November 4 is his yahrzeit, counting by the secular calendar, as this secular Jew preferred: the 15th anniversary of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. Those who remember his death that Saturday night, the 12th of Heshvan by the traditional calendar, can well recall the convulsive trauma that sent shockwaves around the globe. It was only the second time in history that a ruling prime minister in Jerusalem was assassinated by a fellow Jew. The previous incident, 2,591 years ago, was declared a fast day that is still observed today. But times have changed. These days, a decade and a half is a whole historical epoch, long enough for even the enduring memories to fade.
And the forgetting has indeed begun. The crowds have been steadily dwindling at the annual memorial rally at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. This year’s rally is probably the last. A survey by Army Radio in 2001, just six years after the murder, found roughly half of all Jewish Israelis saying they did not miss him much, or not at all. This past summer’s Israeli army draftees, the 18-year-olds now finishing their basic training, may be the first class of novice warriors with no memory of the old soldier and no recollection of where they were when he died.
Time has a way of easing the pain of great loss. The pain loses its piercing edge, the loss fades into memory and there is healing. That’s not so in Rabin’s case. For those who believed in him and his path, at least, his loss was not merely personal. He embodied a hope for an Israel at peace with its neighbors, and a vision of how to get there through reconciliation and compromise. His assassin wanted to kill that hope and that vision, and he succeeded.
Make no mistake: Those who opposed Rabin’s vision overwhelmingly share the grief at his death. They’re often accused collectively of gloating at his downfall. This is unfair and hurtful. Except for a tiny minority, the right mourns him as a hero and laments the violence that cut him down, no less than the left. But the right’s grief is of a different sort. Time can heal it. The murder did not crush their vision. On the contrary.
Time and history have a capricious relationship with one another. The first Jewish prime minister ever to be assassinated was Gedaliah ben-Ahikam, murdered in 582 B.C.E, four years after the destruction of the First Temple by the armies of Babylonia. (Some say it was 581 B.C.E., five years after.) His death is commemorated each year with the solemn Fast of Gedaliah immediately after Rosh Hashanah.
Gedaliah had been appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, to govern the remnant of Jews permitted to stay behind after the Temple was destroyed and the bulk of the population was exiled to Babylon. The assassin, as told in the books of Jeremiah and Second Kings, was a minor member of the royal family, Ishmael ben-Netanyah.
According to the account in Jeremiah, Ishmael was recruited by the king of Ammon, today’s Jordan, who feared Gedaliah would revive the Judean kingdom as a regional power. Some biblical scholars claim Ishmael was peeved that he wasn’t made governor. A few suggest that Ishmael may have wanted to punish Gedaliah for collaborating with the Babylonian occupier.
Whatever the true motive, the crime itself is fixed in tradition as one of the great calamities of Jewish history, almost on a par with the destruction of the Temple itself. That view of the assassination crystallized almost immediately afterward, so quickly that the fast is mentioned in the Book of Zechariah, written in Babylonia barely a half-century later. Zechariah mentions it as one of four fast days associated with the destruction. The others are the Tenth of Tevet, just after Hanukkah, when the siege of Jerusalem began; the 17th of Tammuz, in July, when the city walls were breached; and the Ninth of Av, three weeks later, when the Temple was torched.
Why was a sordid murder in a colonial backwater treated with the same urgency as the great historical drama of destruction and exile? The Talmud explains: “The death of the righteous is a calamity equal to the burning of the House of God.” This has two meanings. First, it’s a straightforward observation that the assassination of Gedaliah extinguished the last vestige of Jewish sovereignty, effectively completing the destruction of Jerusalem. Second, it’s a warning about the gravity of attacking a nation’s legitimate institutions of sovereignty. An attack on a nation’s iconic institutions is an attack on the nation and its people.
Yitzhak Rabin devoted his entire life to the service of his nation as a soldier and a statesman, in war and in peace, in triumph and tragedy. As a soldier, he faithfully did his duty under a succession of governments with varying visions. As a statesman, he was faithful to the vision of Israel’s founders, of the Israel that raised him — a nation that proudly aspired to be part of the family of nations, that cared for the stranger and the poor, that would go a great distance to make peace but always kept its powder dry.
Like Gedaliah, he became an outsize symbol of the nation that he served. Like Gedaliah, his goal was to turn an enemy into a friend. Like Gedaliah, his death brought an ugly end to the vision he fought for, leaving his students and comrades orphaned and bereft, at least for a time. Some who mourn his death might find some consolation in that ending. Others of us will find it a source of bottomless grief.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog at www.forward.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).