The murder of Yitzhak Rabin changed my life. I was then in my early thirties, working in the U.S. State Department’s human rights bureau trying to save the world and I realized that my home was going up in flames. Not my only home, but one that mattered deeply. This was in some ways a quintessentially modern Jewish experience. You are trying to work in a broader societal context to advance universal moral values when something hits you over the head and sends you home, sends you to a place more complex, more obscure, more primal, and more frightening – yet you know that is the place where whatever it is that you are building must begin, and the place where your responsibilities call most urgently, where responsibility points most directly at you.
This experience of being recalled from the universal to the particular, precisely to advance the values driving your universal ethics so that they can strike lasting root, has happened time and again in modern Jewish history, and now it was happening to me.
This mattered so much to me not only because of my roots in Israel – my father was a sixth generation Jerusalemite and I had lived there for several years on the cusp of my twenties – but because of my lifelong ties to Religious Zionism. (Indeed, my parents had met while working for Religious Zionism in the 1940s, and I myself was a fellow traveler of the settlement movement in my youth.) To be sure, that community did not pull the trigger nor was it the only or the most direct cause of the murder. Years later I was to discover from a friend with access to the investigation of Yigal Amir that the murderer himself acted mostly not as a religious ideologue but as a classic 19th century political assassin for whom murder is a legitimate tool of politics. But it was that community and its incendiary rhetoric in particular, its accusations of treason and worse, that helped set the tone. As my late, revered teacher Rabbi Yehuda Amital, a leading Religious Zionist and spiritual leader of the religious peace movement, said, even if other groups were also contributing to incitement, it was precisely the religious community that should have understood just how forbidden was, in his words, this “assault on the Kingdom of God.”
Yet another sad truth is that Rabin and the then-leadership unwittingly contributed to the super-charged atmosphere. As the late Zev Schiff, man of the left and longtime dean of Israel’s military commentators, once said to me, “Yitzhak’s greatest error was not speaking to the settlers, and he paid for that mistake with his life.” This resulted not only from Rabin’s temperament but from the long-term cultural malaise of Israel’s founding Labor elites who in distancing themselves from their own cultural resources have left themselves unable to make the case for their political views in culturally compelling terms.
In saying that I am emphatically not trying to exonerate anyone. To the contrary, what I’m trying to say is that the witch’s brew of Israeli politics today is the result of many people, left and right, Jewish and Arab, and that there is more than enough blame to go around, including blame for people like me, religious moderates who have been largely unable to move the needle in all these years. (Even as we must not forget that in 2006 Ehud Olmert won the premiership on an explicit program of territorial withdrawal, scuttled by Hamas in the South and Hezbollah in the North.)
Israel’s deep dilemma today is that while the left is correct in its diagnoses of Israel’s long-term political, diplomatic, and moral dilemmas, the right is correct in its diagnoses of Israel’s long-term military and security dilemmas. The Palestinians for their part, the PA’s effective cooperation with Israel notwithstanding, have been unwilling to end their incitement, as that would mean telling the public that the Jewish state is here to stay. Beyond the obvious effects of incitement on fostering resentment and anger, it also creates a climate in which many Israelis are unwilling to engage in meaningful self-criticism lest it further fan incitement’s flames. And all of this has needless to say been made immensely more complicated by the violent collapse of the already-shaky state structures all around.
My years in the State Department were the heyday of Oslo. In those years, if you bought a ticket and got on board the peace train you got a “get out of jail free” card when it came to human rights abuses. That was a costly mistake, for both sides, for which we still pay dearly. It enabled Israel to continue bad practices and enabled the Palestinians to create, first, a police state, and then a dysfunctional kleptocracy. What we did not do enough of, here as elsewhere, was work hard to create structures of accountability, rule of law, and civil society, that can sustain decent politics over the long haul.
This in turn leads me to think that if there is any way out of this morass, it is to create structures that can withstand the death or even the murders of the most essential and inspiring leaders; the difficult, patient, and essential work of institution building and creating a reality in which violence is not a legitimate tool of politics.
That is a very tall order, and requires political will on all sides, including outsiders. That in turn requires understanding the deeper roots of today’s politics, in the past and in people’s hearts – not as a substitute for the hard calculus of political realism, but in order to make that realism work.
As for me, I chose in the wake of Rabin’s murder and some other events to leave the State Department and go back to school – studying first Arabic and Islamic Studies, and then the intellectual history of Religious Zionism, moved back to Israel, and became involved in grass-roots activism in Jerusalem.
All along I’ve been trying to dig for the deepest roots of all that has gone wrong and all that might someday go right in the hopes of finding the roots of something that might someday go right. I’m still digging.