TEL AVIV (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination will be memorialized differently this year, and not everyone is happy about it.
In the past, the annual Tel Aviv rally marking the anniversary of the political murder focused on denouncing racism and extremism. Speakers called for the government to finish what Rabin was killed for starting — a peace deal with the Palestinians.
But the new organizers have shifted the emphasis to promoting national unity. While many Israelis have welcomed the change, some on the political left have condemned it as an attempt to gloss over the assassination.
This year’s rally, scheduled for Saturday night in Rabin Square, has been organized by the Darkenu movement and Commanders for Israel’s Security, two centrist advocacy groups that support “separation” from the Palestinians as part of a two-state solution. An advertisement in the media touted the rally, headlined “We Remember: We Are One People,” as a demonstration on behalf of Rabin-like leadership, national decency and the Zionist vision of a Jewish and democratic state.
One of the rally’s organizers, Nimrod Dweck, the chief strategist and co-founder of Darkenu, or “Our Path,” told JTA it was time to end the finger pointing over Rabin’s death and instead look to the Israelis’ shared future.
“There was a sense that we need to reinvent what makes us a nation,” he said. “It’s very different from past years because we don’t play the blame game or talk about peace. We talk about who we are as a people.”
Unlike in the past, no Israeli political parties or lawmakers were invited to speak at the rally. The six living former chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces received invitations. But after all initially expressing interest, they declined one by one. Israel’s Channel 10 TV station reported that they may have feared being tagged as leftists for their association with the organizers.
Dweck said he could not explain the chiefs of staff decision. But he said the organizers’ nonpartisan approach to the rally has drawn in right-wing Israelis who would have felt unwelcome in the past. Among those who will speak this year is Esther Brot, who abandoned her home in the West Bank settlement of Ofra out of respect for the High Court of Justice’s ruling that it must be demolished because it was built on private Palestinian land.
Yehuda Glick, an Orthodox Jewish lawmaker in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, will be in the crowd. On Monday, he sent a letter encouraging his fellow Knesset members to join him. He said that was “ashamed” by the politicized atmosphere he saw last year at the event, when speakers scored the right and demonstrators heckled the left. But he averred confidence the rally would be different under Darkenu and Commanders for Israel’s Security.
“I personally spoke to the organizers of the rally and was convinced they were going above and beyond to preserve a dignified and stately atmosphere,” he wrote. “The slogan chosen for the ‘We Are One Nation’ event expresses the public’s strong desire to heal the rifts within us, and the organizers seek to create as broad a common denominator as possible against the violence and hatred that destroys every good part of the Knesset.”
However, the organizer’s welcoming attitude has upset some Israeli leftists, who said Rabin’s assassination was inherently political and should be remembered as such. They also pointed out that the advertisement for the rally did not even mention that Rabin was assassinated.
“A foreigner reading that weird, misleading ad might think that Rabin died peacefully in bed, after retiring, and now the gang is getting together to have a little sing-along and share fond, amusing memories,” lawmaker Shelly Yacimovich of the center-left Zionist Union political alliance wrote on Facebook. “Well, Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. M-u-r-d-e-r-e-d. It was a political assassination designed to eliminate an elected political leader and to change the path of the nation by that murder.”
She added that the assassination should be taught to everyone, not just those in Rabin’s “political camp,” but that the advertisement did the opposite.
“This ad denies that memory to everyone – erases it, whitewashes it and hides it,” Yacimovich said. “It’s an embarrassing ad that reeks of fear. There’s still time until the rally to recover and remember.”
Many other leftists shared similar criticisms.
“Sickening,” Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, wrote on Facebook, according to Israel’s left-wing Haaretz newspaper.
“It’s sad, depressing, insulting. Makes people forget!” responded Shimon Sheves, who was the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office during Rabin’s last term.
Right-wing extremist Yigal Amir shot Rabin to death on Nov. 4, 1995, at the end of an event the then-prime minister held to demonstrate public support for his efforts to make peace with the Palestinians. In the following days, and every year since on the Saturday nearest to the anniversary date, thousands of Israelis have gathered in Rabin Square, as it was renamed, to pay their respects.
The rally, which has become the main commemoration event for Rabin, was long organized by an alliance of youth groups and social organizations. But last year, the alliance opted to instead hold round-table discussions in the country’s major cities. The Labor Party, in which Rabin spent his political career, stepped in at the last minute to save the rally from cancellation. This year, Darkenu and Commanders for Israel’s Security took over.
Dweck said it was an “honest mistake” not to explicitly refer to Rabin’s assassination in advertising the rally, and on Tuesday he made sure the language was changed to say, “A mass rally in memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin marking 22 years since his murder.”
But he accused members of the Israeli left of nursing anger at the settlement movement, some of whose leaders incited against Rabin and helped inspire Amir. Since Rabin’s death, the Israeli public’s faith in peace with the Palestinians has dwindled and settlers have helped push Israeli politics rightward. But Dweck said he still expects leftists to show up at the rally.
“Everyone here wants peace and security and better lives,” he said. “We just have to respect one another and understand each other’s challenges.”
Itamar Rabinovich, a self-described centrist who served as Rabin’s ambassador to the United States and chief negotiator to Syria, said both the left and the right bear some responsibility for the bitter atmosphere surrounding the rally, which he said has existed from the start.
“I feel sorry that mostly the religious Zionist camp has not gone through the soul searching it should have gone through immediately in the aftermath of the assassination,” he said. “I also think the left has been mistaken in seeking to turn the principal commemoration at Rabin square into a political statement.”
Rabinovich, who last year wrote a biography of Rabin, said the rally would ideally honor his former boss’ legacy without creating unnecessary dissonance among Israelis.
“I personally think the organizers have struck the right note,” he said.