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What Kind of Legacy?

November 3, 2012 By:
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Yitzhak Rabin
In the weeks and months before Israel's disengagement from Gaza, American Jews were bombarded with stories about how Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan was bound to set off a civil war, or at least a few incidents that would remind everyone of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Those who sought to make the analogy inevitably invoked Rabin's death as a metaphor for the threat to Israeli democracy.

Luckily, those fears wound up being overblown, if not completely misleading. But as we approach the 10th anniversary of Rabin's murder, it can be expected that the same sermon will be read and reread from pulpits and community lecture halls as the date is commemorated.

Martyr to Peace

With each passing year, Rabin's transfiguration from general/politician into a secular saint is being solidified in Jewish culture. A lifetime of military and political achievement, as well as some mistakes, has been boiled down to that hard-boiled sabra being remembered solely as a martyr for peace.

The spot in Tel Aviv where he was shot after speaking at a peace rally is now a standard stop on any tour of Israel, much like a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial or Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Even in this age of historical revisionism, where Americans hear more about George Washington's false teeth than about him chopping down cherry trees, most of us still prefer our slain martyrs served up to us simply and without nuance.

As much as American Jews have come in recent years to appreciate more of the complications of Israeli politics, the tendency to boil down Israeli leaders to heroic images has made it hard to distinguish Rabin's legacy as distinct with the rest of Israel's premiers.

After all, if American Jews still idolize Golda Meir as if she'd never been driven from office by the scorn of the Israeli public, which still stains her tenure, how can we expect them to think clearly about Rabin and his tragic fate?

Predictably, Rabin's death has become an all-purpose metaphor for the dangers of out-of-control dissent and violent rhetoric.

Even more to the point, as has happened in Israel, Rabin's murder has come to serve here as a political hobbyhorse for certain Jewish political agendas.

Just as the death of John F. Kennedy allowed some to foolishly spin tales about what might have happened in Vietnam had he lived, so, too, does Rabin become the fulcrum upon which every possible Oslo scenario unfolds.

The fact that Kennedy helped initiate and escalate the Vietnam war didn't stop some (paging Oliver Stone!) from imagining that he would have soon repented of his folly. Rabin's passing, coming as it did just as Oslo began to unravel, allows dreamers of every political stripe to use his murder as an example of all that subsequently went wrong with Israel.

In the mythology of the Jewish left, it was Rabin's murder that cut short the peace process. According to that narrative, had he lived, Rabin would have been able to lead Israel's people to accept peace - and his strength would have ensured that the Palestinians did the right thing as well. This scenario holds Benjamin Netanyahu, who was elected prime minister six months after the murder, responsible for the deterioration in relations and the ultimate doom of Oslo.

If only Rabin had lived, peace might have prevailed, we are told.

Others believe that Rabin would have correctly read Yasser Arafat's intentions far sooner than his successors and halted the process in its tracks. In this counter-factual tale, the ever-wise Rabin would have forestalled not only the mass bloodshed of the intifada, but kept the country united in the process.

Both these scenarios are inherently flawed. Rabin was just starting to realize in the fall of 1995 that his belief in Arafat's ability to deal with the terrorists ("without a Supreme Court" to inhibit his tactics, as Rabin often said) might have been misplaced. And the "blame Bibi" theory fails to take into account the fact that he actually continued the Oslo pattern of concessions in the Hebron agreement and the Wye Plantation accord.

Those who think that Rabin would have eventually shut the process down do not take into account the pressure he would have faced to keep it going - no matter how high the number of casualties from Palestinian terror, which never really ceased, even during the height of the Oslo euphoria.

Nor would it have been easy for even a strong man like Rabin to change directions regarding Oslo after he had put so much effort into changing the national conversation about peace.

As much as we should admire the life work of Yitzhak Rabin, all of the speculation about the impact his death had is an intellectual dead-end. The fate of the peace process was always in someone else's hands, not his. That person was Yasser Arafat; and if there is anything that we should have learned from the years after Rabin's murder, it is that he was always uninterested in the sort of peace advocated by Rabin.

No 'Original Sin'

It may be that the memory of Rabin's murder restrained some protesters against Ariel Sharon. The vitriol that was unleashed by extremists against Rabin was despicable. But blaming the huge numbers of ordinary decent Israelis who opposed the Oslo plan for the actions of one extremist was unfair, and was itself an attempt to restrain democratic dissent. Those bent on using Rabin's murder to prove the "original sin" of Oslo's critics are not promoting communal peace.

In the end, the impressive achievements - as well as the complex and often contradictory policies of Rabin - will remain for historians to pick over. As for the rest of us here, all we are left with is a stained-glass image of a martyr for peace.

As such, the date of Rabin's death has already become yet another lesson for young Diaspora Jews to learn about in Hebrew school. It may well be that future generations of Jewish children will continue to draw Yitzhak Rabin peace pictures, just as they will draw scenes of the heroic Maccabees a few weeks later.

But this kind of symbol isn't really helpful to those who wonder whether a renewed search for peace with the Palestinians will again prove as futile as Rabin's hopes for Arafat.

Still, the Rabin icon isn't a bad lesson for the kids. Nor is it one that I suspect the flinty Rabin would have minded.

Jonathan S. Tobin is reachable via e-mail at: [email protected].

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