Yitzhak Rabin

Twenty-Five Years Ago Today

Rabin Arafat Handshake.jpeg

25 years ago today. My G-d.

I was alone in my apartment in Jersey City, just days before Rosh Hashanah, watching the ceremony with tears streaming down my face. What killed me was when Rabin said, "Enough," and then went on to recite Oseh Shalom Bimeromav...

Even looking at this photo today, with Arafat's devilish grin, I can see Rabin's obvious reluctance. The old warrior had every reason to be reticent, and not to trust Arafat, the founder of suicide bombing and terrorism as a political tactic. But he did it. He did it because he knew the status quo was not acceptable, not tenable. The children of Israelis and the children of Palestinians had the right to a better future than the present.

There is so much water under the bridge since then. There have been many failures, but I reject outright that the whole endeavor that reached a high point here was a failure. History is a flow, a dynamic movement of streams and eddies. This moment in time shows what is possible, what can happen, what can be striven for. I still find inspiration in it, and Rabin - the lifelong warrior who understood better than anyone Israel's security needs - remains my hero, precisely because his vision of peace wasn't a hands-across-the-water, pie-in-the-sky dream, but one born of painful reality. Rabin’s reluctance made him real. He know the blood toll that Israel had paid in its history; he knew what Arafat was. But he recognized that a moment had arrived that would not be available forever.

It was a recognition that pragmatic peace rooted in reality is the best promise of security for everyone. With every well-rehearsed caveat - I know them well - I still believe that to be true.

Oslo on Broadway: The Long Shorter Road

“There is a short road that is actually long, and a long road that is actually short.”
a young boy to Rabbi Yehoshua, Talmud, Eruvin 53b

The play Oslo opened this week on Broadway: a timely, talky drama set in 1993 during the secret talks between Israelis and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, at a time when it was illegal to speak to the PLO, which was rightly considered a terrorist organization. 

Like many shows and movies—Titanic comes to mind—the playwright has a challenge from the start. Everyone knows how the story ends: on the White House lawn, with a famous handshake between Yasir Arafat and a visibly ambivalent Yitzhak Rabin, and a sense of euphoria in the air that perhaps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict truly is over. And after that: waves of Palestinian terrorism; Rabin’s murder by a Jewish extremist; the ascent of Hamas in Gaza; failed follow-up deals; the Second Intifada; 9/11; the dismantling of Israeli settlements in Gaza; several wars with Hezbollah and Hamas; and the election of Israel’s most right-wing government in history. Spoiler alert: peace doesn’t break out.

The playwright J.T. Rogers has discovered real drama not in headlines, but among second-tier politicians who struggle, negotiate, and yell (a lot) behind closed doors. It begins almost on a whim, by a married couple who want to see if peace can be negotiated away from the media, with the parties sequestered in a distant land. Mona Juul was a Norwegian foreign ministry official (later she became Ambassador to Israel) and her husband Terje Rød-Larsen a renowned sociologist. They launched the secret negotiations in Oslo, shuttling back and forth as intermediaries, and on occasion all but locking the adversaries in a room to deal with each other. Rød-Larsen constructed strict rules of organizational psychology—in the common spaces, over food and drink, everything was off-the-record, and the participants’ real humanity was allowed to materialize.

The playwright makes clear that the people are real, but the dialogue is invented and chronologies condensed. Onstage, it works: the soliloquies are big and passionate, the arguments are turbulent. As an audience member with a perspective on these things, I wanted to jump on stage and argue and point out distortions.

Best of all, real human beings are allowed to emerge. Ahmed Qurie, a Palestinian banker and key figure in the Fatah Central Committee, is drawn as funny, impassioned, and articulate; the Israeli Chief Negotiator Uri Savir steals many scenes with his outrageous exuberance. The characters drink lots of Scotch, which may be a suggestion for future negotiators.

