Americans mark the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln every year on Presidents Day; Israelis mark the death of Prime Minister Rabin. The difference is telling.
Presidents Day celebrates the lives of the two greatest presidents and their enduring contributions to America. But far from celebrating Yitzchak Rabin's very considerable contributions to the modern state of Israel, November 5 commemorates only his assassination. Rather than serving as a civic ceremony to bind the country, November 5 has become an annual club to bash a large segment of the Israeli population, which until today stands accused of complicity in Rabin's assassination. Every year we find ourselves returning to the immediate aftermath of the assassination, when religious Jews all over the country found themselves subjected to taunts of "murderer."
From the moment of his death, Rabin the symbol became far more important than Rabin the man. First, we were urged to push forward with the Oslo process for the sake of our slain prime minister, just as Knute Rockne once inspired his players to "win one for the Gipper." Latter Rabin became the martyr for peace, who would have guided the Oslo process to a successful conclusion had he only lived. As late as November 5 2000, Leah Rabin was still beseeching Yasir Arafat to remember his "closeness with Yitzchak" and to rescind his post-Camp David declaration of war.
From the start, the earthy Rabin, with no shortage of very human foibles, was an unlikely candidate for beatification. Never mind that by the time of his death, much of public had already soured on Oslo. Polls at the time showed Rabin narrowly trailing Binyamin Netanyahu.
Today, ten years after the assassination, the vast majority of Israelis have concluded that Oslo was founded on a series of dangerous illusions about Arafat's intentions and capabilities. That awakening, however, has not prevented the assassination from continuing to be employed to delegitimize the Right.
The assassination was indeed a national calamity. And there are important lessons to be learned about the manner and tone of our national debate – or competing monologues. But those lessons have never been the main thrust of assassination remembrance.
Among the pernicious "lessons" of November 5 has been that one side of the political map is the repository of all virtue and the other chiefly comprised of dangerous fanatics, who will not hesitate to shed blood. The inscription on the statue erected by the Tel Aviv municipality in honor of the late prime minister pointedly noted that the assassin was a "kippah-wearing Jew."
The convenient dichotomy between the forces of light and those of darkness, however, flies in the face of the historical record. The Rabin assassination was not the first in Zionist history. Nor has murder of one's fellow Jews been the exclusive, or even primary, province of the political Right.
In 1924, Professor Yaacov Yisrael DeHaan, the legal representative of the old yishuv, was assassinated on orders of the Haganah high command, on the eve of a trip to London to meet with British Mandatory officials. Decades later, the triggerman, Avraham Tehomi, said in a television interview, with Shlomo Nakdimon, co-author of DeHaan: The First Political Murder in Eretz Yisrael, that all Haganah actions in Jerusalem at that time required the specific approval of Yitzchak Ben-Tzvi, later Israel's second president.
The most tragic spilling of Jewish blood by other Jews was the Altalena affair. Long after the ship suffered a direct hit from Ben-Gurion's "Holy Cannon" and white flags of surrender hoisted, the Palmach soldiers continued to direct their fire at survivors in the water, likely in the hope of eliminating Menachem Begin. The Palmach commander would later recall his feelings at the time: "Jews shooting Jews – over a prolonged period. Jews killed and injured by the bullets of other Jews. But my heart is at peace with the decision of Ben-Gurion." If that commander ever had second thoughts, he never expressed them. His name was Yitzchak Rabin.
The most frequently cited lesson of the Rabin assassination is that words kill. Incitement, we are instructed, must be vigorously prosecuted. The catch, however, is that only one side of the political spectrum is capable of incitement because only one side is made up of rabid fanatics capable of being incited. On the other side, there is only the exercise of free speech.
Words that would be condemned as incendiary if spoken by one side – comments about the sometimes salutary effects of civil war (Ephraim Sneh), calls for an intifada against one's political or religious foes (Yonatan Gefen), or reveries about mowing down fellow Jews with a machine gun (Uzi Avineri) – are deemed harmless when uttered by those on the Left.
Attorney-General Mani Mazuz ignited a firestorm recently when he questioned the regnant orthodoxy that too lax an approach towards Right-wing incitement led directly to the Rabin assassination. Charges of incitement have become too valuable a club in the hands of the political Left to be tossed away so casually.
Yet delegitimizing one side of the political debate may constitute a far greater danger than unfettered speech. When any large group in a democracy comes to believe that the system is rigged against it or that its views are not being heard, roiling anger results. The political Right found ample evidence of such a breakdown when the Oslo Accords were passed in the Knesset by purchasing the votes of two obscure MK's (one of them now a convicted felon), who had been elected on a far-right platform. The failure to achieve even a minimal national consensus prior to plunging into Oslo created a super-heated atmosphere. And Rabin himself did little to calm things down when he proclaimed himself the prime minister of "98% of Israelis" and told the settlers that they could "spin like propellers" for all he cared.
Five years ago, a Haifa teacher was fired by the director-general of the then Meretz-led Education Ministry for circulating a letter decrying the form that commemoration of the Rabin assassination had taken. Though he condemned the assassination in no uncertain terms, he protested its use to promote the "Rabin legacy.
That firing proved that at least one of the lessons of the Rabin assassination – the danger inherent in suppressing political expression – had been stood on its head by those charged with conveying those lessons. Five years further removed from the assassination that lesson has still not been absorbed.