Yitzhak Rabin: Reflections on Loss, Despair and Hope

For people who care deeply about the State of Israel, the future of the Jewish people or about the prospects for peace in the world, the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin provided much to think about.

People of my generation readily remember where they were when they heard the news about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The news of Rabin’s assassination hit me even harder, likely because I was far more invested at that point in my life in all the things that Yitzhak Rabin had come to represent. I recall vividly getting home from shul in the early afternoon of that November day when a neighbor driving by slowed down to ask me if I had heard the news. As the only rabbi on the block, she wanted to know my reaction, but it was the first time I got the news. My knees buckled and I got that feeling in the pit of the stomach that is triggered when the world, as you have come to know and rely on it, is about to fall apart.

As I think back now, it is clear that the assassination actually achieved its nefarious objective. The Oslo peace process was killed along with Rabin. In a new book, Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, author Dan Ephron argues that a better analogy for Rabin’s murder than the assassination of JFK was that of Abraham Lincoln. Both Lincoln and Rabin won elections in young countries that were deeply divided over one critical issue, slavery for America and the possibility of trading land for peace in Israel. The opponents to these political leaders believed that the very future of their nation was being compromised by the elected head of state. The rhetoric that came out of these dissenting sectors provided incentive and justification for two young men in their 20’s, John Wilkes Booth and Yigal Amir, to take history into their own hands. The major difference, however, was that Lincoln had already vanquished the Confederacy by waging the Civil War, thus putting an end to the prospect of a country, “half slave and half free”. The Oslo Process was still in its infancy when Rabin was assassinated. Only a leader with moral courage and vision could lead a wounded and vulnerable nation away from occupation and perpetual conflict towards a more hopeful future. It was not to be.

We have seen this scene all too often in recent history. Leaders of political or social movements that seek to reverse generations worth of hatred, prejudice and oppression often pay the dearest price for their courage—Mahatma Ghandi, Anwar Sadat, Martin Luther King, Jr. What a sad commentary on human nature that terrorist networks can survive the killing of their leaders while movements for peace and justice often falter when their leaders die or are killed.

Yitzhak Rabin was a soldier who believed that peace would require more than a strong military. It would require a courage deeper than that which is called upon in battle. I was privileged to be seated on the White House lawn in September 1993 when, in the presence of President Bill Clinton and, face to face with Yassir Arafat, Rabin uttered words that could have reversed a century-old conflict. After recounting how many lives had been lost and all the reasons that Israel might be justified in continuing the cycle of war, he made a leap of faith by saying: “We say to you (Palestinians): Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men….”

Contrast the tone of those words with the extremism, the hatred, the mistrust and the ongoing cycle of violence that characterizes the situation in Israel/Palestine today. Leaders on both sides of the conflict are more inclined to bow to the pressures of their most extreme constituencies than to lead their people in the direction of mutual recognition, trust and peace.

Because even Jewish secularists are People of the Book, it is interesting to note that in the weeks following Rabin’s assassination, many commented that it took place in the week when the Torah portion was Vayera, the portion telling the story of the Binding of Isaac/Yitzhak. The Biblical Yitzhak was spared thanks to an angel; the Yitzhak who was the Prime Minister of the State of Israel had no such angel to spare him.

This year, the twentieth anniversary of the secular date—November 4th—fell a week later in the Torah reading cycle. It too had a message that makes one pause. The portion of Chayei Sarah starts with the death of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Abraham wants to acquire a proper burial plot for her and he pays a high price to a local Hittite to gain full title to the Cave of Machpela. That Biblical city of Kiryat Arba is today the city of Hebron, probably the ugliest front in an all-too ugly history of conflict between Jewish settlers and a majority Palestinian city in the West Bank. It was the site of the massacre of 29 Palestinian Muslims at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque (named after the common ancestor to both Jews and Muslims) by Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein on Purim, 1994.

Abraham’s purchase is the first act that begins to fulfill God’s promise of the Land of Israel to Abraham’s offspring. At the time it was an act of love and loyalty. But acts of love and loyalty, when not tempered by compassion for others, is precisely what allows extremists to employ religion to be a force for hatred and violence instead of as an inspiration to work for reconciliation and peace.

If ever there was a time to raise up the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin, z”l, now is that time.

Note: This article appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy on November 17, 2015.