Oslo artfully sidesteps hoary clichés—that the first step to peace is knowing your neighbor; that you don’t make peace with dinner-party guests, you make peace with enemies. One of the most insidious things about clichés is that occasionally they turn out to be true. In this case, we observe… if not warmth, at least a sense of recognition between the parties across the table. That alone should be a source of both aspiration and inspiration.

Today Oslo is bandied about in Israel as political shorthand: by the left as the seedling of an inevitable process, and by the right for futile dreams when there is no willing peace partner.

As for me, I remember the morning of September 13, 1993, watching the White House ceremony on C-Span in my Jersey City apartment. I remember how Arafat showed up in military fatigues, violating one of the understandings. I recall Rabin’s extraordinary speech, where he uttered the prayer Oseh Shalom Bim’romav, and invited everyone to seal it with an “Amen.” And, my God, I remember sobbing when that handshake happened.

It was as close as we’ve ever come. Subsequently it all fell apart. So was Oslo worth anything, or was it a pipe dream?

I stubbornly believe that Oslo was about possibility; that is the play’s perspective as well. As an anonymous child taught Rabbi Yehoshua in the Talmud, there are apparent shortcuts that ultimately turn out to be endless. And there are roads that seem long and arduous, but ultimately are the most direct path to a destination.

So it is with peacemaking. There are those on the left and the right who claim to have magical, simplistic formulae, which often involve the demonization of one side or the other. But the truth is: the situation is complex. There are no simple solutions. Yet Oslo showed that breakthroughs can happen, that honest people can talk to each other, and that the long road of negotiation ultimately is the only road there is.

Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Dan Ephron

Twenty years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a horrible question arises: Was the murder a complete and unmitigated success?

I remember exactly where I was on November 4, 1995:  dozing with family on a lazy Shabbat afternoon. The TV was on, and it grabbed our attention when the program cut to breaking news. Rabin had just been shot, and was later confirmed killed, on his way toward the parking garage after a big peace rally in Tel Aviv.

It pains me even now, two decades later, to write the next sentence. But I knew in my kishkes right away that it was not a Palestinian terrorist who had murdered Rabin. I knew this was the work of a Jew. I doubted an Arab attacker would infiltrate a Tel Aviv rally of hundreds of thousands of Jews and be able to get to the Prime Minister. A Jewish terrorist, on the other hand, would slide through the crowd with ease. 

And I had seen firsthand the underbelly of violence fomenting in the Jewish community. The opposition (Mr. Netanyahu) had no problem, in the months prior to the murder, rallying beneath images portraying Rabin in an Arab kaffiyeh or with a Hitler mustache. Rabin, who had dared propose peace, was vilified among the Jewish right.

But worse than that: there were code words. Rabin, they insisted, was a boged (traitor), a rodef (one who is in active pursuit of a potential victim), and a moser (one who informs against Jews to non-Jewish authorities). Those are loaded terms, because in the Halachic world they could be interpreted to mean: Such a person could legally and morally be killed in order to halt his treachery. This was gasoline being poured on smoldering embers, waiting for the right fanatic to spark the flames of violence.

The publication of Dan Ephron’s Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel is timely, coinciding not only with the ugly anniversary, but also with waves of violence in Israel from the hands of Jewish extremists. 

Ephron begins the saga with the events leading up to the historic peace signing on the White House lawn in September 13, 1993. On that day Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and PLO President Yasser Arafat signed the historic peace accords that set in motion a dizzying new direction for the Middle East. Suddenly, nations around the world were making diplomatic overtures to Israel. It sparked a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994 (the first Arab state to do so since the treaty with Egypt in 1979). Rabin, Peres, and Arafat were all awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But the peace process also triggered more insidious responses. A wave of terrorism was launched against Israel. Hamas rose to power in Gaza, positioning itself as a more radical voice of the Palestinian street. And right-wing Jewish radicals seethed. On Purim 1995, Baruch Goldstein (yimach sh’mo—may his name be blotted out), a 38 year-old doctor and captain in the army reserve, walked into the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and massacred 29 Muslims at prayer and wounded 100 others. In some religious quarters, rabbis and students debated—in an ostensibly theoretical way—whether or not Jewish law mandated that Rabin should be put to death.

