Rabin: A hero’s life’s work

If a hero's life's work is subsequently rendered largely irrelevant, is he or she still a hero?

20 long years since the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, Israelis have accepted the thesis of their leadership that peace is a far-flung, undesirable goal.  Though the state of Israel, the greatest experiment in Jewish history, has proven its ability to survive, Rabin believed it could achieve more – he believed it could thrive. 

Tonight we celebrate his life not because he helped engineer the euphoric triumphs of the War of Independence and the Six-Day War as a chain-smoking soldier with the weight of our people’s lives on his shoulders, but because he sought more than military victories.

The young Yitzhak Rabin was famously hawkish in his dealings with Israel’s Arab neighbors.  As Chief of Staff he led their humiliation in 1967, and in the 1970s, as prime minister, he began setting the West Bank. As defense minister in the 1980s, he commanded soldiers to break Palestinian bones during the intifada.

Despite the heroic narrative, Yitzhak Rabin did not turn an about-face, dramatically reversing the momentum of his life's work from war to peace – as always he researched, analyzed, and anticipated developments with discipline and a clear mind; simply put, he led.  This modus operandi spurred him to act on his long accumulated belief that the occupation was undemocratic and un-Jewish. 

Looking at Yitzhak Rabin’s last speech on the night of his demise, in front of an unprecedented surge of 100,000 supporters, he seems strikingly driven by the earnest hope to leave behind his gruesome duties as a warrior. With white hair and a widow’s peak, this 70-something-year-old man moved beyond animosity for Arabs, shrewdly treating hatred as a sunken cost.

Rabin's legacy, maimed as it was by his assassination, hobbled one last time ten years later when Ariel Sharon fought to withdraw Israel from the Gaza Strip.  Sharon, a less affable member of the first, war-weary sabra generation, faced similarly vocal critics as Rabin; ultimately, he ran circles around them with his tactical magic, outmaneuvering them in the back rooms and hallways of the Knesset.

As Sharon faced down the others, Benjamin Netanyahu had an air of desperation, trying to thrust himself in front of the public eye.  Ultimately, Sharon and his wiles engulfed Bibi and won the vote.  Even if Sharon saw fit to carry on Rabin's mantle, his brain did not cooperate.  His eventual stroke gripped the grief-weary nation with severe apathy…and opened the door for a previously outmatched leader.  

The apathy that surrounded their demise was opportunistically pounced upon by Benjamin Netanyahu.  

Always waiting for a chance to thrust himself into the public eye, he has remained remarkably consistent in fomenting this apathy and an existential fear of Israel's destruction.  Sometimes the word “peace” appeared in one Bibi election slogan or other, but always cynically.  It should be noted that both Rabin and Sharon held Bibi at bay during their lifetimes.  Bibi was never as smart as they. 

The success of Bibi's formula, consistently resonating with the majority of Israeli voters for so long as it has, is impressive…and damaging to the soul of the State of Israel.  His tenure has defined the twenty years since Rabin, and so it seems fair to put a substantial chunk of blame for the violence and fear on his shoulders.  There's a security wall and a huge Shabak presence in the West Bank to protect Israel from the angry Palestinian populace, so it takes all the more antagonization to incite East Jerusalem's normally demure residents.

Whether with Iran, the current East Jerusalem intifada, or mufti-gate, he is a boy who cried wolf, and we can only sit and wait for our comeuppance. 

The limpid sprit de corps that Netanyahu cultivates amongst Israelis is dangerous, lacking any sense that a better fate exists.  Yitzhak Rabin's vision was apparently not achievable, but it was more than empty hope – it was philosophical.  He posited that Hatikvah, the Hope – to be a free people in our land – להיות עם חופשי בארצנו – is not enough.  HaHalom, החלום, the Dream, is to live in peace on that land.

Far from a lofty Oseh shalom bimromav – a dreamy peacemaker – we had a grounded leader in our midst.  We appreciated his deep voice, his humility, his social awkwardness, his calm authority, and his grandfatherliness.  But mindfulness and gratitude are not enough; appreciation of these qualities is not bullet-proof. 

Now, tonight, this occasion is the opportunity to answer the question about heroes.  A hero's sacrifice is not in vain if a minyan can memorialize it.  Rabin’s life's work was a credit to the Jewish people, even if we feel powerless to carry out his vision.

Ben Lehrer received an AB in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University – he works in architecture and sings the Song of Peace with his son, Gabriel.