Forget Oslo, remember Rabin
As we approach the annual memorial day for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, here are some basic facts to ponder: About three million babies, some of them teenagers now, have been born in Israel in the 18 years since Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. During the same period, 416, 617 new immigrants arrived in the country.
These dry facts tell a big story: around 3.5 million Israelis – more than 40 percent of the population – were not even alive or living in Israel when three bullets took Rabin's life at the square subsequently named after him. All those "new-comers" arrived in a new Israel – one marked by the assassination and radically changed by the Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising), the disengagement from Gaza and the Second Lebanon War. They came to a new Israel where "peace" has become a divisive term, almost a dirty word; where the notion of "democracy," according to all public opinion polls, is undergoing a dangerous erosion.
These people have no good or bad memories of Rabin. They have no recollection of the shocking reality of that night when a young Jewish zealot lurked in the dark at the parking lot, waiting for his victim to step down from the demonstration organized to support his struggle for peace. They have never experienced the rage of the Israeli left deprived of its dream for peace, never shared in the right's anger over what they experienced as unjust blame attached to their entire camp. For them it's history and Rabin's name is associated exclusively with the name of the famous square in Tel Aviv that has since hosted so many other mass demonstrations.
Just a month ago Israel marked 20 years to the day in September 1993 when the Oslo agreement, which earned Rabin a Nobel Peace Prize, was signed. A lot has been said and written, but Rabin was hardly mentioned. While Rabin used to be associated with the word "Oslo," now there is "Oslo" and there is "Rabin." Rabin's closest associates made every possible effort to sever his memory from the tarnished and even tragic memory of Oslo. It worked. In the process, much more has been forgotten.
The data presented here is just a partial explanation for the fading memory of Rabin in Israel's collective consciousness. What was expected to remain a major national trauma, regardless of political affiliation, is fading away. Partly because the political right, in power for most of the time since the assassination, has a real interest to make it go away. By ignoring the issue, they do not have to deal with the role some of them played in the incitement prior to the assassination. On the other end of the political spectrum, the Israeli left has been struggling, to no avail, to define Rabin's legacy. Is it peace? Is it democracy?
The days and weeks ahead of the mass gathering to commemorate Rabin this Saturday have been marked by this tension. The official organizers, Israel's youth movements, chose to stick to the safe slogan of "Remembering the assassination; struggling for democracy." But the message of peace has disappeared from the equation.
That legacy is indeed difficult to define. Rabin, the ultimate "sabra" (a native-born Israeli), was a great warrior and brave leader who late in life made an ideological "U turn" and took the audacious road to peace when he signed the Oslo accords. Yet he was not a great thinker or an impressive orator who left behind unforgettable lines to quote. He left behind deeds and actions, victories and failures. He was human. He changed. He underwent a transformation before our very eyes. By doing so he was Israel, or the Israel we could be: Brave not only on the battlefield, but at the negotiating table as well, possessing no deeply rooted democratic instinct but with an acute recognition that democracy is crucial to the very existence of the state.
The post-Rabin Israel is neither fully democratic nor courageous in taking necessary risks on the road to peace. In fact, 18 years after the assassination, Israeli democracy is at its lowest point.
According to a study conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute and recently presented to the president, 50 percent of Israelis believe that Jews should have privileged rights. The study shows that the younger respondents – 18-24, the post-Rabin generation – tend to be more nationalistic and more supportive of expulsion of Arab citizens than the older generation.
Another study published this week in Israeli daily "Yedioth Ahronoth," found that a third of Israeli youth (aged 12-17) had no idea what happened that night on November 4, 1995. Fifty-six percent of them believe that a political assassination could take place in Israel again and 10 percent (23 percent among religious youth) believe political assassination can be justified.
Israeli society faces a cruel choice: oblivion or all-out hatred. Families on the extreme right choose not to send their children to school on his memorial day so as not to expose them to "brainwashing" discourse commemorating the murdered leader. Social media is still full of hate speech against Rabin and of praise to his assassin, Yigal Amir. Many demand his early release.
Thus, in a twisted way, there is a new link between the fading of Rabin's memory and the fading of Israeli democracy. There is however a ray of hope in this link. After the assassination, Israel proved that its democracy can withstand even that fatal blow. We can only hope that the same resilience can restore Israeli democracy once again. The ability to change personally, to change the turn of history, is the real legacy.
Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."