Making Rabin’s Memory a Blessing

Categories: Israel, Seek Peace and Pursue it

It’s so tempting to make the comparison between the Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah, and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Both are stories about faith and someone named Yitzhak who faces death. Yitzhak, the son of Abraham and Sarah is spared his life. Yitzhak, the son of Nehemia and Rosa, is not as fortunate.  Yitzhak our forefather could have died by his father’s hand. Yitzhak, our brother, died at the hand of his fellow Jewish citizen. Yitzhak, Abraham’s heir, despite his blindness late in life, was able to pass forward the vision of a Jewish future in the Land of Israel. Yitzhak, the leader of the Jewish state, in the Land of Israel, is not with us to fulfill his vision of peace between neighbors.

This comparison, however tempting, does not accomplish what I vowed to do as I wept on the pavement of Kings of Israel Square, at this time, twenty years ago. Back then, I was a new father living in Tel Aviv, an immigrant in my Jewish homeland. Prime Minister Rabin was a native.

I remember our first encounter on the pages of the Chicago Tribune. I was just starting to develop an interest in politics and Ambassador Rabin was representing Israel in Washington, DC. I knew Israel was important to my family. My grandfather helped build an ORT school in Tel Aviv, and my mother came to visit when she was just sixteen. Our family photo albums include pictures of my grandma and Moshe Dayan walking together with linked arms and my mother with Paula and David Ben Gurion at their home in Sde Boker.

The next time I encountered Yitzhak Rabin, he was already Prime Minister, having replaced Golda Meir, who retired from politics after the disastrous Yom Kippur War. My parents had just divorced and my mom took us for an extended summer vacation in Tel Aviv. This was a much different Israel than the one we have today. In 1975, eight years after the Six Day War, Yigal Alon was still pushing for a green line of agricultural settlements around the periphery of the West Bank and Gaza, and the Israeli economy was flat and equitable, with most citizens enjoying a middle class life. I loved this Israel, and I remember my pride celebrating Rabin’s decision to send Israeli paratroopers to Uganda to free passengers from a hijacked El Al flight, on the ground in Entebbe.

My relationship with Rabin got complicated when he and his wife Leah got in trouble for keeping bank accounts in America after their stint in Washington, against Israeli law. Rabin, resigned as party leader and Shimon Peres lost the 1977 elections to Likud. While Rabin was in the opposition, three years later, I found myself back in Tel Aviv, at the Kfar Hayarok agricultural boarding school. When Israel started its first clearly aggressive war in Lebanon, in 1981, Rabin sat on the Knesset’s Defense Committee, as I sat in fear for my high school friends live on the front lines. When Peace Now brought nearly half a million people to protest the Israel conduct of the Lebanon War and the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, I wanted Rabin to redeem himself, but he took a back seat to Shimon Peres, who then led the Labor Party.

After high school and my service in the Israeli Defense Force, while at UCLA, Yitzhak Rabin was serving as Defense Minister in a national unity government. This put him in a position of great power when the 1987, first Intifada started. It also put him in a position to greatly disappoint. In response to Palestinian stone throwers, Rabin famously said, “If they throw stones, break their arms.”

Sitting in Los Angeles, I never felt so alienated from my country. I hated the government and I lost faith in the opposition. If somebody told me then that in four years, I would be back in Tel Aviv, working for the Rabin’s Prime Ministerial campaign, I would have told them that they were crazy, but life can be funny that way.

From 1991 through 1996, I lived in Tel Aviv, though a period that felt like the Messiah was at our doorstep. Before leaving for Israel, I helped elect Bill Clinton, and when I arrived, I helped elect Yitzhak Rabin, two men whose friendship became a pillar of the Oslo Peace Accords. Rabin was not just prime minister, he also returned to being defense minister. With these two portfolios and the help of people like Shimon Peres and Yosi Beilin, Rabin was able to forge peace with his enemy, King Hussein of Jordan, and establish Yassir Arafat as the Palestinian president and Israeli partner in peace. Even before the peace agreement with Jordan was signed, I was sent, as the first Israeli journalist, to report from Jordan. When I arrived, my Palestinian-Jordanian hosts took me water skiing in front of the King’s Palace on the Red Sea. Not only was peace at hand, but the peace dividend was enticing.

In four short years, I went from despising Rabin, my Defense Minister, to admiring Rabin my Prime Minister. Rabin went from an example of ugly power and cynicism to a symbol of optimism and peace. He amazed me when he revealed, in his Nobel Peace Prize address, that he was an agricultural student like me, but gave up his dreams of being a water engineer to serve his country at age 16. Overjoyed, I watched on television from my Tel Aviv apartment as he said to the United States Congress and Jordan’s King Hussein, “Today we are embarking on a battle that has no dead and no wounded, no blood and no anguish. This is the only battle that is a pleasure to wage – the battle for peace.”

Then on November 4th, 1995, I wrapped my infant daughter in blankets and took her and her mother to the peace rally, two blocks from our home, full of pride to share with my progeny what we had accomplished, and my prime minister looked at us and said, “Peace entails difficulties, even pain. Israel knows no path devoid of pain. But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war. I say this to you as someone who was a military man and minister of defense, and who saw the pain of the families of I.D.F. [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers. It is for their sake, and for the sake of our children and grandchildren, that I want this government to exert every effort, exhaust every opportunity, to promote and to reach a comprehensive peace” But minutes later, my prime minister was shot at close range by a fellow citizen, and died, a soldier for peace.

I started by saying that 20 years ago, I made a vow, as tears rolled down my face and I wept for my prime minister. It was there in Kings of Israel Square, in the days after the assassination, surrounded by mourners sitting in small circles with candles and guitars. It wasn’t a vow to make Rabin’s memory a blessing, although I admired his courage and ability to change course so late in life. It was a vow to bring to fruition the magic of this square, the public space of Jews united in hope and dreams of a better world. Prime Minister Rabin contributed to that dream, and the violent, undemocratic thugs among us stopped him in his path, but they cannot stop the dream. Probably, right now, as I speak, many rabbis and congregations will be mourning the man, and we should mourn Rabin, but when we say, “May his memory be a blessing,” we have to do something to fulfill this. It doesn’t happen on its own.

If you share Rabin’s dream, if you want the Jewish people to have a democratic homeland inside the Land of Israel, within borders that are agreeable with our neighbors, then you have to do something. If you want an Israel that is a state for all of its citizens, then you have to act. If we want to make Yitzhak Rabin’s memory a blessing, then take an example from his life. Rabin quit pursuing his personal dreams of becoming a water engineer, at age 16, to defend the Jewish people in their own land. His life was entirely dedicated to the service of his people. From age 16 through his assassination, he only served his people, our people. Fortunately for us, we don’t have to go to such extremes to serve our people today. We have a country. We have an army. What we don’t have is moral direction.

If you want the memory of Yitzhak Rabin to be a blessing, go join a pro-peace organization. Make a financial contribution. Write a letter to the editor. Go out and shake hands with a Palestinian and ask him how he can become your partner in making peace, as Prime Minister Rabin did when he shook Yassir Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn. This was my vow, 20 years ago, and it is the blessing I try to make from my prime minister’s memory everyday since.

About David J. Steiner

David Steiner is the Director of Education at Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois. He holds a doctorate in education from National Louis University and is currently studying to be a rabbi at the Hebrew Seminary for the Deaf.
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