Incitement kills. Israelis learned this painful lesson 23 years ago after their prime minister was shot when leaving a peace rally at Kings of Israel Square (later renamed Rabin square) in Tel Aviv. The assassination was political, executed by an extreme right-wing activist who intended to change the government’s policy and prevent the implementation of the Oslo Accords by murdering the state’s leader. The lead-up to the killing saw rampant incitement on the far-right, tacitly and overtly endorsed by mainstream right-wing politicians. Incitement, however, did not only kill the prime minister, it also severely wounded Israel’s democracy. The assassination exposed what the young country had not yet felt to be possible, that its democracy was not as immune from destructive powers as it thought. It revealed that Israeli democracy “has no bulletproof vest,” as President Reuven Rivlin put it. Despite these harsh lessons, the deep currents that facilitated the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin remain unaddressed. Israeli society is more divided than it has ever been, incitement has become a strategy used to gain political points, and the memory of Rabin is just another issue to quarrel over.
The Israel we know today is a divided place, comprised of different tribes that have much in common along with clear and sharp differences that mark a line between them. Arab, secular, ultra-Orthodox, and national-religious: each of these groups has its own vision of Israel and its values. Democracy is the only framework in which conflicting visions can coexist, the only framework in which it is possible to create a dialogue that is free of violence and within the law. However, democracy is not an easy framework to sustain. Dialogue has to be taught and fostered, otherwise it will decay and the lines that separate between groups of people will be thought of as parallel, incapable of ever meeting.
Rabin’s assassination was partially the result of the failure to fully incorporate democratic values. Since then this, lack of democratic culture has unfortunately infiltrated the ranks of elected officials. Israeli coalitions have passed a wave of anti-democratic legislation aimed at harming the “other” in recent years. Things like the Nation-state law or the Nakba law represent this trend, not to mention the repeated threats against the High Court. Unfortunately, when it comes to politicians, division and demagoguery are useful strategies to win over voters.
Municipal election campaigns in recent weeks exposed a new level to the cynicism in Israeli politics. The Jewish Home representatives in Ramle, a mixed city where Jews and Arabs coexist, distributed ads depicting a woman dressed in a hijab, with Sabbath candles and kiddush wine behind her. The picture was accompanied with the caption “Hundreds of cases of assimilation are happening in Ramle and nobody cares; tomorrow it could be your daughter.” The caption concludes: “Only a strong Jewish Home will keep Ramle Jewish.” Similar campaigns materialized in Tel Aviv. Billboards, buses, and taxis all over the city showed posters featuring Likud party slogans: “It’s us or them: the Jewish city or the Islamic Movement in Jaffa,” “It’s us or them: Education for Zionism or education for Breaking the Silence,” and “It’s us or them: The Jewish city or the city of infiltrators” (a reference to African immigrants who reside in south Tel Aviv).
Unsurprisingly, these campaigns have generated outrage among many Israelis who view them as an unnecessary provocation. Ramle residents said that they fear it could spark acts of violence since the campaign’s only achievement was to anger and provoke a community that already deals with daily tension. Municipal election campaigns usually emphasize local interests like infrastructure, cultural events, community welfare, business or education. Despite this, the political parties have turned them into a fight for survival and identity. Issues that can’t be broken down into left-wing right-wing, Mizrahi or Ashkenazi, and religious or secular are considered “boring.”
National elections have been no different. The past two governments were not built on hope for a better future but on fear or mockery of the other. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no stranger to this strategy. His party succeeded in winning the last election partially thanks to a provocative video he posted hours before the polling stations closed in which he explained that “The right-wing is in danger. The Arabs are coming to the polls in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in on buses.” This policy of division has lasted through all of Netanyahu’s years as prime minister, calling all those that oppose him “sour” as if they were ungrateful for all the great things he has done for them.
It all seems quite absurd, but it attests to a deeper and more troubling development happening in politics, democracy, and public discourse today in Israel and in other Western countries. The strategy used by an elected government of producing, for political needs, enemies from within has become a standard component of modern-day politics. Even the Rabin murder has become a political football, such as when politicians use the late prime minister’s assassination to pursue their own platforms. Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich took Rabin’s Memorial Day as an opportunity to present incitement as an exclusively right-wing phenomenon. Worse still, Likud Culture Minister Miri Regev bluntly rewrote history by claiming that there wasn’t any right-wing incitement before Rabin’s assassination. These figures are not honoring the slain prime minister’s memory. Rather, they are manipulating voters by fostering division among the people. As citizens who take part in a democracy, we cannot allow our elected officials to make us weaker by fostering this fear among us. Perhaps Rivlin said it best: “Victory among brothers means a loss in the struggle for existence. More than the nuclear threat, more than terrorism, more than our enemies who seek to destroy us, the threat of an internal war will always be the gravest threat.”
Israel’s vibrant and chaotic essence emphasizes the differences between its citizens every day, while its politicians act as stimulators. For these reasons, Yitzhak Rabin’s Memorial Day should not be a day in which each group, be it secular, national-religious, left-wing or right-wing blame each other for the incitement the led to the assassination, or a day that is used as a stage for political accusations. Rabin’s memorial should be democracy’s day of judgment. A day in which despite our politician’s dehumanization of the other, we emphasize the common denominator between us and work on sustaining the values that give us the freedom to be different.