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Friday, July 11, 2014

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Remembering Rabin becomes less partisan

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Yair Lootsteen

Eighteen years have passed since that dreadful Saturday evening in November 1995, when Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered while leaving Tel Aviv’s Malchei Yisrael Square (now Rabin Square). Three shots in the back – just moments after a rally in support of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. Rabin had been the main speaker and bashfully sang a stanza of Yankele Rotblit’s Shir HaShalom (Song of Peace), together with the song’s most famous performer, Miri Aloni.

The tremors of that historic event were felt not only in Israel, but across the globe, but they were short-lived. Just over 1-1/2 years later, in May 1996, Shimon Peres, Rabin’s partner in leading Israel’s efforts toward peace with the Palestinians and his replacement as prime minister, was, astonishingly, defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu in national elections, with over 60 per cent of the Jewish population voting for the latter.

For those in the peace camp, that result was painfully disturbing. Many believed Netanyahu had an at least indirect hand in inciting hatred toward Rabin. They remembered his speech at a different rally, at Zion Square in downtown Jerusalem, in October 1995, where some of the demonstrators held posters of Rabin dressed in an SS uniform, while others shouted “Death to Rabin” and condemned him as a traitor.

Ever since, a debate has been ongoing about how we should observe the yearly anniversary of Rabin’s assassination. For more than a decade, those on the left couldn’t stomach a commemoration of the tragedy at which Rabin’s erstwhile political rivals and their supporters would also take part. They believed, and some still believe, that their rivals were at least partly responsible for Rabin’s murder. And they wanted these commemorations to make a statement of continued support for the peace process in which Rabin had been so central.

Those on the right have felt excluded and unwanted at these events. In 1997, Natan Sharansky, then a minister in Netanyahu’s government, spoke at the remembrance and was loudly booed. Half the nation felt they were being accused of Rabin’s murder because they didn’t support his policies. And more than anything else, they felt Rabin’s murder and its commemoration were being exploited by the left for political purposes – that instead of emphasizing the need to protect and fortify Israel’s democracy to ensure nothing like Rabin’s murder could ever happen again, the yearly event was glorifying the peace process, which they could not identify with.

The last couple of years have seen a change, with attempts to make the annual event more inclusive. Youth movements and other groups from across the spectrum have been taking part. Left and right. Religious and secular. Jewish and Arab. Organizers call upon those who take part “to remember the murder” and “to struggle for our democracy.”

Last year, organizers were criticized from both the right and the left. Rightist extremists complained that people who took part were, in fact, supporting Rabin’s left-leaning policies. Those on the left continued to believe that not enough was being said to promote and advance the peace process.

For many years, I, too, felt the yearly event should be used to memorialize Rabin’s legacy of peace. But as with so many other things in life, time is a great equalizer. Things change. Netanyahu’s government is presently engaged in talks with the Palestinians. In the wake of the Arab Spring, or whatever one might call it, our neck of the woods has become even more complex. And extremists, mostly on the right, are increasingly turning to undemocratic means, such as “price tag” attacks on Arabs and others with whom they disagree.

In this milieu, an inclusive commemoration of Rabin’s murder where a large swath of Israeli society is represented – and supporting only democratic means for bringing about change, even difficult change – is a positive step forward and something Rabin himself would have welcomed.

There’s another thing I’m quite certain about: Rabin’s murder changed the course of our history. He was the only leader of our times with the political and military credentials and the personal courage necessary to move the peace process forward. Had he not been murdered, the Middle East would look quite different today. Unfortunately, Rabin’s murderer achieved what he set out to do.

May Rabin be of blessed memory, and may we be blessed with another leader of his stature – soon.

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