Reckoning with the murder of a prime minister

The White House chief of staff, who claimed the American Civil War was born out of an inability to compromise, can teach Israelis a thing or two about just how toxic political amnesia can be.

Yitzhak Rabin at Andrews Air Force Base, September 10, 1986. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Yitzhak Rabin at Andrews Air Force Base, September 10, 1986. (U.S. Air Force photo)

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly went on national television this past week to repeat a lie. Speaking about the removal of statues of controversial historical figures such as Commander of the Confederate Army Robert E. Lee, Kelly, often viewed as the “adult” tapped to bring order to an anarchic White House, told CNN on Tuesday that it was the “lack of an ability to compromise” that led to the Civil War.

Whether intentionally or not, Kelly had parroted a trope that has long accompanied the American memory of its bloodiest and deadliest war: that the inability to reconcile two different, morally equivalent ways of life — rather than the institution of slavery — laid at the heart of the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy. These arguments were most commonly put forth in the postbellum years, when Southern leaders spoke of the “Lost Cause,” downplaying the role of slavery and emphasizing states’ rights and the “southern way of life,” against which the North ostensibly inveighed.

In the years that followed, and up until the around the middle of the last century, the official narrative of the Civil War propagated by the victors also minimized the role that slavery played, often as a token of reconciliation that would allow the North to avoid facing questions about its questionable strategy of compromise with the South.

Kelly’s historical revisionism has since been widely panned, yet his remarks serve as a stark reminder of a fundamental fault line that splits Americans over how they view their own history, and consequently, the present. Kelly’s remarks also happen to echo a different process of historical revisionism currently taking place in Israel.

A woman cries at the Rabin memorial rally Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, October 31, 2015. (Oren Ziv/
A woman cries at the Rabin memorial rally Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, October 31, 2015. (Oren Ziv/

The past week, Tel Aviv saw a flurry of activity as it prepared for its annual rally to commemorate the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In recent years, the ceremony has been a primarily low-key affair, with decent turnouts and political figures who recycle tired slogans borrowed from the Oslo days. Controversy erupted this year, the 22nd since Rabin’s murder, after it became clear that rally organizers Darkenu (“Our Way”) and Commanders for Israel’s Security had omitted any mention of Rabin’s assassination from their advertisements:

On November 4, we will stand together, all Israelis from all corners of the country, and we will strengthen the unity of the people, moderation and Israel’s secure future – for the eternity of the nation-state of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora, a democratic state in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

The outcry, including by Labor stalwart Shelly Yachimovich, pushed the organizers to recall the ads and include the reason the rally is even necessary in the first place (the ads still make no mention of the incitement that preceded the assassination). In response to the controversy, Darkenu CEO Polly Bronstein told Haaretz that “Rabin’s assassination does not belong to the leftist camp and its lessons must be learned by the entire public.”

A few days later, in a bid to draw right-wing Israelis to the rally, Darkenu and Commanders for Israel’s Security announced that left-wing parties and organizations would not be allowed to table at the event, as they had in previous years, and that settler leader Oded Ravivi would be among the speakers.

While the erasure of the cause of Rabin’s death and the banning of left-wing groups can be seen as the result of cold political calculus, it is more likely that it is the result of the Israeli Right’s attempt to rewrite history. The latest example of this revisionism comes in the form of a high school civics textbook, which teaches the assassination without any mention of the mass protests that preceded the murder — and included caskets with the prime minister’s name inscribed on them, as well as photos of Rabin in SS garb — or the issuing of a religious ruling known as din rodef, which permits extrajudicial killings under certain circumstances to prevent the death of another. Both Rabin’s killer, Yigal Amir, as well as the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke at these rallies, are entirely absent from the curriculum.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the infamous "Rabin the Traitor" rally in Jerusalem, October 1995. (Screenshot)
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the infamous “Rabin the Traitor” rally in Jerusalem, October 1995. (Screenshot)

Today, the historical revisionism of Rabin’s murder is made possible by the acquiescence of centrist groups like Darkenu and Commanders for Israel’s Security, who want to turn the rally into a venue for faux national reconciliation reserved exclusively for Israeli Jews. At a time when finding a single member of the government who does not regularly incite against Palestinians, leftists, or asylum seekers (among other groups) is proving difficult, one would think that holding a rally with explicitly political overtones would be far more prudent than one that whitewashes the single most formative event in modern Israeli history.

Just as John Kelly’s comments on the roots of the Civil War should force Americans to contend with their past, reckoning with Rabin’s assassination should entail Israelis contending with the uncomfortable dimensions of their own society. Doing so would mean recognizing that a sizable part of Israeli Jews took part in a movement that effectively supported using violence to remove a democratically elected leader, even if many later expressed revulsion at the outcome. It would mean reckoning with the compromises that the political center makes in order to ingratiate itself with same forces that, in a different time, led the charge against Rabin’s choice to, perhaps, take Israel down a different path. Ultimately, however, it would mean reckoning with possibility that that path has long disappeared.