Missing Yitzchak Rabin

Falling as it did this year so close to the seventy-third anniversary of Kristallnacht, when German and Austrian houses of worship literally went up in smoke and flame, I feel as if I personally haven’t paid enough attention to the sixteenth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.

Jewish history provides us with too many catastrophes for any person to comfortably contemplate. To be sure, in signaling, as it did, the willingness of the Nazis to go to extraordinarily barbaric lengths to destroy European Jewry, Kristallnacht stands on its own as a harbinger of unimaginable cataclysm. As an event, it was sui generis. There is no comparing it to any other tragedy.

But having said that, the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, while not a harbinger of imminent cataclysm, was a clear and undeniable indicator of yet another dark truth. It exposed, for all to see, the deep fissure in Israeli society between religious and secular, and between those who view compromise with the Palestinians as the only way out of the current impasse, and those who see it as futile, and destined to end in violence.

There was much to admire about Prime Minister Rabin, not the least of which was his brilliance as a military leader. Those of us old enough to remember the Six Day War of 1967 will never forget his role in Israel’s remarkable victory, and the same is true of those who remember Israel’s War of Independence, though I can’t count myself as a part of that group. He was a legitimate Israeli war hero. But what I admired most about Prime Minister Rabin was that he was reflective enough, and courageous enough, to reconsider his long-held attitudes, and change course mid-stream.

The same man who declared that the way to deal with the riots of the first intifada was to “break their bones” came to believe that the only way to move beyond the seemingly endless cycle of violence was to make a previously inconceivable gesture of reconciliation- recognize the PLO- and begin a process of negotiation. Whether or not, as the architects of Oslo wanted to believe, it is possible to leave behind the competing narratives about the conflict’s origins and evolution and look exclusively towards a better future remains a questionable proposition. Time has not been particularly kind to Rabin’s vision, until this very day.

But here’s the thing. Rabin had a vision. He had a sense of where he wanted to go, and how he wanted to get there. He wasn’t scared to change his own framework for understanding the great problem of his time, and to act on that insight. His concern was not so much about staying in power as it was serving his people. As the teachers among us might say, compare and contrast that with today’s leaders, both in America and in Israel. Think what you might about his policies, but they were undeniably driven by a noble quest. His journey was what John Kennedy would have called a profile in courage. Of how many statesmen on today’s stage can we say the same thing?

How sad what we’ve been reduced to these days… the President of France calling the Prime Minister of Israel a liar, and the President of the United States essentially saying “I have to deal with him every day; you think you have it bad?” And, of course, the Prime Minister of Israel is a player in this most unhappy little drama, publicly lashing out at the American President when he doesn’t like his ideas about the peace process, in the White House, no less, addressing a joint session of the American Congress and playing the Republican-controlled chambers like a violin, as if the President was a peripheral bit player in American foreign policy… a performance I’m sure was not lost on President Obama.

Failed though the process was ultimately destined to be, I miss the sense that Prime Minister Rabin and President Clinton actually liked and respected each other, and were working in concert to create a better future for Arab and Israeli alike. I remember that charming picture of Clinton helping Rabin adjust his tuxedo tie before a state dinner. I remember how, when we were all grieving for Prime Minister Rabin and stunned by our loss, the very clear sense that our American President was in as much pain as we were when he said “Shalom, Chaver” made me feel more connected to America than I had in a very long time.

But most of all, I miss having an Israeli leader who was willing, and strong enough, to look at the Arab-Israeli conflict with fresh eyes. And yes- I miss having an American President whom I really felt- in my gut- understood Israel enough to appreciate her richly earned insecurities and help her work them through. I do believe that President Obama has a vision, but he seems remarkable incapable of advancing it. The current cast of characters leaves me longing for something better.

But most of all, I miss Prime Minister Rabin. Like Israeli recording artist Shlomo Artzi asked in his elegant tribute to the Prime Minister, Eifo yeshnam od anashim kmo ha’ish hahu… Where can we find other men like him? Rabin is- as ever- present in his absence.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.