I consider myself to be an incorrigible optimist. I’m an eternal searcher for glasses half full and silver linings. Yet, there was a day on which I couldn’t find a glimpse of optimism or a spark of hope. It was November 4, 1995, when an assassin killed Yitzhak Rabin and ended one of the most prolific and transformational lives in the history of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
Assassin is a fairly common word. Yet, not a lot of people know its origin. The “assassins” were a sect of Muslim fanatics in the 14th century who would set out to kill their political or religious opponents–especially within their own people–after being intoxicated with hashish. “Assassin,” in fact, derives from the word “hashish.”
Yigal Amir was not high on hashish when he pulled the trigger. But he was indeed intoxicated. He was intoxicated by the belief that he owned the truth; by the conviction that a political adversary is an enemy. He was intoxicated by radicalism, by the idea that disagreement isn’t legitimate, and that all means are valid to achieve an end. He had been slowly but surely inebriated by the degradation of the political discourse, by the lack of civility that transforms those who disagree with me into ‘”traitors.”
Throughout our history, the most powerful empires of the world tried to destroy the Jewish people: from the Egyptians to the Crusaders, from the Romans to the Soviet Union, from the Greeks to the Nazis. Nobody succeeded. All those empires collapsed and crumbled.
After 3,500 years of ineffective attempts, we can safely assume that nobody can destroy the Jewish people. Nobody, that is, except the Jewish people. That is why, for me, November 4 was such a devastating day. I’m not afraid of those who, from the outside, try to destroy us. Racists and anti-Semites are pathetic to me. I know they, too, are going to be swallowed in the gutters of history.
But I’m mortally afraid of Yigal Amir and his ilk. I’m scared of Jewish radicals, left and right, even when–thank G-d–they don’t actually assassinate anybody. Yigal Amir was intoxicated by a vision of Judaism that is profoundly anti-Jewish. Jews gave the world the dignity of difference. Our forefathers went to martyrdom to defend the right to be different, to think differently, and to defend their freedom of conscience. They would die for their ideas rather than kill for them.
However, today we live in a world in which radicalization seems to be the norm. From the political debates in the U.S. to the discussions around multiculturalism in Europe, from Shi’ites and Sunnis to nationalist clashes in Southeast Asia, the entire world appears to be on the same drug. Jews are also affected by this phenomenon.
The Jewish world is polarized to an unprecedented level. We see rampant de-legitimization of other Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. We don’t dialogue, we pontificate; we don’t learn; we give lessons. We don’t listen, we reload.
As extreme as Yigal Amir’s act was, it reflects an ugliness that is becoming ingrained in our public discourse; of an intolerance that brews – incredibly – inside the most tolerant of peoples. So what is, then, our “detox?” First, we need to take a hard look at ourselves and how we think of and speak to each other.
We need to purge our public discourse of accusations and name calling. We need a cure of humility, to admit we may be wrong and that the Truth (with a capital T) is a beautiful patchwork made up of the sum of the little pieces of truth that each of us holds.
We need to re-learn what we once knew so well: to embrace instead of judging; to listen instead of screaming. The richness of the Jewish people is our capacity to take the best of the world and reject the worst.
Jews will outlive any external enemy. The only thing that can destroy us is “sin’at chinam,” “internecine gratuitous hatred.” Fighting that hatred and intolerance with all our might–wherever it comes from–may well be the best way we can honor Rabin’s memory.