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Alone with Yitzhak Rabin: Reflections on CCAR Israel Solidarity Mission

I travelled to Israel at the end of July, one of 13 rabbis, organized by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, as a solidarity mission while the war raged between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.  The goal of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” is to disable Hamas’s ability to fire rockets into Israel, now capable of reaching Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.  And to destroy the network of tunnels Hamas has been digging and reinforcing with cement intended to build schools, hospitals and homes; tunnels dug across Israel’s border as a terrorist tactic to instill fear in those communities underneath which the tunnels reach, intended to kill or kidnap Israeli civilians and soldiers.  Any sovereign nation has the right, actually the obligation, to defend itself against enemy attack.  Israel can claim that right to justify its extensive military operation.  I wanted to travel to Israel, on behalf of Temple Solel, to show up for our brothers and sisters, collect and bring needed supplies to IDF soldiers, understand more deeply the complicated politics at play in Israel and the surrounding region, and return to share my experiences within Solel and the greater community.  Here’s one story from the beginning of my trip.

It was motzei Shabbat, the end of Shabbat, and I heard on the news that there was going to be an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Rabin, Rabin Square.  I took a cab from my hotel to the square.  On the radio in the cab, driven by a Russian Jew who made aliya in the mid ‘90’s, played the traditional music marking havdalah, the ritual that moves us from Shabbat into the new week.   What other country would you hear a cabbie play such music?  The music concluded with the prayer of hope that Eliyahu ha’navi, that Elijah the prophet, who in our tradition will usher in the Messianic age, will arrive soon.  Such an irony, as I stepped out of the cab to an anti-war rally.  There were no signs of Elijah.

The square was quite a sight to behold.  An estimated 5,000 Israelis were gathered peacefully, with speaker after speaker denouncing the level of force Israel chose to use in Gaza, the resulting high number of civilian deaths, physical devastation, and the emerging humanitarian crisis.  These were not fringe Israelis.  These were proud citizens, with children fighting in Gaza, who themselves had served in the IDF.  And, of course, there was a counter rally.  A few hundred flag-waving Israelis,  shouting loudly at their fellow citizens, denouncing them as traitors, who had turned their backs on the IDF soldiers fighting on the front lines.   And, literally in the middle, was a large police force, on foot and horses, protecting the anti-war protesters from the counter protesters; Jews protecting Jews (and some, very few, Israeli Arabs) from Jews. It actually was a powerful reflection of Israel’s democracy in action – freedom of speech.  If only the peoples of the surrounding Arab countries could speak so freely.

The square is named after Yitzhak Rabin (z”l) who, on November 4, 1995, was assassinated by an Israeli Jewish religious extremist, Yigal Amir.  Rabin, a military man, a warrior who fought for the modern State of Israel, as an elder statesman, led with the greatest courage of his life, for peace.  As Israel’s Prime Minister during this time, Rabin took the bold steps to put a halt to further building in the West Bank settlements, and was prepared to make land concessions with the Palestinians, for the sake of peace – bold steps for which he would pay with his life.  Rabin, to garner public support for his actions, held a massive peace rally, in this very square (previously known as Kings of Israel Square).  After an inspiring speech, challenging Israel to seize this window of opportunity for peace, departing the square, Amir shot Rabin in cold blood.

Now, almost 20 years later, off the square, down a  dimly-lit pathway, in ear-shot of the rally, I stood alone, next to the memorial statue of Yitzhak Rabin, in the very spot he was assassinated.   For any number of contributing factors, mostly a lack of political will and courage on both sides of the table, Israeli and Palestinian, the prospects for peace has taken a detour in the past two decades, a peace now barely discernible.   Alone with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the barely illuminated dark, I could see the bronze bust of his proud, pensive, determined demeanor, shaking his head from side to side, with a tear rolling down his cheek.  Had all for which he sacrificed been in vain?

Israel, indeed, needs to defend her borders and her people.   Yet, as a warrior amongst warriors, Rabin understood, with the hard-gained wisdom of battle and age, only a political solution will break the cycle of violence.  If  we are ever to see the Prophet Elijah, it will take men and women, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, with the imagination, creativity and courage of Yitzhak Rabin to reach across the table to one another, for the sake of peace.  Someday, God-willing, I, or my son, or my grandchildren will stand in this place, along side Elijah, and see Rabin nod up and down, with a smile on his face.

Rabbi John A. Linder is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel, Phoenix, Arizona.

