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A legacy of “us,” not “them”

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.

Where were you when Rabin was assassinated? Everyone who remembers the murder remembers where they were when it happened. It was an event so shattering that the question of your location in relation to it is always relevant, even 25 years later. But location is not just a physical reference point, and mine has changed over the years, as has Israeli society’s.

Home

I wish I could say that I was in the square, demonstrating for peace, when Rabin was assassinated. But the truth is, I was at home, asleep. My whole family was asleep. It was a Saturday night and I had a school trip planned for the next morning. Around midnight, a phone call woke up our household, terrifying us all. It was my teacher who called to tell us that the trip was canceled, and when she explained why, we were shocked.

Michal Zamir

Michal Zamir

As we watched the news on TV on a loop, I realized that something crazy had happened. But as a child, I could not comprehend the enormity of the event. The only time I was able to feel real pain was during Noa Ben-Artzi’s eulogy. She did not want to talk about peace but about her grandfather, and I could already easily relate to that.

Israeli society, like me, was snoozing at home, sitting on the sofa while incitement raised its ugly head. No one imagined that something like this could happen, and the sense of astonishment was immense. The Israeli house, which had been built in a hurry, fell apart.

Fences

What do you do when a house falls apart? You might think of it as an opportunity to strengthen the foundations and build a new home, a house that can enfold the strengths of all Israeli communities and population groups.

Instead, fences were built everywhere, marking territories, borders and separations. Sometimes real fences and sometimes invisible, symbolic fences that allowed us a comfortable distance from anyone with different opinions or ideas. People lost their unique identities to flat, meaningless labels: left, right, settler, religious, secular, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi.

The way in which the fence is constructed in Israeli society, both then and now, splits us down the middle and leads to stereotypical conclusions and “either/or” judgements. If you are educated, support peace, and live in the center, you are probably an Ashkenazi who votes left. If you live in the periphery, chances are high that you wear a kippah, are Mizrahi and right-wing. Israeli society now emphasizes “them” and “us”: We are in the right, we are the wise ones, and they are the stupid ones, in the wrong.

There are, of course, those who benefit from all this division. The divide and conquer tactic allows the political leadership to hold onto power while each group is busy protecting itself. The problem with fences is that they do not allow us to look beyond and come to the understanding that everything is more nuanced and that we are actually together in this story. That we all have a place here and we also have a shared responsibility for our country.

I grew up in an Mizrahi house, in a neighborhood on the social periphery of Israel. As a teenager and as an adult, I experienced outright Israeli racism. I learned about the way in which one is pre-judged based on preconceptions based on specific components of my identity. I mourned the absence of the other aspects of my identity. I wanted to be someone else. As a teenager, I built a position for myself, worked on building a clear identity, looked for my “we” and asked to belong to it.

Tents

We mark 25 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in a year when all of humanity is in crisis. In Israel, there are also social, political, and medical rifts. The Israeli public is divided and agitated. Every evening there are demonstrations asking the prime minister to take responsibility and resign, every evening we witness unbearable violence against demonstrators, whether by the police or by supporters of the government.

As an adult, I was already tired of an imaginary house that is not really stable and I was certainly fed up with fences. It took me a while to understand who I am, to realize that my story as a Mizrahi young woman is not my own private story, but a collective story of a generation that experienced covert and overt racism. But, once you know who you are, it’s easier to let go. Today I am busy blurring the boundaries.

Today I want to build a tent. Why a tent? Because we can all put up a tent ourselves, and that is the essence of active citizenship that we are lacking as a society. A tent is not safe and comfortable, therefore it requires us to be vigilant, alert to adversity and social injustices. A tent is open for all to enter, to get to know each other and become closer. A tent is flexible, it allows us to change, to face the challenges of the hour and get back to ourselves, to be together.

I go out to demonstrate with my children, and explain to them why it is important to go out, to have a voice, to take responsibility. We decide together what to write on our signs. We want to find a message that connects and draws others in, a message that is “for” and not “against,” a message that has responsibility.

Finally, we go for the words of Israeli songwriter Ehud Manor, and his words of love for this country, my country, and also for its people, words of longing for a good life for all of us.

“I have no other country,
I won’t be silent because my country
has changed her face.
I will not give up
reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes”

Michal Zamir is the head of BINA’s Secular Yeshiva in Be’er Sheva.

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