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Untethered incitement, then and now

Israel must reckon with the political nature of Rabin's assassination and its fallout to diffuse its toxic climate

This past Saturday, 21 years after the fateful night when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, tens of thousands of Israelis gathered at that very site to put an end to the most destructive myth in Israel’s recent history. They came out, in full force, to push back against the canard that, in the words of coalition leader David Bitan, “this was not a political murder, and it had nothing to do with politicians.” Finally — a generation after the despicable act that dramatically altered Israel’s course — they began the slow, painful, necessary process of rectifying the historical record; only time will tell whether this will also help them to change the country’s trajectory.

There is nothing more political than the purposeful killing of a democratically-elected leader. How official Israel succeeded for so many years in hiding the causes, the means and the effects of Yigal Amir’s action in a dense bundle of cotton wool that substituted false unity for obligatory self-scrutiny is a topic that has yet to be fully unravelled (although it couldn’t have been done without the active collusion of those who lay claim to the slain Prime Minister’s legacy). Today, in the midst of the persistence of similar trends at home and their multiplication abroad, denying the profoundly political in the name of the instrumental is no longer an option.

Yitzhak Rabin was murdered within the thoroughly political context of the Oslo agreements. Zehava Galon put it starkly at the rally this weekend: “Rabin was murdered because…he believed in ending the occupation and dividing the land.” The issue of the future of the territories — the most divisive question in independent Israel’s history — was squarely on the table. It has always involved all Israeli citizens — cutting across groups, generations and families. To dismiss Rabin’s assassin, as Member of Knesset Bitan summarily did, as just “…one individual who wanted to stop the [peace] process,” is nothing short of ludicrous. Yigal Amir consciously and purposefully sought to eliminate the one person who had done more than anyone else to terminate the ongoing conflict between Israel and its neighbors. If this isn’t political, what is?

To this very day, Yigal Amir enjoys (some say growing) support in key sectors. Indeed, every year at the beginning of November, Rabin’s detractors find new ways to celebrate their success: for them, as long as his assassination is treated as an apolitical deviation, no connection can be drawn between his untimely demise and the effective cessation of any serious effort to achieve a just and lasting agreement with the Palestinians. But as his daughter, Dalia, so aptly recalled at this year’s memorial at Rabin’s grave: “Parts of the nation are still in denial and find ways to argue that maybe it was good to murder him.” She, along with many others, is not willing to ignore its inherently political character: “This murder was terrible. It is an open wound for us in the family, but it is also an open wound for our nation.”

The debate over the Oslo accords took place in an atmosphere of untethered incitement. Rabin was depicted as everything from a traitor to a Nazi. Right-wing politicians, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, stood by silently while his casket was paraded in Zion Square during his lifetime: a political statement if there ever was one. So when Minister of Culture Miri Regev recently insisted repeatedly that “Rabin was not killed by the media” (although her interviewer gently reminded her that “he was killed in reality”), it becomes even more difficult to ignore the role of incitement in the lead-up to the murder. How long can verbal harangues against political leaders continue without their distinctly political colors coming to light?

Apparently for quite some time, as virtually every speaker on the occasion of the commemoration of the 21st anniversary of Rabin’s assassination has been at pains to remind their audiences. Dalia Rabin made it clear that “the incitement from before has not ended.” Leader of the opposition Itzhak Herzog stressed that “the hatred is the same hatred, the incitement is the same incitement, and the leader is the same leader.” And Zehava Galon linked the ongoing hate discourse to official circles: “This incitement continues today in the corridors of government — against the rule of law, against the justices of the High Court, against civil society organizations, against Arab citizens and against the left.”

The “Hatred Report,” published this month by the Berl Katzenelson Foundation, indicated that the number of racist statements in the media during the past year alone reached the staggering figure of six million (a 50 percent rise during the past year alone). Over 175,000 calls for the use of violence were issued, mostly against Arab citizens of Israel and those identified with the left. Of these, 85% encouraged murder, rape and serious bodily harm. Tellingly, 83% of these involved in incitement to violence are men — although no significant gender differences were recorded in the use of foul language (“traitor,” “whore,” “shit,” “idiot”). With very few exceptions, these and similar epithets are hurled constantly within an avowedly political context — against state institutions, officeholders and elected officials.

Just as in the days of Yitzhak Rabin, the line between freedom of speech and incitement has never been clearly demarcated in Israel’s volatile public arena. Few were sufficiently sensitive to the ease with which this line was crossed then; it should therefore surprise no one were it to be trespassed again today. The discourse of hatred and belittlement of the other that allowed for the violation of the public sphere in the mid-1990s not only continues unabated; without the application of official brakes, thanks to technological advancements it has been refined and expanded exponentially since.

There is nothing more political than the nurturing of a climate that condones incitement. By definition, it systematically belittles state political institutions and undermines their legitimacy. It calls into question the robustness of the rules of the game (even when seemingly serving those in power at a given time). And it gives license to the erosion of the democratic ethos that has enabled governability even in the midst of vast disagreements.

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was thus directed against a political leader of the left, in the midst of a contested policy move of monumental significance, through the use of tools that consciously defied accepted rules and openly challenged democratic conventions. By any measure, its roots, context, and climate were political in every sense of the term — as are its ongoing effects.

The murder of Yitzhak Rabin was a turning point in Israeli politics. For more than two decades, the constant official denial of its essential political ingredients has served to underscore their salience. Perhaps, now that the scam of de-politicization is finally being exposed for what it is, it may be possible to finally confront that shattering event in the public square. By putting an end to the delusion of its apolitical nature Israelis, belatedly, may finally be able to come to terms with its consequences and begin to correct it distortions. The resuscitation of the political narrative of the Rabin assassination could well be the first step in the revival of the struggle for a sane, just and peaceful Israel, freed of the toxic effects of bigotry, intolerance and occupation that have permeated its being for too many years.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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