who is himself Orthodox, there is a “broad periphery” of people who share that view — even though they do not articulate it.

Because of the fissure in Israeli society, he says, Rabin the man cannot grow into a national myth the way, for instance, that President Kennedy did in the United States.

“Death, especially of leaders, usually plays a key role in the evolution of a nation’s collective memory,” says Rubin.

But in Rabin’s case, he adds, this can only happen within that part of the nation that truly reveres his memory and identifies with what he stood for and what he died for.

“In a way, therefore, the commemoration of Rabin and of his death is itself the dividing line in Israeli society at this time,” he says.

NEXT STORY