The evening of November 4th, 1995, was a Saturday night that started off like any other. Immediately upon extinguishing the havdala candle, my older brother Chanan and I rushed downstairs to switch on our basement television to watch our favorite Saturday night show, Walker, Texas Ranger.
But this Saturday night was to be different.
As we flipped manically through the channels on our boxy TV set and adjusted the unwieldy antennae, I vividly recall my father and mother slowly descending the staircase and coming into my field of vision. The pain and shock on their faces was obvious and unsettling. “Rabin was killed,” they muttered in disbelief. “Rabin was assassinated.”
Although I was not particularly interested in politics—certainly not Israeli politics—as a 10-year-old growing up in Baltimore, I was raised to be a commited religious Zionist. I had heard of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. I recalled the image of him awkwardly shaking the hand of Yasser Arafat. As I stood there in that basement, looking at my parents, I knew that a major event in the history of Israel and the Jewish people had just taken place.
Twenty-four years later, that mournful and stunned look on my parents’ faces remains etched in my memory, but, at the same time, I wonder how many young Jews know who Yitzhak Rabin was. In my experience as a Jewish educator, the answer is unnerving: very few. And those who have heard of Rabin often paint with a broad brush, reducing him to a “dove” and a “left-wing dreamer.” Rabin was so much more than that.
Rabin was a man of paradoxes. He was a fighter and a peacemaker all wrapped up in one. He was socially awkward, and yet he became an international statesman of the first order. He suffered from crippling anxiety, and yet made some of the boldest and most fateful decisions in Israeli history.
Who was Rabin, and what is his legacy? Rabin played important roles in some of Israel’s more controversial moments. The pivotal Altalena affair—in which Jewish soldiers fired upon Jewish soldiers during the 1948 War of Independence—will always be associated with Rabin. As a commander in the Harel Brigade in the 1940s, Rabin “was not directly involved in the fighting, but he did play a role in the expulsion of” some of the Arab communities from Ramle and Lydda when Israel was trying to create a safe and secure state for the Jewish people, notes Itamar Rabinovitch, who was Yitzhak Rabin’s ambassador in Washington.
As Chief of Staff of the IDF, he (and Ezer Weizman) essentially built the Israeli Air Force from the ground up. While Moshe Dayan received most of the fanfare, Rabin was equally instrumental in leading Israel to its stunning victory in the 1967 war, in which it defeated three major Arab armies and expanded Israel’s territory three-fold. But throughout the war, Rabin succumbed to crippling anxiety and exhaustion and eventually broke down. At moments, Rabin second-guessed himself, and he felt broken and despondent. In fact, his anxiety was so problematic that just as the Six-Day War was about to begin, his wife Leah called the IDF’s surgeon general, who gave him a sedative. Rabin was a hero, yes—but a hero with flaws.
Even in the eventual joy of victory, Rabin felt pained by its cost. In a speech delivered at Hebrew University on June 28, 1967, he reminded the people that “the fighters on the front lines saw with their own eyes not just the glory of victory but also its price—their comrades fell next to them, covered in blood…” Though he understood the necessity of war, and it would be inaccurate to view Rabin as a pacifist, he was sensitive to the price of bloodshed and remained calm in the face of post-war euphoria.
Another iconic moment in Israeli history which can be traced directly to Rabin was Operation Thunderbolt, which has been memorialized in film. Rabin had a knack for making daring decisions after taking the time to weigh his options. Most famously, in his first stint as prime minister, Rabin made the executive decision to send an elite unit to rescue Israelis and Jews from the hands of German and Palestinian terrorists who were operating under the watchful eye of Idi Amin and Ugandan forces.
In many ways, Rabin was a military hawk. Mishy Herman, the host of the popular podcast Israel Story reminds us that during Rabin’s tenure as Minister of Defense during the First Intifada, “[Rabin] famously said that Israeli soldiers shouldn’t shoot at the Palestinian protesters and stone throwers, but should break their arms and legs.” (Rabin flatly denied these allegations.)
A “dove”? Not exactly. He was a man of security, a strong military man who cared with every fiber of his being about the safety of the Jewish people. He could even be described, by some of his detractors, as overzealous militarily.
Notwithstanding all of these iconic moments, what Rabin is undoubtedly most remembered for are his attempts to make peace with the Palestinians. When thinking about Rabin, the defining image that sticks out in Rabin’s life is his famous (and for some, infamous) handshake with Yasser Arafat, the head of the PLO. The Jewish people were split over this moment, with a significant number of Israelis feeling appalled that their leader could shake hands with the person responsible for the murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of Israelis.
Yitzhak Rabin remained resolute, if not stubborn. He was an Israeli leader who saw the pursuit of peace not just as a “nice-to-have”, but as an absolute imperative. On July 26, 1994, Rabin met with King Hussein of Jordan and declared: “I who have sent troops into the fire and soldiers into their death am saying to you, the king of Jordan, and saying to you, American friends: We are launching today a war that has no killed and wounded, no blood and suffering, the war for peace.” Though Rabin survived many wars, it was ultimately the war for peace which cost him his life. On November 4, 1995, Yigal Amir, a religious Zionist student at Bar Ilan University gunned down the Israeli premier. The vast majority of the Jewish communities in Israel were devastated, but this time period will always be remembered as a divisive time among Jews in Israel.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein–then the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and an important leader in the religious Zionist community—reflected on that event in a way that resonates with me until this day:
Naturally, this shame should be felt by our camp, the National Religious camp, more than any other. Here was a man who grew up in the best of our institutions. A day before the murder, he could have been cited as a shining example of success and achievement, and a source of communal pride…But if a day before the murder we would have said proudly, “See what we have produced,” we must say it now as well — “See what we have produced!” It is indefensible that one who is willing to take credit when the sun is shining should shrug off responsibility when it begins to rain.
Was Rabbi Lichtenstein correct? I am deeply conflicted about this. Only one man, Yigal Amir, pulled the trigger. Can we not say he was simply a bad seed? Or, should our community look at itself in the mirror and ask how “one of ours” could have done something like this? These are the questions I think about today and want young people to consider seriously.
The reason I remain fascinated by Rabin is because he simply cannot be pigeon-holed. Rabin was a person with strengths and weaknesses, an Israeli who is synonymous with Israeli history, a leader who made bold decisions. Ultimately, he is a person whose legacy is debated every day by his own people.
Students of history will grapple with whether his decisions were the right ones or the wrong ones. Which leads me to the point I’m really trying to make in all of this: to debate Rabin’s legacy, we need to know his story. To discuss whether Yigal Amir killed the peace process or whether Rabin was a pollyannaish and naive dreamer to think Arafat would ever allow for peace, we need to become literate in the history of our people. To have a strong opinion, it is our responsibility to be informed and aware. When we know our stories, when we familiarize ourselves with the history, we attune ourselves to the complexity and nuances of the situations in which our leaders found themselves.
At Jerusalem U, we’ve made November Israel history month. It’s a month in which so many key events occurred. From Rabin’s assassination, to commemorating the Balfour Declaration on November 2 (1917), to UN Resolution 181 on November 29th (1947). Let’s make sure all Jews—regardless of their political affiliation or religious denomination—have informed perspectives on the story of Israel and are able to cultivate their passion for Israel without sacrificing empathy for the other.
Let’s make sure the next generation of Jews feels the pain of Israel when she goes through trauma, and feels the joy of achievement when she experiences success. Let’s make sure we own our story.