September 17, 2019

A candid look at Yitzhak Rabin

In 1974, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin attended a Washington reception hosted by President Gerald Ford, during which Ford asked the prime minister’s wife, Leah Rabin, for a dance.

That left her husband in a quandary. He knew that protocol called for him to lead Betty Ford, the president’s wife, onto the dance floor, but despite many other accomplishments, Rabin had never learned to dance.

The old soldier finally screwed up his courage, walked over to Mrs. Ford and admitted his shortcoming. She quietly took his hand and led him onto the dance floor.

In roughly about the same time period, Rabin, in hitherto unpublished, off-the-record correspondence and conversation, warned, “We must have peace with the Palestinians, for if we don’t, we will become an apartheid state,” and “The [West Bank] settlers are a cancer on the body politic.”

Taken together, these two illustrations from the documentary feature “Rabin: In His Own Words” show the private and political side of the kibbutznik who evolved from commander of Israel’s armed forces during the Six-Day War to leading advocate of peace with his country’s enemies.

Erez Laufer, a veteran film editor in the United States (“The War Room,” “My Country, My Country”) and his native Israel, decided to make a film about Rabin to mark the 20th anniversary of the prime minister’s 1995 assassination, for which Laufer spent more than six years digging through archives, correspondence and historical film footage.

He considered various formats, but finally settled on using only Rabin’s own voice and writings, without interviewing any of his former friends or foes.

Rabin does not gloss over some of the acknowledged blemishes on his record, such as the ruthless 1948 expulsion of the entire Arab populations of Lod and Ramle by troops under his command.

“[Then-Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion gave the order, and [Gen.] Yigal Allon and I carried it out,” Rabin acknowledges.

Perhaps the greatest value of the film lies in the recollections of his childhood and adolescence by the normally impassive Rabin.

As a child, he says, “I was an introvert,” and he recalls a “not so tender” mother, who assigned chores and made sure her children ate what was on their plates.

Yet when his mother died in 1937, Rabin, who had “never cried before or after,” shed bitter tears at her funeral.

During the run-up to the War of Independence in early 1948, Rabin was named commander of the Harel Brigade. Only in his mid-20s, he agonized about having to send 15- and 16-year-old boys into battles, in which many were killed.

After the war, he married Leah, who had admired the dashing soldier since her high school days. Showing occasional flashes of dry humor, Rabin recalls that at his wedding ceremony, “I was so embarrassed, I said I would never do it again.”

Yitzhak and Leah Rabin with their children, Dalia and Yuval, as seen in the documentary.

Rabin talks frankly about the dark period of his life during the excruciatingly tense weeks before the start of the Six-Day War in 1967. “I reached the point of physical and mental exhaustion. … I was constantly smoking. … I was melancholy,” Rabin, then chief-of-staff of the Israel Defense Forces, remembers.

With the help of his friend and air force chief Ezer Weizman, and an injection to give him a good night’s sleep, Rabin bounced back to lead the IDF to victory. “Entering the Old City [of Jerusalem] through the Lion’s Gate … I just can’t express the feeling,” Rabin remembers.

With just about any job in the Israeli government his for the asking, Rabin opted to become the Israeli ambassador to the United States from 1968 to 1973. His tenure coincided with widespread anti-Vietnam War protests and then the evolving Watergate scandal, so Rabin reported, “I came to the United States to place Israel’s fate in its hands and found a government falling apart.”

Rabin was not a member of Israel’s government when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to the Jewish state and subsequently signed a historic peace agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

This agreement, Rabin observed at the time, “marks the end of the heroic era of Zionism, but better the risks of peace than the gloomy certainty of war.”

In 1992, Rabin started a second term as prime minister and turned to the task — and risks — of peace. He signed a peace treaty with the Palestine Liberation Organization and shook hands with its leader, Yasser Arafat, on the White House lawn.

Segments of the public and the Likud Party vociferously opposed the “appeasement” of the enemy. Month by month, the protest demonstrations became more intense and the personal attacks on Rabin more threatening.

Signs carried by protestors labeled Rabin a traitor and worse. Asked whether such epithets bothered him, Rabin replied, “At first, yes, but now less. I accept it that some people are crazy.”

The film ends just before Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish extremist on Nov. 4, 1995, a tragedy that illustrated what can happen when the bounds of civil discourse are shattered.

Of course, Israel is not the only example of such fratricide. Some may recall that then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy described then-President Dwight Eisenhower as a dupe of the Communists, while today the language of some presidential candidates aims for a similar level of disrespect and vitriol.

Director Laufer, summarizing his motivation for spending half a dozen years making the documentary, noted, “I didn’t make this film for nostalgic reasons. I made it for the future … not so much to show what happened in the past, but what can still happen in the future.”

“Rabin: In His Own Words” opens May 6 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and on May 13 at the Town Center in Encino.