Ephron tells two distinct narratives (distinct, that is, until they come together at the denouement). One is Rabin, the unsentimental, battle-hardened leader, who had doubts but still concluded that peace with the Palestinians was pragmatic, strategic, and sensible.

The other narrative is of a young Yemeni Jew, Yigal Amir. Amir did not grow up in what was considered Israel’s incubators for radicals, the remote settlements in Judea and Samaria; he was from Herzliya, a small Mediterranean city north of Tel Aviv. He was a student at Bar Ilan University, than (and now) a mainstream Orthodox college for Jewish and secular studies.

The story of Amir’s radicalization is sobering. Amir spoke openly about killing Rabin to a circle of peers and family. He and his brother gradually accumulated an arsenal of weapons hidden in their family home. Yet somehow on that tragic night he was able to enter the garage where Rabin’s car was parked and loiter there for the better part of an hour. 

One astonishing detail is Amir’s utter remorselessness. Tel Aviv was his third attempt to murder the Prime Minister. In early 1995, he attempted to get close to Rabin at Yad Vashem, at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (can you imagine if the Prime Minister of Israel was assassinated by a Jew at such an event at such a place?). In April, he tried again to get close to Rabin at a Mimouna celebration in Jerusalem. He had been a known quantity to Shabak, Israel’s security services. And after Amir was in police custody, he acknowledged what he had done and why. He even returned to the square in Tel Aviv and walked police through the series of events, explaining exactly how he shot Rabin.

In the weeks after the assassination, there was some genuine hand wringing from the right wing religious Zionist camp. There seemed to be an acknowledgment that a virus was replicating itself in certain yeshivot and in the settlements: a virus that was radical, violent, and placed its loyalty in extremist rabbis rather than in the laws and institutions of the State of Israel. There seemed to be a spirit of honest Teshuvah.

But that self-reflection faded. Amir became a hero to many. (I recently argued with an Israeli friend about whether or not Amir would be paroled in his lifetime. He is convinced that one day it will be politically prudent for a Prime Minister to pardon Amir. I disagree, but the prospect chills me to the bone.) And conspiracy theories began to flourish among those who would exonerate Amir. Was the murder an inside job with Amir as the fall guy? Who yelled “They’re blanks!” when Amir fired his gun, causing confusion among the bodyguards and secret service agents? And what was the role of an embarrassing rogue Shabak informant, Avishai Raviv?

Ephron strikes a proper balance: He dismantles the conspiracy theories in a few pages without granting them too much legitimacy.

Today, the lessons of 20 years ago seem forgotten. Israel is currently governed by its most right-wing coalition in history. Recent months have seen a proliferation of “price-tag” attacks on Palestinians. So-called “hilltop youth” have become folk heroes of a sort among elements of Israeli society. Reclaiming the Temple Mount for Jewish prayer—once considered to be an extremely radical and inflammatory position—has gained traction this season as political wedge issue.

And certain settler rabbis continue to preach hatred and armed conflict in the name of G-d.  I have no doubt that behind closed doors, there are many Israelis who say, “You know, Rabin was a boged. He deserved to be killed.” 

Ephron’s gut-wrenching book deserves to be widely discussed in the pro-Israel community. Frankly, it’s haunted me since I read it. Somewhere tonight Yigal Amir sits in prison, aware that the modern Middle East is different because of him. Somewhere there are people who still drink L’chayim! to Amir as a hero. Somewhere, radical rabbis are giving drashot inciting their followers to embrace their hate—and their guns.

Killing a King reminds us that hateful words erupt into hateful deeds. If it inspires us to be counterpoints to Amir and his ilk—to elucidate a Judaism and a Zionism based on mutual respect and peace—then it will be more than just a timely reminder. It will be a Mitzvah.