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Learning from the Matter: Our Fallen Leaders

Mine is a strange relation to the tragic 50th anniversary we commemorate today, because I was not alive the day John Kennedy died.  I came into this world a decade later, and when I was finally ready to learn about the 1960’s, I studied as one unit the assassinations of three national leaders: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy.  November 22nd is not a date that sticks in my memory, as I do not belong to that generation that heard reports on radios and then steered cars to the curb with tear-filled eyes.  I carry mental images of Kennedy’s children at Arlington National Cemetery, but would have been hard-pressed (until recently) to remember even in which month this tragedy occurred.

November 4th, 1995: that date I remember very well.  We had just bid farewell to Shabbat in Jerusalem, and before hitting the still-opening city, some friends and I gathered in my sixth-floor apartment.  Before we walked out the door, the phone rang.  I was shocked to hear the voice of a friend who had just returned to the States the previous week.  “What’s going on over there?” he demanded.  When I reported it was just an average Saturday night, he cut right through: “Seth, didn’t you hear the news?  Yitzhak Rabin was just shot at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.”

We are in a month of remembrance for fallen leaders, for symbols of a better tomorrow who were shot down in their prime.  Today we mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of an American President; earlier this month we marked a significant 18 years since an Israeli Prime Minister was murdered after singing a song of peace.  We are in a season where we confront continuous violence and base hatred.  We risk doing dishonor to our dead if we memorialize their passing with only words of sadness and regret, without doing the difficult work of learning the lessons of these tragedies.

I can only share a single story.  I lived in Jerusalem in the fall of 1995, when Israel’s election season was in full swing.  On my daily walk through downtown streets on my way to the Hebrew Union College, I saw almost every empty wall plastered with posters: for Labor, for Likud, against Likud, against Labor, and—of course—with the positions and politicians of every other party.  Some of these political posters were remarkably troubling: Yitzhak Rabin against giant letters declaring him a “TRAITOR”, Rabin’s face superimposed over the infamous keffiyeh of Yasser Arafat, and—most painfully and inexplicably—the elected Prime Minister of the State of Israel dressed as a member of the Nazi SS.

UnknownSuch base hatred sickened me.  Yet, I remember well, it seemed par for the course for Israeli discourse, especially regarding politics.  The days after Rabin was killed, I remember Israel was—almost to a person—in shock that the assassin was Jewish.  It was simply inconceivable to Israelis that a Jew could perpetrate a heinous crime against a Jew.  “Why,” I recall thinking, “Are so many Israelis surprised?  Had they not seen the literal signs?  When an elected government official can not only be called a traitor but also labeled a Nazi, when such hate is fomented on such a widespread scale, what other outcome could have been predicted but this?”

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, tells a similar cautionary tale of unchecked antipathy.  We are familiar with the famous story of Joseph the dreamer, who regales his brothers with visions of how he will one day rule over them; we also know this leads to his brothers’ conspiracy to sell Joseph into slavery, to deceive their family into thinking he died.  Often lost in this saga is the pivotal role played by a silent bystander: Jacob.  We read in Genesis 37:11 that: [Joseph’s] brothers became jealous of him, and his father observed the matter.  On first glance, the meaning of the verse is obvious: Jacob does nothing about the growing and apparent enmity between his children.  Various commentators, favorable to Jacob, have tried to mitigate this passivity: Saadiah Gaon claims he “entered the matter into his memory”, as if to do something about this strife in the future; Rashi reads the second half of this verse against its context and hints that Jacob was ignorant of the discord in his home.

Jacob’s silence in the face of growing hatred was a contributing factor to the enslavement and imprisonment of his favorite son.  His guilt is not on the level of Judah, who negotiated the sale, or the other brothers who were willing accomplices. However, it seems clear to me that Jacob bears responsibility for failing to try and mitigate a remarkably hostile situation.  Likewise, only one assassin killed Yitzhak Rabin.  While those who helped create and foster that hate didn’t have their fingers on the trigger, they are nonetheless accessories to the crime.  And, as we learn from the story of Jacob’s stony silence, those of us who literally walked through Israel’s environment of animosity on a daily basis—and could pretty well guess where it might lead—are not without blame ourselves.

Those who fan the flames of hatred bear responsibility for the ultimate incarnation of the hostility they generate.  But those who stand by idly while they watch temperatures boil, in my opinion, need to bring themselves to account as well.  I cannot comment on the killing of Kennedy; that was not my time.  But as we—on this 50th anniversary of his life being stolen—gather to learn the lessons of painful assassinations, we should examine the epidemic of enmity in our world today, and figure out how we make sure we do not replicate Jacob’s sin of keeping silent.  On this day of sad memorial, let us work to unsure there will be fewer days of sad memory for our children and grandchildren.  Let us commit to counter the culture of ceaseless hatred that threatens to unravel the very fabric of our civilized society.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.