October 29, 2020 is by the Jewish calendar the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin z"l, by a Jewish religious extremist opposed to Rabin's peacemaking with the Palestinians. This is the D'var Torah I gave five years ago for Rabin's yahrzeit.
This is the week of the 20th yahrzeit for Yitzchak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel who was assassinated by a Jewish religious religious fanatic. By the Jewish calendar it was last Sunday, and by the secular calendar next Wednesday. His murder took place in the first hours of the week of פרשת וירא, this morning’s reading, and I will never forget one of the headlines in an Israeli paper the week of his funeral: עקדת יצחק, the sacrifice of Yitzchak.
There is a particular story told about Yitzchak Rabin in all the biographies and memoirs from Israel’s War of Independence. It was June of 1948, only about a month after the State of Israel officially came into being. The Jews of Jerusalem were under siege, living truly near starvation, because the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was cut off around its midpoint by the Arab Legion, which was holding a police fortress in a place called Latrun. The Israelis had already tried several times to storm Latrun without success. The fortress was on ground just high enough to see the plain around it, and the Israelis did not have enough troops to take it by overwhelming force. The battles for Latrun had been some of the costliest in the war in terms of lives lost; many of the soldiers had been refugees from the Holocaust, just liberated from displaced persons camps, with almost no training and no language in common to hear instructions in battle.
As dire as the siege was in Jerusalem, there were Arab armies threatening Jewish areas all over the country. The Israeli commanders felt they had to make choices about where to deploy their limited number of trained forces, and they knew that attacking Latrun again would be futile But David Ben Gurion was obsessed with Latrun and had summoned his army leaders repeatedly to demand an attack on Latrun to open the road to Jerusalem.
The commanders responsible in early June for the area of the road to Jerusalem included Mickey Marcus, an American Jew and experienced solider who had come to volunteer. Some of you may know him and this part of the war through the film “Cast a Giant Shadow”, where he was played by Kirk Douglas. Also Yigal Allon, commander of the Palmach, the most elite and well-trained Jewish fighting group. Yitzchak Rabin was the young commander of the Harel Brigade of the Palmach. Ben Gurion summonded his commanders, and Alon and Marcus knew they would be asked to divert their scarce resources to Latrun, and when they would object they would be subject to Ben Gurion’s fury.
So they decided instead to sacrifice Yitzchak. The 26-year-old Rabin went by himself to talk to Ben-Gurion, to present an alternative proposal. By accident, one of Rabin’s underlings had discovered a way to go around Latrun, out of sight of the Arabs, and create a path for supplies to get to Jerusalem. Rabin would propose that they pave a new supply route and avoid Latrun altogether.
When Rabin came to Ben Gurion, the prime minister lived up to his name, son of a lion cub, and flew into a two-hour rage. Yitzchak was astounded as Ben Gurion at one point threatened to shoot his own commander, Yigal Allon, in the head, but Rabin stood his ground. Where other times Ben Gurion had overruled a more senior commander and ordered an attack on Latrun, not this time. The attack did not take place, the road was built, and the siege of Jerusalem came to an end just in the nick of time.
For people who knew Rabin or wrote later about his life, that confrontation with Ben Gurion exemplified a couple key things about the man. His wife Leah wrote in her memoir that as a commander and a statesman, Yitzchak was fanatical about his goals and but always looking for the least costly way to achieve them. He tried to minimize risk to soldiers in battle -- by doing his own detail work of intelligence and reconnaissance to outmaneuver his enemy, by considering creative alternatives, rather than relying on superior force alone which could lose more more lives. After Ben Gurion, Rabin was probably the most detail-oriented and methodical prime minister Israel has ever had.
The confrontation with Ben-Gurion also showed how little Rabin was interested in ingratiating himself with anyone if those things put the mission at risk. He didn’t care overly about the feelings of his peers or his superiors, but about the many people he knew less well, the men who served under him. So Rabin didn’t bother to join Mapai, Ben Gurion’s political party, even though he would have advanced much faster if he had. He had no hesitation when he was prime minister about cutting his own mentor, Yigal Allon, down to size when he disagreed with him.
Later on, as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and then as prime minister, Rabin could be plenty sharp and critical. He could seem detached. But at the same time, and this was key -- as long as he could win he had no need to demonize the people who disagreed with him.
These were not the things we call people skills. Rabin was not a jolly man, and in no way a glad-handing politician. Leah reprints a letter she received when they were dating in the mid-1940s and Yitzchak was imprisoned by the British, and it was more like a business letter than a love letter. Rabin was not beloved or revered, the way his peers like Moshe Dayan would be. He didn’t unite his country when he was prime minister or when he signed the agreement with PLO on the White House lawn. It seemed ridiculous to me when Bill Clinton called Rabin his friend.
