Rabin on my mind

Back to the grim political posting.

I've been on a bit of a Rabin assassination binge lately. In addition to attending the Tel Aviv rally commemorating the 20th anniversary of the assassination last weekend, I recently read Dan Ephron's excellent new book on the assassination, Killing a King. In no particular order, here are some thoughts on the assassination, the aftermath, and the recent commemorative events.

Obviously, the rally was mostly in Hebrew (except for a speech by Bill Clinton and a recorded video message from President Obama), and my Hebrew's still at the point where I only understand one out of every five to ten words, particularly when I'm listening to Hebrew spoken quickly over a public address system. I can say, though, that I heard the word "democratia" (democracy) far more often than I heard the word "shalom" (peace). This, and much of the other discourse around the anniversary, surprised me-as an American Jew, I'd always thought that the primary trauma of the Rabin assassination was that was intended to wreck the peace process, and that it did, in some respects, wreck the peace process. I would have assumed that speakers would have used the anniversary to reiterate Israel's commitment to peace, and wouldn't have felt it necessary to reiterate its commitment to democracy.

In talking to Israelis, reading Ephron's book, and reading news coverage around the anniversary, I realized that I was somewhat mistaken. For a lot of Israelis, it seems that the primary trauma of Rabin's assassination was that it undermined the ideal of a democratic Israel. Unlike some assassinations of political figures, which are the product of mental illness or esoteric, unachievable political goals, Rabin's assassination was, essentially, one political faction attempting to accomplish by force what it couldn't achieve at the ballot box. While Yigal Amir was at least nominally independent of mainstream right-wing movements, at least some relatively mainstream actors in Israeli society shared his views and his rhetorical justification of his actions, and they got what they wanted in the wake of Rabin's assassination via the election of Netanyahu and the collapse of the Oslo process.

This, at least to my mind and I think to many Israelis, makes the Rabin assassination much more of a threat to democracy than, say, the Kennedy assassination, which wasn't tied to any organized political platform in the same way (at least, of course, if you accept the Warren Commission). This also makes it much more of a national trauma-it's one thing to lose your leader to a deranged lunatic (which is traumatic in its own right), it's much worse to lose your leader to an organized movement, because the latter implies that there's a faction in society that's completely rejected the legitimacy of democracy. It also implies that there's more violence to come, because, well, if it works once, how can you stop people from taking the lesson that it'll work again? It's probably especially traumatic in the Israeli context, because Israelis are largely refugees from political violence of one form or another, and because it's hard to ignore the reality that Israel is surrounded by states where political violence is a frequent reality. With all that in mind, I suppose it's not that surprising that Israelis would use the 20th anniversary to reiterate their commitment to democracy, given the profound threat that the Rabin assassination posed to democracy and the profoundly traumatic implications of that fact for Israelis.

Some other thoughts: 

I was shocked to learn that no current Israeli elected officials  participated in the commemoration. Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, participated, but the role of president is a largely symbolic one, and the president is not directly elected. Netanyahu et al did not participate. For an American, this is hard to understand-the 20th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination occurred during the Reagan administration, and I can't imagine that Reagan would have avoided public commemorations, even though Reagan and Kennedy had vastly different views on the future of the United States.

Netanyahu had a fairly substantial role in the anti-Rabin incitement leading up to the assassination. He famously spoke at a rally during which people waved pictures of Rabin in an SS uniform and burned pictures of Rabin. Concerned by the incitement, several conservative politicians left the rally, but Netanyahu stayed. Some people blamed Netanyahu for fanning the flames after the assassination. I wonder if Rabin's family asked him to stay away from the commemoration, given the perception that he had a role in the incitement, or if he chose to stay away on his own out of a sense of guilt. 

Bill Clinton gave a very interesting speech. It was interesting partially because he seemed on the verge of tears for the duration, and he described the day of Rabin's assassination as the worst day of his presidency. I had no idea he was so strongly affected by it. It was also interesting because of the content. You can read more about it at the Haaretz link above, but the framing of his speech was basically that Israelis have a choice: they can follow Rabin's path, the difficult path to peace, or they can follow the path of his killer and the forces supporting him.

Within American political discourse about Israel, Clinton's speech can be considered a profoundly radical message, since the tendency of American political discourse is to absolve Israel of any moral responsibility for its actions whatsoever. Even President Obama, the Kenyan socialist Muslim Marxist anti-Semite, gave a fairly anodyne speech. I wonder to what extent this kind of conversation occurs behind closed doors in the American foreign policy establishment. It certainly seems to be more realistic, and more in line with the discussion about Israel within Israel (one of the speakers, Rabin's grandson, said that Israel must immediately recognize a Palestinian state, or it would lose the ability to call itself a democracy. Can you imagine what would happen if an American politician said that?!?) than what goes on in America. I hope that some right-wing drone doesn't turn Bill's speech into an anti-Hillary attack ad.