I wrote this piece for JUF News in November, 1995, following the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin.
As I write this, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin already is “old” news, far enough past for the initial shock to wear off. By the time you read this, the event will have occurred three weeks ago—a long time according to the media's short attention span, a long time in a world where events unwind so rapidly.
Should I write about the assassination at all, I wondered? The event and its aftermath have been so thoroughly described; Rabin has been so eloquently eulogized by so many people more qualified than I to do so.
But not to write about it would be to pretend that business is proceeding as usual -- or worse, to suggest that political assassination is business as usual.
The murder reminded me of the sad reality that for Israel’s people, there hardly is such a thing as "usual"; no status quo remains in effect there for long.
Americans, Jews and others, who have no first-hand experience of Israel, have difficulty appreciating an environment where banality and mundanity are quixotic. We American Jews are mainstream -- we aren’t even considered a minority -- in a country of unparalleled prosperity, security, stability and democracy. Entire generations have grown up without the stench of war, the gut wrenching feel of it, in their nostrils and stomachs.
Now consider the lives of our Israeli brothers and sisters. They have shouldered the burden of war, terror, and economic hardship. The graves of relatives and friends who died violent deaths are permanent features of the rugged landscape.
Life in Israel has been all too easy to romanticize for those of us who grew up with, but did not ourselves fulfill, the Zionist dream. We made superheros of the chalutzim and chayalim, the Zionist pioneers, the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. Indeed, who for us was Yitzhak Rabin if not the epitome of the Zionist hero?
The Six Day War came hot on the heels of my bar mitzvah. I remember Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan and all the brave young men of the IDF, the archetypes of the Zionist man I could only dream of becoming.
How seductive those images were, the weeping soldier at the Kotel, the tank crew at El Arish.
When I first lived in Israel in the early 1970s, before the Yom Kippur war, I remember how euphoric the people still were at their recent victory. The War of Attrition with Egypt had been costly; but no Arab threat seemed truly credible, even to the most pragmatic analysts.
“The Palestinian people? What Palestinian people?” Golda Meir had said, in a spirit of denial that prevailed even after the slaughter of Israel's Olympic team at Munich.
“The Egyptians would not dare set foot across the Suez Canal,” said Yehoshafat Harkabi, former chief of military intelligence, just months before Sadat's invasion.
Israel was at her zenith in the six years between the '67 and '73 wars. She deserved to be. Her people were proud, confident. Perhaps this was the long desired peace, the yearned for status quo?
I returned to Israel for another year later in the ‘70s. Reality had changed. There was a feeling, at least among doves, that what Rabin then described as the status quo -- “no peace, no war” -- would not, could not endure.
Naturally, Israelis spoke wistfully about peace. But I had the impression they had no real idea what it was; they never had experienced it. It remained a halcyon fantasy. The state of conflict was detestable, but it was familiar, and ironically, there was some comfort in that.
But peace? At best it was the great unknown, at worst a dangerous delusion.
And wasn't there more to think about than individual mortality? Had the Six Day War granted the Jewish people a divine opportunity to fulfill its destiny? Was Israel's destiny to reclaim all of the ancient homeland?
Different Israelis, it is now more painfully obvious than ever, envision different answers to questions of duty and destiny.
The most cogent analyses of the impact of Yitzhak Rabin’s life and the implications of his terrible death will not, can not, be written for some time to come. Meanwhile, I am left with a myriad of images of this man of vision who, within his lifetime, was an architect of both military victory and diplomatic triumph; of tactical advance and strategic retreat; of bold conquest and gracious conciliation.
The Zionist superhero is dead. With his passing I sense that the archetype now has become obsolete. What will replace it I know not.
May Israel’s men and women of courage and wisdom step into the breach.