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Remembering Rabin — 24 Years Later

By Ralph Seliger

On Sunday, November 3rd, the Manhattan JCC commemorated the 24th anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination (Nov. 4, 1995) with a public event featuring  Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-Israeli writer.  Yossi Klein (as he was known when growing up in the US) began his activism in New York as a teenaged disciple of rightwing extremist Meir Kahane in the Jewish Defense League; he wrote about this in his first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, published shortly before Rabin’s murder in ’95.  As a young person, he quickly moved to the left, but has spent most of his career since as a self-avowed centrist.  

In the 1990s and into the 2000s, he followed the political migrations of most Israeli voters, voting with the winners — from Rabin in ’92, to Netanyahu in ’96, to Barak in ’99, to Sharon in 2001, and then to Olmert.  When I saw him addressing a Modern Orthodox Manhattan synagogue in 2013, he was firmly touting “centrism” by expressing enthusiasm for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party. 

As I noted in my PPI blog post at the time, Klein argued that the Palestinian Authority/PLO leadership should recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” in exchange for a partial freeze on settlements (excluding the three “settlement blocs”).  Then and now, I wish that there were sufficient support on both sides for such a reboot of a peace process aimed at a two-state solution, but the construction freeze might need to include the settlement blocs — the thickly-settled areas contiguous with the pre-1967 border, which most Israelis would like to annex as part of a territorial exchange.   

What I learned at the JCC talk the other week is that Klein never trusted the Oslo Accords that Rabin reached with Arafat during his tenure as prime minister in the 1990s.  Klein even believes that Rabin was distancing himself from Oslo at the time of his death.  I see the exact opposite, with this contrary evidence: the unusual enthusiasm he showed at the massive peace rally that fatal evening, including his equally uncharacteristic decision to remain until its conclusion.  

Klein also denounced the Israeli NGOs, Breaking the Silence and Combatants for Peace, as extreme leftists.  The next day, I happened to attend a presentation at my Manhattan synagogue for Combatants for Peace, about which there will be more later.  

But although clearly not a leftist, he’s not a rightist either.  First, he expressed regret that rightwing and religious-Zionist youth did not join with the other Zionist youth groups attending the event at the JCC (in uniform).  He saw the need to observe Rabin’s death as a momentous tragedy for the Jewish people and as a modern parallel to the Fast of Gedaliah, observed immediately after Rosh Hashanah to commemorate the death of a moderate Jewish leader who was also murdered by a Jewish nationalist fanatic.

Still, he views both opposite poles of the political spectrum as ignoring what’s happened in the past 20 years, with “the left” living in the 1990s with “naive” hopes for peace, and “the right” residing in the 1970s with its denial of Palestinian peoplehood and that Israel has been occupying their land since 1967.  He sees the occupation as bad, but apparently envisions no realistic way out. 

As for the NGOs he scorns, I don’t know a lot about Breaking the Silence, but I’m most favorably impressed by what I’ve seen of Combatants for Peace.  Almost exactly four years ago, I wrote “Breakfast with Palestinian Peace Activists” on my meeting with two leading Palestinian CfP activists, one of whom, Sulaiman (Souli) Khatib, I’ve met and stayed in touch with since.  It was Souli who appeared alongside Tuly Flint, a retired IDF lieutenant colonel, at Congregation Ansche Chesed, speaking about their backgrounds and the experiences that transformed them into working cooperatively toward peace. 

I asked Souli about the kind of opposition he meets from “anti-normalization” Palestinians, who oppose working with any Israelis, including anti-occupation activists.  His candid response was that criticism doesn’t bother him, but also that he benefits from the “street cred” he earned for having served ten years in an Israeli prison for a non-fatal knife attack on an Israeli soldier when he was 14 years old.  If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend the film, “Disturbing the Peace,”  which documents how Combatants for Peace was created and the kind of work it does.

Postscript:  Speaking of films, a new narrative movie, “Incitement,” is Israel’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Oscar competition (click here for a Jewish Currents feature).  In Jan. 2016, I reviewed “The Last Day,” an Israeli film that dramatically recreates the events that led to his murder, and the investigation that followed (click here for “Rabin’s Last Day and the Israeli Right’s Rise to Dominance”). 

Postscript 2:  There’s this Haaretz article about six American IDF veterans testifying for Breaking the Silence on their experiences in the occupation.  One is Nathan Hersh, a former director of Partners for Progressive Israel with whom I used to work.  

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