A year ago, I was invited to speak at a Tel Aviv gathering commemorating the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The prime minister was murdered on Nov. 4, 1995, * by a Jewish radical who opposed the Rabin government's policy of negotiating with the Palestinians. The murder shook Israeli society to the core.
I decided to open my remarks with an insensitive joke:
One day, when George W. Bush was still president, he took a jog through Washington. As he approached the Washington Monument, the sitting president asked the founding father, "What should I do?" "Abolish the IRS, and start over," was Washington's response.
Bush considered this advice and kept jogging. Eventually he arrived at the Jefferson Memorial for another Q&A session. "Tom, what should I do?" the president asked. Jefferson replied, "Abolish welfare, and start over."
President Bush kept running until he got to the Lincoln Memorial. "Abe, what should I do?" Bush asked. Lincoln responded, "Why don't you take the evening off and spend some time at the theater?"
I though some people in the audience might be angered by that opening, but nothing happened. And it seemed to me this was a good sign. I was able to get away with a partisan joke, denigrating Bush but also toying humorously with assassination—at a Rabin memorial. As rage fades, and shock makes room for sober recollection, the Rabin assassination cannot keep its position on a pedestal of things that cannot be joked about.
Attendance at the event was pretty unimpressive. Marking the anniversary had been an annual tradition at this synagogue, but last year's gathering was the last such commemoration. As the number of people who showed up continued to decline, the synagogue decided to do away with the speakers and singers and make do with a religious service. This year, the 15th anniversary, it could barely attract a minyan—the 10-person quorum required for Jewish communal payer.
This declining interest is evident all across Israel. The annual rally at the square where Rabin was killed took place on Saturday, apparently for the last time—TV stations refused to broadcast the event live for lack of interest, though public television was eventually pressured into doing so. A legislator from Rabin's Labor Party made waves by suggesting they "remove Rabin's picture from the party's meeting room." Rabin Day (marked in Israel two weeks ago, in accordance with the Jewish calendar) is losing altitude and has already turned into an educational program, since kids currently in high school have no memory of Rabin or that terrible Saturday in the city square.
The truth is, Rabin Day never conveyed a cohesive message to the Israeli public. The political left adopted it as a way to promote the "Rabin as peace-maker" narrative, turning anniversary rallies into peace demonstrations. The political right complained that it was pushed away by this approach and by the tendency of some self-appointed Rabin torchbearers to keep reminding the Israeli public of the many sins of the Israeli right—namely, the harsh rhetoric used by right-wing leaders in the months leading up to the assassination. So, to many, Rabin Day had become a time for acrimony rather than solemn tribute.
In the years immediately after the murder, Rabin Day was also a time for forums for "dialogue" and "reconciliation" between different sectors of Israel's society. These events have also faded since the collapse of the peace process and the emerging Israeli consensus. Most Israelis have lost all illusions that peace will be reached soon, or that it is likely to look like the rosy picture once painted by the peace camp. But most have also long realized that when the time comes, the price in concessions will be high, and they are ready to pay it if they're assured that it will bring security. (This consensus is hardly understood and is generally misinterpreted by foreign media.)
Within Israel, political tensions aren't nearly as toxic as they were in the mid-'90s. Israelis are no longer divided—as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aptly noted in this year's ceremony. The Rabin assassination might have something to do with that, having taught responsible politicians to tone down their rhetoric. But it has more to do with Israelis seeing no point in debating things on which they generally agree.
All this leaves Rabin Day with no "legacy" to carry forward. Some of the first people to acknowledge that were members of the Rabin family: In 2008, his son, Yuval, said he might vote for Netanyahu, his father's onetime archrival. Rabin's daughter, Dalia, recently told Israelis that her father hadn't been completely happy with the way the peace process was going and had considered halting it. The family realized that politicizing the assassination—making Rabin a hero of the left—would deny him the admiration of the country as a whole. Politicians and columnists followed the family's lead and suggested that a more consensual lesson about democratic values be drawn from the assassination.
However, that kind of message cannot convey the emotion of the murder. It can hardly drive people to attend rallies and marches. It is a message for classrooms, somber official ceremonies, "history books," and, well, even the occasional joke.
Some will see the inevitable decline of Rabin Day as proof that Israel no longer wants peace, or that Israelis' democratic values have eroded, or even that Rabin's murder "was a perfect crime that paid off."
That is nonsense.
I didn't have many meetings with Rabin; I mostly followed him from the sidelines. But I have a vivid memory of the first time I had the privilege of meeting him. I was very young, 19 or 20 years old, serving at the IDF radio station. At the time, Rabin was the defense minister, and I was tasked with producing an hourlong interview with him to be broadcast on the eve of the Jewish New Year.
I remember going into the meeting room at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, carrying the tapes on which the two anchors would record the interview. And I remember Rabin, a cigarette on the go, looking at them somewhat impatiently. "Does it have to be a whole hour? Can't we just make this a 10-minute interview?" he asked, only half-jokingly.
More than anything else, Rabin was a hands-on, we-have-business-to-do type of leader. He was not a great orator, nor a philosopher king; rather he was the manifestation of everyday, no-nonsense Israeli-ness. He was the rational, secular voice of an Israel that has no impossible dreams but also no messianic fantasies. That was his great charm, and that's why Israelis like me still miss him.
So, forgetting Rabin is no sin. Of course, we shouldn't really forget him—but letting the emotional impact of Rabin Day subside, adjusting his "heritage" to new times and new generations, shortening commemorative ceremonies, doing away with the big rallies, and someday even joking about the assassination? Those are the best ways to remember Rabin the way he really was. It is the right way to honor his legacy of normalcy, to pay tribute to his instinctive resistance to pomposity, to follow in his footsteps.