I was at that peace rally in Tel Aviv, 22 years ago, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. And for most years since, I have marked that date by attending memorial rallies in that same square.
But this year, I won’t go to the annual rally in the square, because at this year’s rally, there will be another assassination—of Rabin’s memory, of the legacy of his murder and of any hope for the future of Israeli democracy.
This year’s rally has been organized by two groups, “Commanders for Israel’s Security” and “Darkeinu,” both of which claim to be non-partisan, broad-based civilian groups, under the slogan “Remember—We are one people.”
The glossy promos and social media blitz for the rally don’t mention the assassination, or the atmosphere that led to the murder, or the context in which the three shots that killed Rabin were fired. They don’t mention today’s divisive politics, toxic de-legitimization of the left or the corrosive arguments that are tearing our society apart. They don’t mention the current government’s attempts to cut back on the authority of the Supreme Court, to undermine civil institutions and to control the media. No, the organizers beckon, let’s forget about all that and stand together and remember that we are all one happy (Jewish, of course) people.
To be honest, part of me would like to be there, to wrap myself in the blanket of fuzzy consensus and belonging and to cuddle in the warmth of national unity. After more than a decade of this administration, I’m tired, and part of me would really like to stop struggling for what I believe is the soul of Israeli society.
But I know that to participate in a depoliticized rally demands that we forget that Rabin was assassinated because of his political positions, democratic ideals and visionary courage. To forget the conditions that led to the assassination is to forget that those same conditions are still here, right now.
I cannot and will not forget that the assassination was preceded by a campaign of delegitimization and demonization against Rabin and the entire camp that supported him in his efforts to give up parts of the Greater Land of Israel in order to reach a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That same demonization continues, and the right continues to incite against anyone who believes today, as Rabin did then, that we have to end the occupation and end Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people. Now, as then, being a “leftist” has become synonymous with being a traitor—whether you are an Arab or Jewish politician or civil society organization such as the New Israel Fund, Breaking the Silence or the Arab-Jewish theater in Jaffa.
A lone gunman, Yigal Amir, fired those three shots into Rabin’s back. But Amir himself testified that he would never have fired those shots without religious permission and spiritual encouragement from leading rabbis. None of those rabbis were ever brought to trial; some of the continue to hold respected public positions—paid for by the taxpayers—to this day. And religious leaders continue to use religious dogma as an excuse for base political goals: Earlier this week, an ultra-Orthodox Member of Knesset compared Reform and Conservative Jews and Women of the Wall to dogs.
The attack on Rabin was not merely an attempt to kill his policies; it was an assassination attempt on democracy. At the time, the right insisted that Rabin was dividing the people because he relied on “Arab votes”—that is, he was demonized because he was the only prime minister in Israel’s history to date who was willing to buck the unstated—and patently undemocratic—consensus that Israel’s crucial decisions should be made by a “Jewish majority.” Rabin pursued his policies based on a majority of all of Israel’s citizens. And the deligitimization of a democratic majority continues—during the last elections, Netanyahu called on Jewish voters to go to the polls because, he warned, the Arabs “were turning out in droves.” Last week, President Reuven Rivlin warned that Israel “was witnessing the winds of a second revolution or coup.”
The organizers of the rally have published the list of speakers. The (very, very long) list includes representatives across most of the spectrum of Israeli society—ultra-Orthodox and secular, men and women, older and younger, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, military heroes and civil society leaders. One of the speakers will be Esther Brut, who was recently evacuated from her (illegal) home in the West Bank settlement of Ofra. In their formulaic search for unity, the organizers obviously felt that they must include a settler, too. Speaking to the media earlier this week, Brut announced that she is “sick and tired of introspection” and that she has paid enough of a price for democracy.
But collective introspection is precisely what we need. Israeli society is being torn apart by its disagreements—between the belief in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and the belief in the Greater Land of Israel; between the vision of a pluralistic, egalitarian society and populist definitions of nationalism; between the primacy of democratic process and the centrality of ideology. Being sick and tired of introspection won’t help us to resolve these differences; nor will covering them over with a sticky-sweet goo of forced unity. The way to deal with them is, first and foremost, to acknowledge them and then to find a way to talk about them honestly—and then to learn to differentiate between faith and fanaticism, and between communication and demagoguery.
Twenty-two years ago, I stood at that rally, filled with hope for peace, democracy, equality and Israeli society. Yigal Amir killed Rabin and tried to kill that hope, too. Today, to truly honor Rabin’s memory, we should hold a rally that emphasizes our differences and the gaps between us and challenges us to cope with them. We don’t know how to do that. But I do know that to stand in the same square where Rabin was murdered and deny our differences is to dishonor his memory and to accept that we will never learn to cope with ourselves.
Ultimately, that would mean the end of any hope for Israeli society. I’m not willing to accept that.