When Israel lost its innocence

[Twenty-five years ago I delivered the following eulogy for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles]

This week Israel lost its innocence, though fratricidal hatred between Jews is nothing new in our 3600-year history.

Yitzhak Rabin’s murder has shaken deeply the Jewish world. We mourn not just a man but a great and historic Jewish leader. We worry about the future of the peace process, how the Israeli government will meet the threat to its democratic institutions by right-wing zealots, and the impact of this murder on the Jewish character and soul.

The hopes that Prime Minister Rabin helped ignite on the White House lawn two years ago, the subsequent historic peace treaty with Jordan and progress towards peace with the Palestinians, the complete cessation of PLO terrorist attacks in the last two years and improvements in Israeli-Arab relations, the establishment of relations now with more than 150 nations (twice that of two years ago), and a booming Israeli economy all sit beneath a cloud.

Though I believe that the peace process will continue because it became much larger than Rabin himself, I worry about the growth in numbers of so-called “religious” Israeli and American Jewish zealots that gave rise to a Jew who could murder an Israeli Prime Minister.

Blinded by hate, imagining Nazis lurking behind every kefiah and even in the person of Yitzhak Rabin, these Jews have become a cancerous tumor in the body politic of Jewish national, religious, and communal life. Their vision is distorted, their mission corrupt, their motives base, and their goals the opposite of what they claim – security and peace for the Jewish people.

In hindsight, we’re all somewhat responsible for the intolerance and hate that has gripped our people and led to Rabin’s murder because we allowed these extremists to speak with impunity in our communities. When these right-wing groups visited our community seeking adherents and funds, we didn’t raise our voices in protest strongly enough, nor challenge their presumptions nor alerted our community to the consequences of their libelous incendiary rhetoric. The man these people called a “traitor” and a “Nazi” was the same man who saved 200 Jews during the Nazi era, the same man who fought in every Israel war in defense of our people, the same man who saved the state from annihilation in the Six Day War, and the same man who ordered the Entebbe mission to save Jews. How could any decent Jew utter such slanderous words against Rabin?

Leah Rabin was right to critique Likud opposition leader Benyamin Netanyahu for his failure to confront on the spot in rallies organized by Likud the vicious rhetoric, name calling, and characterizations of her husband as a Nazi and traitor. Though Netanyahu condemned them after the fact, he should have stopped and told those zealots that libel is unacceptable in a democracy, that their voices have no place in the discussions of important issues facing the State of Israel, that they are no partners of Likud, that they ought to be shunned by every decent Israeli whether or not they support or oppose the peace process.

The violent rhetoric of the Israeli right wing reveals the lack of persuasiveness in their ideas among the vast majority of Israelis. In a democracy, ideas must be able to stand on their own without threat or coercion. Those with little merit die on the vine. Their violent speech, rhetoric, imagery, and behavior reflect the bankruptcy and desperation at the heart of their cause.

In reflecting on the horror this past week and the greatness of Yitzhak Rabin, a warrior turned peace-maker, it occurred to me that each of us is a work in progress, that the totality of who we are and what we can do can be assessed fully only over the course of years and life experience. Each of us has a personal history and an untapped capacity to do important and worthwhile  things in our lives. Had Rabin not been elected Prime Minister the second time, had he not released himself from old-time worn-out ideas that were counterproductive to peace and security for Israel, had he not had the opportunity to forcefully initiate this peace process, his greatness would have been limited to his military prowess.

I had the privilege of meeting Prime Minister Rabin on two occasions. However, until this week I’d forgotten something important about those two brief encounters. The image most of us have of Rabin was his toughness. He was, of course, a brilliant and brave military tactician and a seemingly unsentimental and no-nonsense soldier. When I met him, he seemed cold and distant.

When his granddaughter delivered her eulogy on Monday and spoke of her grandfather’s soft caress reserved only for the family, I was reminded of the feel of Rabin’s hands as I shook them on those two occasions. They were soft and warm, his grip loose and gentle, a stark contrast to what I expected.

As Chief of Staff during the 1967 Six Day War, Rabin felt keenly the burden of the lives of his troops and feared that he failed them even before the war began. Israel won that war, of course, in a lightning blitz in six days. Yet, he felt personally responsible for every lost Israeli soldier as though each was his son and daughter, a member of his family. An unsoldierly soldier, Yitzhak Rabin was the archetypal sabra, the fruit of the desert cactus that’s prickly on the outside and soft and sweet within.

Upon hearing of the death of his beloved friend Jonathan, David mourned “Eich naflu ha-giborim! – How the mighty has fallen.” The Jewish people lost one of our greatest leaders this week. May the name and life of Yitzhak Rabin be a blessing to the Jewish people and all peoples who cherish peace, and may God console us among all who mourn in Zion and Jerusalem.

About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and immediate past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the newly created Union for Reform Judaism's Israel and Reform Zionism Committee (IRZC). John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of two books - “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (Nashville: Jewish Lights Publishing, a division of Turner Publishing Company, 2017) and "Why Israel [and its Future] Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (New Jersey: Ben Yehuda Press, 2019). Both are available at Amazon.com. John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has one granddaughter.
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