Remembering Rabin: Own Your Story — and Know the History
The evening of November 4, 1995 was a Saturday night that started off like any other. Immediately upon extinguishing the havdalah 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, 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 committed 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 him 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 at the outset of the war, Rabin succumbed to crippling anxiety and exhaustion, and eventually broke down. Rabin was a hero, yes — but a hero with flaws.
Even in the eventual joy of victory, Rabin felt pained by its cost. 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 that can be traced directly to Rabin was Operation Thunderbolt, which has been memorialized on 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. 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. Though Rabin survived many wars, it was ultimately the war for peace that 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 Israeli Jews.
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, and 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 Pollyanna-ish 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 my organization, 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 29 (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.
Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President of Education at Jerusalem U. He leads the education vision and implementation at Jerusalem U with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.