25 Years After: Israel’s Next Generation Grapples With Prime Minister Rabin’s Assassination
Some know what happened, others don’t, and still others believe in unfounded conspiracy theories
Ask an American of a certain age their whereabouts on November 22, 1963, and they will give you an exact answer. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy left them with memories that refuse to fade with time. Ask an Israeli where they were on the night of November 4, 1995, when their country’s leader was killed, and they too will provide a precise response.
But what does the next generation, which has no direct memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, know about the events surrounding the murder?
I know exactly why he was killed. It was due to his politics and the political differences he had with opponents over a peace plan
Esther, a religious woman of 19 educated in the ultra-Orthodox Bais Yaakov school system, told The Media Line, “We really didn’t learn this in our school. We know some Jewish history but not modern Israeli history. I know some crazy person killed him.”
Lucia, a 24-year-old secular woman studying at a Jerusalem college, told The Media Line, “I know exactly why he was killed. It was due to his politics and the political differences he had with opponents over a peace plan.” She said that her education in elementary and high school included lessons about the murder.
Itamar, an 18-year-old religious youth, knew that the event happened 25 years ago after a large peace demonstration in Tel Aviv. His killer, Yigal Amir, “was a radical, he was over-the-top and exaggerated.”
His friend Eliyahu, also an 18-year-old religious youth, told The Media Line, “It was due to political differences between the Left and the Right. Rabin was killed because of his political beliefs.”
Both young men said they learned about the assassination in religious Zionist elementary and high schools.
Another young religious man named Eliyahu, 21, from the Jezreel Valley city of Afula, called Amir, the man who killed Rabin, “a bit crazy” and said “the country fell into the assassination due to all the terror attacks during the period.” His friend David, also 21 and from Afula, noted, “Rabin was killed due to all the Israelis who were upset over the peace accords, because of Israeli behavior and political differences.”
But was the assassin deranged or a radical?
Some in the religious Zionist community call him a ‘nut’ or a ‘stain’ but this is not the case. People in the community called for the murder and it happened. By stating that Amir is a sick man, they are wiping away their responsibility for his actions
Professor Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, academic director of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, and author of the 2009 book Yitzhak Rabin’s Assassination and the Dilemmas of Commemoration, posits that the country, particularly the religious Zionist community in which Amir was nurtured, needs to ask itself tougher questions.
She is not happy when the religious community educates its students that Amir is “a bad apple.”
“Some in the religious Zionist community call him a ‘nut’ or a ‘stain’ but this is not the case. People in the community called for the murder and it happened. By stating that Amir is a sick man, they are wiping away their responsibility for his actions.”
“What is so infuriating and worrisome about the assassination is that it did not come in a vacuum. It was a result of something. It was not a total surprise.”
“We sociologists call this phenomenon ‘difficult past.’ It is not more tragic than other events. Rather, it inherently makes us ashamed and embarrassed. We don’t feel comfortable and don’t want it around us,” Vinitzky-Seroussi told The Media Line.
“No less important,” she intoned, “is the question of what should take place when halacha [Jewish religious law] and state are in tension. What is going to happen in the future in similar circumstances?”
But what do Israeli youth know about Yitzhak Rabin and his assassination?
“The average student knows about Rabin the prime minister and his role as the head of the Israel army in 1967 [when, during the Six-Day War, when Israel swiftly took over the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and the Golan Heights],” says Udi Katz, who is responsible for implementing Education Ministry programs at the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. “They know he was killed due to political differences and the Oslo peace program.”
The Rabin Center, which was created by a 1997 law, sits on a verdant hillside in Tel Aviv. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Katz says, 20,000 students from schools around the country would visit the center annually to tour the museum and participate in workshops.
“The majority of students come to us from secular schools, with 25 to 30% coming from Israel’s periphery – not only geographic but also socio-economic,” he told The Media Line.
“We really want to increase by four times the number of religious students visiting the center. But the decision to visit the center is up to the principal and the head of civics teaching at each school,” Katz lamented.
One of those taking advantage of Rabin Center programming is Meir Zaraya, chairman of kibbutz ulpans [language immersion and teaching programs] in Israel and head of the Etzion Tzuba program for new Israeli immigrants, located on Kibbutz Tzuba, outside of Jerusalem.
“In every program, I take my students to Tel Aviv. Among the necessary stops are Rabin Square [formerly, Kings of Israel Square] where Rabin was assassinated, and the Rabin Center for a history lesson, not a political lesson,” Zaraya told The Media Line.
“To ensure that each student knows more, I hire guides in their mother tongue. It is important to me that they understand as well as possible. The students receive the information in their mother tongue so that they do not forget what happened,” he says.
“It is also vital to me that no politics enter the conversation. We have a session in the actual ulpan class on Rabin and his legacy. We discuss the dilemmas, the fact of the murder and ramifications after the murder. They will know what happened,” he insists.
Zaraya knows that not all kibbutz ulpans have lessons on Rabin. “It is on my agenda. They need to know about the country, Israeli history and Rabin’s assassination.”
As with all such high-profile assassinations, Rabin’s murder has spawned its share of conspiracy theories. In fact, it did involve a small-scale conspiracy: Yigal Amir’s brother Hagai Amir and their friend Dror Adani were both convicted of conspiring to murder the prime minister. But some young Israelis believe that the murder resulted from the secret machinations of large, sinister, powerful groups.
I don’t believe anything about Yigal Amir. I don’t believe he killed Rabin. This is what my father believes and I watched it on YouTube
Eden, a 22-year-old religious woman also educated in the ultra-Orthodox Bais Yaakov school system, told The Media Line, “I don’t believe anything about Yigal Amir. I don’t believe he killed Rabin. This is what my father believes and I watched it on YouTube.” Eden said that her schools didn’t teach anything about this.
Neither Katz nor Vinitzky-Seroussi was surprised by this reaction.
“There is a huge split between religious and secular school systems, not to mention the ultra-Orthodox and Arab systems. The country is divided. We don’t meet ultra-Orthodox students at the Rabin Center,” Katz told The Media Line.
“We have a number of memorial days in Israel: Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers among others. The enemy we recall on those days is outside of us, not a part of our country. With Rabin’s memorial day, the enemy is within, a part of our society. It is easier to find a conspiracy theory so that the assassination is not our collective responsibility.”
“If it is a conspiracy, we have nothing to talk about within our own group. This way, we have nothing to learn about ourselves,” Katz laments.
Vinitzky-Seroussi notes that with all political assassinations, there is a certain percentage of the population obfuscating reality with conspiracy theories.
“There is a theme with political assassinations that it did not happen as reported and thus they are saying it is a conspiracy. In this case, those saying this make it much easier to evade the tough issues and have no reason to make amends.”
She concludes that conspiracy theories are, in part, about evading responsibility, and also reflect a deeper unease: “Something like this should not be able to happen so easily,” and thus, powerful, unseen forces must be operating behind the scenes.