The greatness of Yitzhak Rabin

By A. Friend

Yitzhak Rabin was a warrior, a statesman, a diplomat, a hero, a pioneer, a kibbutznik, a sabra, a Zionist, a peacemaker and in the end, a martyr. The Bible says “the lion that lie down with the sheep and man shall beat spears into plowshares,” it says “blessed are the peacemakers.” Rabin was blessed, as Jews intone when they say the kaddish, “blessed is his memory.”

Rabin was the penultimate embodiment of the hopes and dreams of Jews worldwide and also many people in the world. He provided hope, a light unto the nations, as Jews say “to fix the world.” He devoted his life to fixing that world, to conquering injustice, and to setting right the wrongs.

Rabin was born into a warm and loving house of devoted Zionists in Jerusalem, members of the third aliyah, the greatest aliyah, who had fled the ashes of Europe. His parents dreamed of trying to make a state for the Jewish people, a home from persecution, that millennial scourge, anti-semitism. As a young man he would have been familiar with real Zionists like Ahad Ha’am and Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, the humanistic Zionism that does not value conquest and power, but tolerance, multi-culturalism and diversity. He honed his Zionism like all the pioneers, on the fields of a kibbutz, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Humanism was his guiding force, but he understood that one must also make war when it is forced upon you. As if to symbolize that duality he married Leah, another pioneering Zionist of the mayflower generation who was a stalwart of an important Palmah newspaper, in the midst of the war. Zionism is about rebirth, and thus in the midst of war and dire threats to the states survival, with calls of “throw them into the sea” emanating from Arab capital cities, and an Egyptian army only a dozen miles south of Tel Aviv, he showed that the Jewish people were about rebirth and humanity.

Rabin also played a major role in one of the seminal events of early Israel, when the state was threatened by the dark forces of the right. When members of the Irgun, an organization widely considered terrorists by well known Jews such as Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein, tried to bring in arms to form a rival militia, Rabin commanded the forces that ensured the survival of democratic Israel.   One can see a direct line in his life between that formative moment and his assassination. The right in Israel worships force and, as many civil society groups such as ACRI have pointed out, there is a tradition of anti-democracy in the right.

Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan with IDF soldiers in 1973

Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan with IDF soldiers in 1973

Already in 1949 he showed his peaceful motivations when he took part in the Rhodes discussions with Egypt, seeking to end war between the two states. But Rabin stayed in the army and understood that the nascent Jewish state would have to seek peace while also being prepared for war. In 1967 he led what is considered one of the greatest military operations in history and defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria in six days of war as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.

After the war he went into politics. In those days in Israel the party that had led the state since independence and which was responsible for making deserts bloom, Labor, was still in charge, before the dark days of anti-democracy and messianism took their hold. Rabin became the youngest Prime Minister in the country’s history, one of the youngest world leaders, in 1974. In his relaxed cream-colored suits and living an entirely secular life, he represented humanist progressive Judaism. He was an icon to many and a hero to most. When he gave the orders to rescue hostages at Entebbe he did so after exhausting all means towards a peaceful conclusion of the crises, and the iconic image of the hostages being freed was under his watch.

Although some historians still believe that it was Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin who created the first peace treaty between Israel and its neighbors, it was in fact Rabin who saw the chances for peace first in 1975 when he signed the interim Sinai agreement with Egypt. It was his vision that paved the way for the Camp David Accords with Egypt.

Palestinian women at a checkpoint;  (Seth J. Frantzman)

Palestinian women at a checkpoint; (Seth J. Frantzman)

Unfortunately Menachem Begin and his radical extreme right government came to power in 1977 and launched the settlement movement in Israel, forever endangering Zionism and harming Israel’s pristine image abroad. With Rabin out of power Jews abroad began to wonder “is this what Zionism is? Brute force and chauvinism and religious extremism?” The rise of Begin was driven on by religious extremism and Mizrahi voters, whose culture many academics have pointed out was not European and who refused to adapt to the European and humanist values of Rabin and his enlightened and progressive politics. But whenever Rabin could he tried to influence Israel for the better. In 1984 when he became defense minister, in the wake of the brutal Sabra and Shatilla massacre, he withdrew Israeli forces from Lebanon as much as he could, leaving them in a tiny security area near the border. He wanted Lebanon to be free and sought peace with Lebanon.

When he became Prime Minister in 1992 he saw that his dreams and those of his generation for a peaceful progressive Israel based on European and democratic values was threatened by the continued occupation of the West Bank. He had long felt that the Palestinians should not be controlled by Israel and immediately set himself to extricating Israel from the disastrous policies the right wing had forced upon it. Gone were the days of social justice and kibbutzim, he saw now chauvinism and settler expansionsionism. He recalled, perhaps, how he had stood up against the Irgun in 1948 and how once again the nation was being tested.

In the Oslo Accords he sought to provide Palestinians rights and self-determination, and democracy and human rights. Palestine would live peacefully side by side with Israel. The warrior beat his spear into a plowshare, and became a ‘warrior for peace’ as his biographers called him. He couldn’t know that in just three short years his plans to save Palestinians and grant them a state and make Israel a light unto the nations would be struck down.

Incitement and extremism led to Rabin’s death. Free speech was abused to become hate speech. The assassin of Rabin was not a lone gunmen but part of a sub-culture of violence and he was encouraged by the radical right.

Rabin dared to dream of peace and he paid the ultimate price for his dreams. What is most tragic about his story is that he was killed by a Jew, one of his own, a member of the tribe. Like the story of Cain and Abel, it was his brother who slew him. As with Caesar, it was one of his own who killed him, and as with Caesar, it was part of a culture of hate and conspiracy.

Rabin was the last hope of Israel. With his death the hope of peace died. He was a warrior peacemaker, a member of the founding generation, a mayflower Zionist, a kibbutznik, a secular open minded liberal Zionist. Before him Israel had hope, to be the state that it could be. After him the evil legacies of the dark Israel marched on; more settlements, more incitement, attacks on democracy and human rights, racism, segregation, and what many in Rabin’s government have identified as apartheid. Rabin understood that peace “entails difficulties, even pain.” In his last speech he said that he would create “a peace that will solve most of the problems of the State of Israel. I was a military man…I fought as long as there were no prospects for peace…today I believe that there are prospects for peace.”

Rabin’s legacy and the light he held is still marching on with his descendants. His daughter, an influential Israeli lawmaker in her own right, is chair of the Rabin Center which helps educate Israelis about peace and democracy. His son Yuval embodies his father’s spirit and is a leader towards peace. The Rabin family shows that his legacy shall never go out. Liberal Zionists, progressive Jews find it increasingly hard to identify with Israel, but they can identify with Rabin. Even though all hope for peace was likely destroyed with him, and no one in Israel can match his greatness, his legacy, his stature, his daring and courage, that does not mean one cannot mourn. Every year we remember Rabin. He transcends Israel, he is a world symbol of peace, the one man who sought to give Palestinians a state, who dared to stand up to Israel and hold up a mirror to it and ask it which society it wants to be. A society of peace, love, social justice, human rights, or a society of religious extremism, right wing extremism, chauvinistic extremism, fascism, darkness, evil, ruled by the likes of thuggish immigrants with Soviet backgrounds and backwards types out of step with Europe who do not embrace European progressive modern humanist values, who are akin to ISIS and McCarthyism.

Rabin was the first post-modernist. The greatest of Israel’s greatest generation. Youth today can still experience his legacy in the numerous parks and roads named after him. They see in them the beautiful Israel, the one that died on the 4th of November, 1995.

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