Yet without the typical people skills, Rabin was able, at key times, to surprise people and earn their trust. How could Rabin have possibly negotiated with the Palestinians? For fifty years, he had not only defeated them in battle -- he had out-organized and outwitted and outsmarted them. He had every reason to have contempt for them, as soliders and leaders, and therefore to doubt their ability to do the things they were promising -- but he chose to see them simply as opponents. Just as in 1948, Rabin was willing to fight only the battle that was necessary, in the 1990s Rabin was clear about exactly how much he needed to be the PLO’s opponent and in what ways he could be their partner.
Rabin knew that in order to bring Israelis along with the peace process, he would have to teach through his example how to balance peace ahead with justice and grief looking back. At first, he wasn’t going to go to the White House to sign the Oslo agreement, but eventually he figured out that if he didn’t, Israelis would write it off as a ridiculous dream cooked up by Shimon Peres. Rabin managed every step so carefully, relating just as in 1948 not to his fellow leaders but to the average Israeli. So he opened his speech at the White House by talking about Israeli families who would never stop grievning, he shook Arafat’s hand in the only way he could, politely but not enthusiastically.
At the White House and in later ceremonies to sign agreements with Arafat, Rabin put on his non-Israeli-style suit and looked like an adult, and made Arafat look like a child who could not take off his costume. Rabin made sure to have a working relationship with Arafat and to show that when they appeared together, but he was also carefuly not to portray to Israelis that he and Arafat were becoming friends. He was perfect for the role; he wasn’t big for smiling or scolding, his natural face and voice were holding back even when he tried to do revolutionary things.
Rabin understood that leadership is not like other relationships. He didn’t try to use on the people skills he didn’t have, because that’s not what leading his people is only about. And Rabin could lead because he was aware that he was modeling a new way of being a Jew in a new world. Not just modeling, but maybe inventing it as he went along.
In 1994, at an award ceremony honoring Israeli writers just a year after the White House handshake, Rabin said: “These days we are in the midst of a battle without cannons in a war without fire, which may turn out to be perhaps one of the most significant and decisive battles in the annals of the Jewish people in recent generations.” In that speech, he said:
Let us admit the truth: the atmosphere of siege, the hostility, and the war have elicited tremendous energies from us for almost five decades. Much of what has been achieved in the State of Israel in all areas is a direct or indirect outcome of the necessity to defend our existence, of the atmosphere of siege from which we are so glad to free ourselves these days. Ours was a productive unity, a healthy unity, standing shoulder to shoulder against the manifestations of enmity and facing a hostile world. Just between us, we have become accustomed to this lifestyle, and, already, we think we cannot do without it. Perhaps we have even come to love the pleasant warmth of power and the encircling siege.
And now? What are we to do now? What message should we deliver to our people these days? How should we avoid becoming entangled in delivering a double, and contradictory, message: are we on the brink of peace, or do we expect another war? How do we change the atmosphere that has characterized our state for generations? What should we choose – should we declaim again and again: "a state under siege," "the whole world is against us," "all the Arabs are the same"? Or perhaps we should bear a new message: "the new Middle East," "the peace of the brave," "nation shall not lift up sword against nation," "He who makes peace in heaven above..."?
How do we become accustomed to a world of new concepts, to a different culture, a different style, and at the same time not completely abandon the old world, just in case, God forbid, we might need it again? How do we maintain the invigorating rhythm of our lives, the Jewish mind, all those tremendous energies of ours, our unity – without the sword hanging over our heads?
This is the Rabin who was taken from us by his assassin. How do we become accustomed to a world of new concepts,.... and at the same time not completely abandon the old world, just in case, God forbid, we might need it again? This is who the Jewish people lost on the 12th of Marcheshvan 5755. Not necessarily the man who signed the Oslo agreement, which may well have stalled even had he lived. We lost the man who fought wars until the moment he thought they were not necessary, and was prepared to fight them again if necessary. We lost the one who hoped we might figure out how to live as Jews in the world we are in and not in the mythic worlds of dreamy peace or eternal Jew-hatred.
Rabin’s assassin took the worst message from the Akedah -- that to be Jewish is to live as though you were always just escaping a knife at your throat; and that extreme atrocities are beloved to God. That is a Judaism of no joy and no hope, an impossible Judaism -- and in the square 20 years ago a desecration of God’s name.
Yitzchak Rabin was the truer heir of the biblical Yitzchak. He lived through the wars of survival and knew they were over for his people, and he didn’t pretend to know for sure what was next or how long it would take.
We would honor Yitzchak Rabin’s memory most if we could find a way as Jews of being comfortable with our power, and with taking responsibility for how we use it. We would honor his legacy if we could take the proper measure of the threats to Israel, and to Jews, and fight them rather than our ghosts, and take satisfaction when we are defeating them That is the true spirituality of Zionism. To know the perfect place between the smile and the scold, to scowl appropriately while trying revolutionary things.
Yehi zichro baruch -- May Yitzchak’s memory be a blessing.