History lies open, we remind ourselves. Freedom means we each of us can change our lives, perhaps the lives of others, even our communities and the world, however grandiose that may sound. But the river of time flows only into the future. We approach the past with reverence and with humility recognizing that we cannot undo it. It stands before us, remorselessly reminding us of our successes and failures, things done and undone.
Sometimes we make history out to be cleaner less messy than reality actually plays, a neat and tidy story with a beginning a middle and an end. Studying process tires us out and humbles us, reminding us how much lies beyond control or even comprehension. We therefore seize upon and set up turning points, events and moments that in popular parlance today we call game changers. Some of those moments over time perhaps fade not only in memory but also even in our analytical view of their relative importance or unimportance.
But some events ought not to fade from view, happenings that one cannot overestimate as representing some sort of sharp turn in the bend of the river. I think of the death of Yitzkak Rabin as such a moment, not a slow gradual curve but an abrupt sharp break in the fabric of Israel’s history, indeed the history of the Middle East, and in the history of the Jewish people. And I would guess that people across the political spectrum at least agree on the magnitude of this turning point.
Rabin made peace, or at least a peace agreement. Two in fact. The peace with Jordan and King Hussein seemed so natural even then that we barely remember it today, a peace with a neighbor with whom we often enjoyed placid relations and indeed a neighbor with whom even undovish figures like Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir worked for a certain kind of view of the region as a series of federated states with open borders, aiming toward what we might call a Start-Up Region.
The other peace gambit was and remains much larger and controversial, the attempt to create a viable Palestinian state and with it an actual two-state reality in the land which the British gave up in 1948. However distasteful and reluctant Rabin’s body language appeared when he shook Arafat’s hand at the White House in 1993, the Oslo Accords happened on his watch. It signaled his view and strategy of the next chapter of Israel’s history, when it would he thought get smaller and more secure, an equation which many observers thought wrong and even illogical, but which in his view returned Israel to a more secure reality in domestic affairs and in geopolitical terms as well.
In inking this agreement he not only challenged the classical Zionist and in particular the rightist maximalist view of the nexus of land and power, he also sought to resecularize Israel’s history. The territories of post-’67 galvanized a messianic impulse within Religious Zionism; this energy actualized as settlement naturally led religious Zionist settlers to feel they now lived the values and virtues of classical Zionist pioneering and self-sacrifice. Rabin, probably more instinctually than philosophically, sought to wrest Israel’s statecraft from this messianic religious and ultimately anti-democratic impulse. In so doing he signed his own death warrant.
Two thoughts of Rabin remind me of the power of the Zionist idea and how much his death marks a turning point in the life course of the Jewish state. As someone who spent much of his adult life as a military leader, Rabin approached the Arabs in general and I think the Palestinians in particular from a deep place of confidence in Israel’s ability to defend itself. This reflected his faith in his fellow Israelis, and the knowledge that their social strength constituted the key ingredient in their state’s political and existential will and ability to defend itself. It also reflected his appraisal, very much a product of the shifting dynamics of the Middle East, of the strength of Israel relative to its regional neighbors, including most immediately the Palestinians inside and beyond the Green Line.
I have always believed that armed with such trust in his fellow citizens Rabin approached Oslo as in effect a divorce rather than anything remotely like a marriage to a problematic partner. For the sake of preserving the Jewish and democratic character of the Zionist state he viewed separation as politically necessary and strategically defensible. A hedgehog more than a fox, that constituted his big idea: a deep confidence in the strength of the Jewish people, the Israeli people and their state, and the need to safeguard its character from an easily defeated enemy better marginalized outside than inside its borders.
In the historical sense this reminds us of perhaps the deepest revolution Zionism sought to effect in not just the Jewish body but in the Jewish psyche. Jews needed to become bullish, open and optimistic about the necessity of and opportunity to see history as open. This effectively disentangled Jews from anti-Semitism, not in the magical sense of pretending to be more physically secure than they were from prejudice and discrimination and violence but in the existential sense of no longer navigating by the light of what others shone at them. Jews must determine for themselves what it meant to live a life of human dignity, not Gentiles. That meant embracing the future, and either ignoring the dark recesses of the Jewish past or re-presenting Jewish history as about much more than suffering.
In these various ways we see Rabin’s assassination as a turning point. It removed the central actor driving disengagement from the Palestinians via the occupation of the territories. It revealed the increasing fragmentation of Israeli society that deepened without centrist figures like Rabin. It put increasingly on the defensive those thinkers and actors who dared question the equation of more land equaling more security if not peace. And perhaps most tragically it set Israel on a course that increasingly sees the future with trepidation rather than anticipation. If revolution begins with the power of a life changing life-affirming idea, the loss of the idea of hope and confidence trumping fear marks a great loss indeed. Many of us mourn Rabin and miss him. We should mourn and miss what he represented even more.