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Waking up to Rabin’s murder

The look on her father, Natan Sharansky's face 20 years ago was a lifelong lesson in national shame -- and pride

Twenty years ago today, on the twelfth of Cheshvan, three gunshots changed the State of Israel.

I was a child then, tucked away in bed long before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin collapsed to the ground. I remained peacefully asleep while the adults sat glued to their TV sets, anxious for news. And when Eitan Haber walked out of the hospital and announced Rabin’s death, I wasn’t there to exclaim in horror. I wasn’t there to feel shocked.

But the shock waves were still there the next day. And as I blinked into my father’s red eyes and the gray light of early morning, I knew that something terrible occurred.

I saw it in my father’s face. Never before did I see him so devoid of laughter. I heard it in his voice: “Something grave has happened,” he said, and the gravity was a tangible thing in the room.

“A Jew killed the prime minister.”

At nine years old, I was too young to understand the enormity of the news. But I could feel its effects all around me. My teachers were ashen-faced, and read Psalms in hushed voices. The adults in the streets seemed to avoid each other’s eyes. The radio played one somber song after another.

I was too young to hear the gunshots. I was too young to understand the hows and whys. But I knew, deep in my body, that the world around me had changed.

*   *   *

In my more cynical moments, I recall everyone’s shock on that terrible day, and wonder. Political assassinations happen everywhere, after all. Why such astonishment that it happened among us as well? Why should we be better than everyone else? There are violent people everywhere, after all. Our shock, concludes this version of myself, was the product of hubris.

But in better moments, I know that my cynical self misses the point. It may be arrogant to expect the best from ourselves. But we will never meet these expectations — we won’t become better and better — if we don’t have them in the first place.

*   *   *

In the years following the murder, I noticed many changes.

First, I noticed my teachers’ defensiveness. “We are not responsible for Rabin’s death,” they said, time and time again. “We had the right to disagree with his positions.” These statements seemed obvious to me. Superfluous, really. Why bother making them?

Then, I noticed the public atmosphere that raged around us.

Rabin’s murder unleashed a hurricane of public accusations. In those early years of shock and mourning, many Israelis shifted the blame from Yigal Amir to the camps they identified him with: the political right and Religious Zionism. Some accused us outright of desiring the murder. Others said that we disrespect democratic values. In many people’s eyes, disagreeing with the Oslo Accords was tantamount to supporting the murderer.

These accusations only truly hit me when I was twelve years old. My father spoke at a rally that marked the third anniversary of Rabin’s assassination. He came home late, and told us that he had been heckled by the crowd.

My father. Natan Sharansky. The man who stood for democracy even under the shadow of KGB threats. The man whose voice, when he said “something grave has happened,” carried the strongest condemnation of murder I have ever heard. The man who fasts every year on the anniversary of Rabin’s murder, to draw attention to the horror of political assassinations, as the Fast of Gedalia did two millennia ago.The man who has dedicated his life to democratic values.

This man was heckled, because he criticized the Oslo Accords and was a minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government at the time.

Suddenly, my teachers’ defensiveness made sense. Once the Oslo Accords became “Rabin’s Legacy,” a sacred corpus and a loyalty test, how could they not feel defensive? They were required to teach “Rabin’s Legacy,” and their compliance was the focus of much scrutiny — and speculation. Would these “religious people” teach it? Or would they refrain, and prove themselves complicit in the murder?

*   *   *

Today, twenty years after that terrible night, things are different again. Time and reflection have changed us. Educators focus less on Rabin the man and his political legacy, and more on conflicts within Israeli society and the democratic way to address them. Instead of commemorating Rabin through divisions, we try to heal the ruptures in our society and nurture its inner strength. Monday night, for example, “Ohel Zachor” in Jerusalem’s Safra square will host public discussions to commemorate two highly divisive events — Rabin’s murder and the disengagement from Gaza. On Tuesday night, I will share my memories in the spoken word event, “Shouting Democracy,” side by side with performers from different camps and groups. Instead of growing apart, we will try to understand each other.

*   *   *

Time has passed, and things have changed. But those three gunshots, and their echoes, are still with me today.

They give me strength when people attack me, claiming that I lack national loyalty and pride.

Why do you always condemn Jewish perpetrators of violence, they exclaim. Why do you write and speak and cry about the Duma arson attack and Mohammed Abu Khdeir, when our enemies produce far more murderers, and condone their atrocities?

The answer to their question lies in the way my father’s face looked two decades ago, in the way his voice sounded when he told me about Rabin’s murder. On that day, my father taught me the true meaning of national pride: Expecting the best of my people.

I am proud to be a Jew and an Israeli. And this is exactly why I condemn “our” murderers so vehemently. If I were to ignore them, I would be betraying my pride, and my commitment to my nation’s promise. That, and not that opposite, would be the betrayal of everything that we can be.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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