In the terribly sad days after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination twenty years ago this week, a bumper sticker began to show up on cars both here and in Israel. It read "Haver, attah hasser": Friend, you are missed. The phrase was a riff on President Clinton’s famous “Shalom Haver” (Farewell, friend) comment uttered the night of the assassination. Obviously shaken and grieved by what had transpired, the President paid an eloquent and heartfelt farewell to the man who had been his partner in the Middle East peace process, and also his friend.
It is almost inexpressibly sad to see where Israel finds itself today, twenty years down the road from the horror of that fateful weekend. Not only is there no “peace process” anywhere in sight, but once again, Israel and the Palestinians are tangled up in precisely the kind of violence that the Oslo accords were supposed to have ended. Clearly, Israel is far from the peace and security that it deserves, suffering random and vicious attacks on its innocent civilians. The Palestinian masses, once more led down a violent dead end by their cynical and ineffectual leadership, are doomed to further frustration. And the seemingly endless suffering continues.
It is not merely Rabin who is missed, but also the sense he embodied that there might be something better on the horizon to hope for. Hope is in short supply these days.
With the perspective of two decades’ distance and the depressed mood created by the current difficulties, it is tempting, and probably far too easy, to look back at Yitzchak Rabin’s legacy with rose colored glasses. After all, the man himself was a legend. A hero of the Six Day War, his image, in uniform, will always be associated with those first, iconic pictures at the Western Wall with Moshe Dayan after its liberation. And the same decorated general who helped accomplish one of the greatest military victories in history would later be the visionary politician who, just minutes before his murder, would sing "Shir LaShalom," the now famous peace song a at mass rally in Tel Aviv. Like the lyrics in Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi’s haunting song, Eifo yeshnam od anashim k’mo ha’ish hahoo? We are left wondering, where are there other people like him?
Twenty years later, though the pain associated with his murder by a kippah-wearing Israeli Jew is still a raw wound in an Israel riven by ethnic hatreds and religious/secular divides, Yitzchak Rabin’s life both needs and deserves to be appreciated in a more realistic frame. He was no "left-winger." The same man who shook hands with Yasser Arafat on the South Lawn of the White House (very uncomfortably, if you remember the visual of the event) had also publicly stated that the appropriate response to rioting Palestinians was to “break their bones.” Rabin was a warrior, more at home in military strategy and tactics than diplomacy. There is no indication that he woke up one morning and completely changed his view of the enemies surrounding Israel, or the threat they represented.
It is, I would think, more fair and accurate to say that Rabin’s participation in the Oslo process was based on a cold calculus of what might be possible, and the risks associated with it. A veteran of all of Israel’s wars, he desperately wanted to believe in the possibility that the words he uttered at the White House that September day, "no more war, no more bloodshed," might be possible. He knew the price of war, and understood that peace, too, would exact a price. He never dreamed that an Israeli Jew would exact that price, much less a religious one, but he understood the risks involved. He was, simultaneously, both a visionary and a realist.
It’s easy to be cynical today about the Oslo peace process. History has proven time and again that, when presented with realistic possibilities for a serious and long-lasting peace agreement with Israel, including a cessation of hostilities, the Palestinians back away. Arafat did it, and Abbas did it. Instead of seizing the opportunity to end the madness, Palestinian leaders invent scenarios in which they are the victims, and incite their masses to violence. Even today, in the absence of a peace process, proclaiming that the Israelis are killing Palestinian children at the Temple Mount is nothing less than the latest big lie, with disastrous results. Young Palestinians are stabbing innocent Israelis to defend Al Aqsa.
In the field of Jewish law, it is often stated that it’s easier to be a mahmir than a meikil. Roughly translated, the larger meaning is that it’s easier to say no than to say yes. Saying no when asked a question of Jewish law is safer and easier than saying yes, because Jews are more inclined to believe stringencies as authentic than they are leniencies. Saying yes, permitting something instead of forbidding it, almost always will place you in the minority. Giving permission in a society where "no" is the norm takes guts.
Yitzchak Rabin had guts. He took a chance, a huge chance, for the smallest possibility that his heart might be right when his head said no. He wasn’t a dreamer. He was a pragmatist. But to paraphrase the words of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, od lo avdah tikvato; his hope in the possibility of a better future was not lost. Israel’s leaders today would do well to remember his very wise words. You don’t make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies, even though there will never be any love lost between you. It takes enormous courage to follow through on those words.
Y’hei Zikhro Barukh. May his memory be for a blessing. We do, indeed, need more men and women like him today.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.