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Learning from the Murder of Rabin

Sixteen years ago today, Yitzhak Rabin was murdered at a mass rally in Tel Aviv by a Jewish extremist who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords. At 73 years old, Rabin had devoted his entire life to service of the Jewish people and the state of Israel, starting from his enlistment in the Palmach, serving as a commander in Israel’s War of Independence, and rising to the rank of Chief of Staff, leading Israel to its mind-blowing victory in the Six-Day War. His political career was no less impressive, working as Israel’s ambassador to the United States—Israel’s single most important diplomatic position—Minister of Defense and, twice, Prime Minister. Lest we forget, he was also a husband, father and grandfather, a Jew and a human being.

Yet all of this did not stop Yigal Amir, an Orthodox Jew and a product of the hesder yeshiva system—the community in Israel with which Yeshiva University has most in common—from gunning him down in cold blood. The assassination itself was the result of a long process of the demonization of Rabin conducted by large segments of the Israeli right-wing in general and the religious community in particular. One need only watch the extremely disturbing depictions of Rabin at the right-wing rallies at the time (viewable on YouTube) to get a sense of the public culture at the time. He is portrayed as a Nazi, a dangerous enemy of the Jewish people, and there are explicit calls for his assassination. Mainstream figures spoke to roaring crowds at these rallies, and one of these speakers is currently serving his second term as Prime Minister. Considering this backdrop, though it came as shock, it should not have been a surprise that Amir believed that Rabin fell under the halakhic status of a rodef (fleeing murderer), classifying him as a threat to the Jewish people that had to be eliminated.

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, more so than other tragedy in recent Jewish history, has much to teach the Jewish people about the need for increased dialogue, unity and tolerance over walking the paths of demonization, exclusiveness, and violence. It should ingrain in our collective memory, forever, that our leadership can only be changed with ballots, not bullets. It should remind us of the Israel of June 1, 1967, when during the terrifying days immediately leading up to the Six Day War, the response of the Jewish people was to form its first national unity government. It was understood that the only way the Jewish people even stood a chance of dealing with external threats was if there was internal cohesion, and Menachem Begin—the most distinguished member of Israel’s opposition for decades—was appointed as a minister to the previously leftist government.

Sadly, this sentiment did not last, and stricter divisions along political and religious lines existed in the aftermath of the victory in 1967. The internal war between the poles of Israeli society (which, in a nutshell, can be classified as Gush Emunim v. Peace Now) intensified. The rest is history, and the only question we can ask ourselves now is how we should react. Rabin’s murder, first and foremost, should alert us to the depths we have fallen so that we can appreciate the progress that still needs to be made. As students of Yeshiva University, a self-identifying Religious-Zionist institution, it is imperative we recognize that this burden falls on our shoulders.

Disappointingly, as I recall various experiences that I have had over the course of my tenure at YU (and somewhat earlier), I can’t help but think that we have utterly failed in this regard. The most blatant example occurred during my shana bet (second year) in Israel, when one of the leading Roshei Yeshiva of RIETS, while visiting Yeshivat HaKotel, was asked a halakhic question regarding the requirement to follow orders while serving in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). He responded, “If the army is going to give away Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), then I would tell everyone to resign from the army - I’d tell them to shoot the Rosh Hamemshala (Prime Minister).” More scarily, the audience reacted with laughter. Now, there are only two options. Either he was serious or he was making a joke. If he was being serious about calling for the theoretical assassination of a Prime Minister, I would hope that immediate steps would have been taken on the part of YU to depose him of his position. But even if we afford him the benefit of the doubt by assuming that it was meant in jest, it behooves us to recognize the terrible tragedy that such a comment could be considered a joke (which it was) only a decade after an Orthodox Jew understood strikingly similar comments from his rabbis to be quite serious.

But the problem runs much deeper than the infrequent call for a political assassination. There is a culture at YU in which we are wholly dismissive of individuals in the broader Jewish community with whom we have disagreements. At best, they are dismissed as irrelevant, and at worst, perceived as threats to the sanctity of our institution and student body. This process, in which the types of speakers and opinions that can be expressed at student-run events is severely limited, brews radicalism and condescension toward those with whom we do not see eye-to-eye.

For example, during my first year of YU, I attended the panel featuring homosexual graduates of Yeshiva describing their respective struggles. The event itself was the most well-attended that I can ever recall seeing on our campus, perhaps signifying (what I feel to be) a widely-held sentiment among Modern Orthodox students that engaging in this public discussion was of great necessity. The reaction of the rabbinic faculty (minus a few saints, who, if you recall, took heavy criticism), though, was extremely upsetting, if not outright embarrassing. Should we really be surprised by homophobia in the Orthodox community if the reaction of our rabbinic leadership to the event was as intolerant as it was? Should we be shocked that a shooting occurred at a gay center in Tel Aviv two years ago, killing a 24-year-old man and 17-year-old woman?

The end result need not be bloodshed in order to appreciate the gravity of the problem, and the negative effects of this intolerant attitude are observable on a plethora of other issues. How does our institution and, particularly, its rabbinic faculty, relate to more liberal forms of Judaism than those practiced in the Glueck Beit Midrash? Over my two and a half years at YU, I have had the misfortune of encountering this close-mindedness in different forms. Roshei Yeshiva called for the complete breaking of ties with any community that endorses female rabbinic ordination; casualties in the Yom Kippur War were blamed on the sexual promiscuity of secular Jews; and Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Mechon Hadar was barred from speaking on campus. Even more common are personal attacks on figures who are associated with movements that diverge from our own. Dialogue and discussion seem to be the last things on our minds, and this climaxed with the formation of the infamous Censorship Committee, which now prohibits a significant portion of leading Jewish figures from appearing on our campus. This policy must be recognized as a dangerous formula for destroying any sense of unity between ourselves and the larger Jewish community, and the effect this sentiment has is already clearly observable by the people with whom we choose to identify. While numerous eulogies were given on campus this past week for Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel, Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir yeshiva, there was (to the best of my knowledge) not a single mention when Rabbi Hanan Porat, a leader of Gush Emunim, passed away several weeks ago, nor any mention of the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination.

Yes, it is true: there are fundamental disagreements between the Roshei Yeshiva of our institution and those of other rabbinical seminaries and other communal Jewish leaders. I am not arguing that YU needs to accept a culture of complete pluralism, and there is a whole host of ideas with which it is obviously impossible for Orthodoxy to jive. What can be accomplished, however, is significant improvement of the way we relate to those with whom we disagree. There seems to be an assumption that any viewpoint expressed on this campus implies implicit legitimization of said opinion by the administration and, therefore, we need to limit the voices that can preach here. This mentality is incredibly misguided, and fixing this perspective must be our first course of action, for two reasons. First, it is crucial that even students who disagree with a given position are able to gain exposure to human beings who do hold such positions, in order to better appreciate their own context in the broader Jewish world and beyond. Moreover, is anyone really shallow enough to assume that the YU community is so monolithic that there are no students who identify with ideologies other than those propagated within the halls of the beit midrash? Should these students not be provided with outlets for serious Jewish expression, or is it really better for these students to completely fall through the cracks of Judaism?

To conclude, as Jews living in the 21st century, the term “never again” is frequently heard within our community. It fits more situations better than others, if only because we cannot always control the external threats that face us. With regard to Rabin’s assassination, however, it most certainly is within our power to declare and implement “never again.” It is completely within our control to determine how we relate to our fellow brethren and to ensure that a healthier, more positive form of tolerance is employed within our halls. In essence, it is up to ourselves to ensure that the untimely death of Yitzhak Rabin was not in vain.


May his memory be blessed.