The enduring tragedy of Rabin’s murder

The enduring tragedy of Rabin’s murder

Monday, October 18, marked the 25th yahrzeit of Yitzchak Rabin, who was killed 26 years ago on the 12th of Cheshvan. Next Thursday, November 4, will mark the secular anniversary.

Yigal Amir killed Yitzchak Rabin. That is not open to dispute. Even today, 26 years later, he shows no remorse for having done so. Yet a question remains: Who encouraged him to do so?

The very uncomfortable answer is that we all did.

All of us—left, right, and center; Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and secular; Zionist, non-Zionist, and anti-Zionist—did very little to defend Jewish values from the day in September 1993 when Rabin and the late Yasir Arafat shook hands in the White House Rose Garden, the act that led to that tragic Saturday night a little more than two years later. We—all of us—allowed the level of debate in the Jewish world over the agreement the two men signed that September day in the Rose Garden to reach beyond the acrimonious to the ominous.

Let a leader rise up in Israel who advocates a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and that person is demonized, vilified, made the object of prayers for his or her death.

The peace process, however, is for the moment only. Either it eventually will succeed or it will not. We, however, are for eternity. God said as much over and again in so many ways. We are not for the moment. We are meant to be forever.

But there is a catch to that. We are forever only if we live up to God’s covenant with us.

Of far more lasting consequence than a peace process is the abuse of the values and ethics of Judaism, an abuse that took place over a quarter of a century ago as we remained much too passive, and that to some degree continues to take place even today.

God chose Abraham to be our founding father because he would teach his children—teach us—to do tzedakah u-mishpat, to do what is righteous and just. God intended for us to be God’s “nation of priests” to the world. We were meant to show the world by the manner of our existence that there is a nobler path, and that there are great rewards for those who tread that nobler path.

God’s eternal covenant with us was not gratuitous; it involved—and still involves—a quid pro quo: to do what is righteous and just, and by the example of our lives to teach that way to the world.

Among our most cherished values are civil speech, tempered dialogue, and moderate behavior. There is good reason why sins committed through speech comprise better than one-fourth of all the Al Cheyts we recite every year on Yom Kippur.

Yet when we, the Jewish communities the world over, rallied for or against the peace process in the period leading up to that dark night in 1995, we rallied for the wrong reasons. We should have been rallying against the violation of these values and against the violators.

When a Chabad-affiliated rabbi declared only weeks before the assassination that it was halachically permissible to assassinate Yitzchak Rabin, we should have gone by the busload to protest outside his home and synagogue. Yet for the most part. there were no such protests. His congregation disassociated itself from his remarks, but that was the extent of it.

For months before the assassination, some radical Orthodox rabbis distributed a prayer to be said three times a day as part of the daily Amidah that called on God to “protect us and save us” from the “destroyers and spoilers.” We did not rally in protest.

When certain Anglo-Jewish newspapers published bare-faced lies and vitriolic commentary with abandon, we still did not rally in protest.

Whenever we heard someone call Yitzchak Rabin a traitor with the blood of terror victims on his hands, we should have loudly praised Rabin as a patriot whose actions, regardless of whether we agreed with them, came from a sincere desire to end the cycle of bloodshed in the Middle East, but we did not.

We should have done many things, but most of us did nothing.

The murder of Yitzchak Rabin was comparable to only one of the numerous political assassinations in history—the murder 2,600 years ago of Gedaliah Ben Achikam, whom the Babylonians put in charge of Judah after the defeat of the kingdom of Judah. He was murdered by a religious fanatic named Yishmael ben Netanyahu, ostensibly in the name of God.

There is an irony in the assassin’s name, because Benjamin Netanyahu helped stoke the hatred against Rabin. In July 1995, Bibi led a mock funeral procession featuring a coffin and a hangman’s noose at an anti-Rabin rally where protesters chanted “Death to Rabin.” When Shin Bet chief Carmi Gillon warned Bibi that there was a plot on Rabin’s life and urged him to help tone down the hateful rhetoric he and others were using, Bibi refused to do so. He later denied that he ever intended to incite violence—and he ended up being Israel’s longest serving prime minister to date, a position he hopes to regain in the future.

Gedaliah’s assassination began a process that, within five years, led to our expulsion from our homeland, and the beginning of an exile that for the majority of us has continued from that day to this. That is why, even before our Sages of Blessed Memory came on the scene, we already marked the day of that murder by fasting and with prayer. To this day, the 3rd of Tishrei, the day after Rosh Hashanah, is known as Tzom Gedaliah, the Fast of Gedaliah.

By all rights, the story of the Jewish people should have ended when that First Exile began. Everything we were was rooted in the land—our identity, our culture, our sacred traditions, our modes of worship, even God’s promises to us. Other peoples, faced with a similar fate, disappeared from history. Gedaliah’s murder should have led to our extinction.

Yet we survived. We had Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Zechariah and many people whose names we do not know—prophets of God and men of vision who were filled with Ahavat Yisrael, with love for the People Israel. They would not let us shrivel and die, and we did not.

As it was with the murder of Gedaliah ben Achikam, so it is with the murder of Yitzchak ben Nechemiah.

The historians of another century, God forbid, may look back on the 12th of Cheshvan, 5756, and see that on that day there began an equally tragic process that will be mourned for thousands of years to come. We have no visionary leaders today like Jeremiah or Ezekiel, who can rise above their individual beliefs to turn tragedy into triumph. If such leaders do exist, they have yet to show themselves to us.

There need not be a Tzom Yitzchak in the future as there is a Tzom Gedaliah today. There is time for the Jewish people—in Israel and out, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and secular, peace now or peace later or even peace never—to come together. There is time, but as yet there are few signs that this is possible.

The gun that killed Yitzchak Rabin need not be the starter pistol for disaster. But first, all of us must be willing to let go of our arrogance and our triumphalism; all of us must be willing to admit that no one of us has all the answers, and that the answers coming from the other side may be as valid as our own. To demonize those with whom we disagree is to violate doing what is righteous and just.

Arrogance and triumphalism led one Jew to kill another in the name of God—2,600 years ago and again 26 years ago—and the course of Jewish history was changed for the worse by those events.

All of us must recognize that Judaism is not one thing or the other; Judaism is everything together—a religion, a nationality, a system of values and ethics, a way of living, an approach to God. It is the strict constructionism of sages such as Shammai and the reformist liberalism of sages such as Hillel.

Above all, it is about being proactive in doing what is righteous and just.

We still have not confronted the question of how our collective inertia played a part in the killing of Yitzchak Rabin 26 years ago.

If we, both from our sectarian perspectives and as a community as a whole, do not soon confront what it means to do what is righteous and just, which is the only reason we exist as a people, and if we do not act upon what we learn about it, we will have only ourselves to blame for the consequences.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is