Rabin’s contribution was recognizing us as partners. Don’t erase it.
This essay is part of a collection of essays commemorating the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The collection was produced in partnership with BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change.
What makes someone a hero? It isn’t perfection, that much I know. Nelson Mandela supported violent resistance, Mahatma Gandhi held racist views towards South Africans, and Abraham Lincoln shared the racial prejudices of most of his white contemporaries.
We nonetheless commemorate Mandela to conjure up the importance of coexistence, Gandhi to assert the power of non-violence and Lincoln to stress the sacredness of equality. We cling to those icons and honor their memories, not necessarily to idolize who they were, for they were all essentially flawed humans, but to personify and humanize relevant and much-needed values, so that remembering those icons will reawaken and fuel those values inside us.
And what of Yitzhak Rabin, a man remembered in Israel for his attempt to bring peace to the Middle East?
It’s extremely hard for a Palestinian to view Rabin in the same light as other heroes. His flaws and the pain he brought, which have lasted generations, heavily color his legacy in our community, making discussion of him as a hero a bitter pill to swallow. Rabin was quoted telling soldiers to break the bones of Palestinians during the First Intifada. He participated in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948. His change of heart towards peace was arguably not a moral awakening — he never even recognized the Nakba; rather, it was a tactical and political realization about efficacy. And it is doubtful that the Oslo process, even if Rabin had lived, would have produced a viable and independent Palestinian state.
At the same time, Rabin’s legacy matters; in fact, it’s of paramount importance today.
Because Rabin’s legacy isn’t displacing multitudes of Palestinians or suppressing the First Intifada. Nobody hangs up his portrait to revel in how he cunningly designed Oslo to reconfigure the occupation. Rabin’s legacy — the thing he is most remembered for — is breaking a taboo by acknowledging the Palestinians as partners engaged in negotiating a solution.
That’s what Rabin represents — and why he is worth remembering.
Commemorating Rabin reinforces his own realization — that there’s no other way to end the conflict than peace. It’s a view that is crucial to reiterate, doubly so at a time where Netanyahu and his cohort are trying to bury Rabin’s legacy and instead convince us that the conflict is natural, perpetual and intractable; that Palestinian suffering can be ignored and swept under the rug; that peace means nothing.
Still, our memory of Rabin must be accurate. We must not, in insisting on the power of his realization, hail him as a hero while making no mention of his Palestinian counterparts, as if no Palestinian could ever make the cut.
What’s even more alarming is that those Palestinian partners who put their lives on the line for peace aren’t just ignored, but are often vilified, demonized and dismissed as terrorists. Even president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who’s perceived as a traitor amongst many Palestinians for his dedication to what he calls “sacred” security coordination with Israel and for renouncing and thwarting violence, is still all too often labeled a terror supporter.
There is something damaging to peace in insisting that Palestinians recognize the humanity of Israelis, but not having that reciprocated. Rabin is honored for a process in which he had a Palestinian partner. Overlooking that partner means dehumanizing Palestinians. We need to acknowledge that Rabin wasn’t a hero on his own but that he, too, was a partner in a heroic — albeit unsuccessful and limited — peace process aimed at ending the pain and suffering of all those entrapped in the conflict.
Muhammad Shehada is a contributing columnist for the Forward from Gaza. His work has also appeared in Haaretz and Vice. Find him on Twitter @muhammadshehad2.