Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Peace or Pieces?

At this noteworthy period in Israel, when violent attacks are engulfing the entire country, it has been meaningful to take time out to reflect on how the country got to its current state. I had the opportunity to do this last week during the 20th anniversary of the assassination of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

As with any issue in Israeli society, there is no black or white way to look at Yitzhak Rabin's legacy. Many Israelis focus on what is arguably the most significant aspect of Rabin's legacy, which is his efforts to make peace with the Palestinians. One of Rabin's most iconic moments as Prime Minister was when he signed the Oslo Accords, which developed the Palestinian Authority and created much of the Israeli and Palestinian divisions of the West Bank that we know today. The Israeli left wing admires Rabin's peacemaking efforts and uses Rabin's example to this day as a way to encourage developments within Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The Israeli right wing, however, sees Rabin's contributions as naive and disastrous because of the large concessions he made to the Palestinians, whom they view as dangerous enemies to the State of Israel. This was the attitude taken by Yigal Amir, a right-wing religious Israeli Jew who killed Rabin as a way to halt the progress of peace talks.

Corresponding to the multiple opinions about Rabin's legacy, there are many ways Israelis contemplate the anniversary of Rabin's death, which is a national memorial day. During a learning session last Thursday, my group was able to reflect on these different perspectives by looking at examples of observances of this day in past years. We looked at songs, magazine covers, and speeches that all resembled different meanings for this commemoration. One piece that I found particularly interesting was a critical response to a speech conducted by Rabin's granddaughter about her grandfather's heroism. This article stated that instead of focusing on the man himself, the memorial day should focus on the state Israeli society was left in following Rabin's death. We had a big discussion about this in my group, with people thinking both Rabin himself and Israeli society are important topics of focus when discussing Rabin's legacy.

We also looked at advertisements and magazine covers from the different anniversaries of Rabin's assassination. I was very intrigued by these because they painted very different pictures of what Rabin's legacy means in contemporary Israeli society, some of which were quite unusual to me. One that caught my attention was from the 13th anniversary, and had a Bar Mitzvah theme with musical instruments and party decorations. I did not know what this meant, since my understanding was this memorial day is supposed to be solemn and not joyful. However, one interpretation my group came up with is that for some people, the anniversary of Rabin's assassination can actually be a celebration instead of a day of mourning. Since Rabin's death led to the collapse of the peace process, and there has arguably been no Israeli Prime Minister since Rabin that has been as supportive of a comprehensive peace deal, those who oppose a peace agreement and the Israeli concessions that would go along with it celebrate the fact that Rabin's quest for peace ended with his death. This got me thinking about another major question...if Rabin had not been shot, what state would Israeli society be in today; peace or pieces?

A poster my group made showing the complicated nature of Rabin's legacy

This theme of peace or pieces has remained on my mind long past the session in which it was introduced to me. To me, life is filled with a bunch of "what ifs," and it is normal to ponder what could have happened if a chain of events went differently. In this case, it is hard to tell what would have happened if Rabin had not been assassinated. It is possible that Rabin would have continued the progress that he made, and today Israel would be much further along in the quest for peace. It is also possible that the critics of Rabin's politics would have increased their hateful rhetoric and violence, and Israel would be left in a relationship of distrust with the Palestinians similar or worse to what it is today.

After much thought, I have chosen to view this question through a different lens. Instead of focusing on the negative implications of Rabin's assassination, I want to focus on the positive things that have come to Israel since this event. I was able to see many of these positive components up close this past Saturday night, when I attended a memorial ceremony for Rabin at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. This was a very inspiring ceremony for many reasons. One of the biggest things that touched me was the amount of Israelis there supporting Rabin, and supporting the idea of peace. There were 100,000 people at this rally, and they were all there to send a clear message: we are sick of the violent status quo, and we want peace. I could see the crowd holding up signs with slogans like "peace now" and "we cannot eat war forever." This was very inspiring because it allowed me to see that there are so many Israelis who are fighting for better futures for themselves, their children, and their Palestinian neighbors. Since I arrived in Israel, though I have met with many activists and people invoking social change, it has been hard to visualize anything except the status quo. With the current wave of violence here, I go through each day seeing the unfortunate situations on the ground, waiting for some positive change to happen that will improve conditions for all sides. At this rally, for the first time since I stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion about one month ago, I saw a mob of Israelis who not only agree with the message of peace, but are motivated to take action to create a society in which today's challenges can disappear and every citizen can benefit. This is a message I have been eagerly waiting for, and seeing it in such a powerful way that night was one of the most inspiring experiences I have ever had in Israel.

Shalom chaver means goodbye friend. It is what Bill Clinton said at Rabin's funeral.

Another powerful component of the rally was learning about Rabin himself, and particularly how committed he was to both peace and Israel's security. These images came across in enlightening speeches from many world leaders, including Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and US Past President Bill Clinton. I thoroughly enjoyed President Rivlin's speech because of how blunt and honest it was in demanding equal rights and peaceful living conditions for all of Israel's citizens, regardless of religion, race, and level or religious observance. My favorite part of Rivlin's speech was when he discussed Israeli unity and said, "We all have a joint dream, a joint Israeli hope. We disagree on the path but we dream of an Israel in which righteousness lights the way." This statement conveyed that no matter how divided Israeli society is, there is still hope for us all to live together in security and understanding under the scope of peace.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin
Bill Clinton's speech was inspiring because it mentioned much about who Rabin was as a man, and it included many conversations that Clinton personally had with Rabin. One quote of I took particular note of was when Rabin said, "We will fight terror as if there were no negotiations, and we will negotiate as if there were no terror." To me, this quote really showed Rabin's strongest qualities as a Prime Minister, which were that he kept Israel's security interests in mind while still fighting for a peaceful and sustainable future for Israelis and Palestinians. Clinton spoke of how Rabin told him this in the midst of a wave of violent riots in Israel, which showed the strength of their relationship and of the bond between the United States and Israel. Clinton also stated that Rabin's life's work was to fight for Israel's values and avoid the crossroads of Israel deciding between being a Jewish and democratic state, and he urged the Israelis in the audience to continue Rabin's work. President Obama also participated in the ceremony to honor Rabin, leaving a video message about the importance of pursuing a viable peace for the futures of Israelis and Palestinians.

All in all, I was overjoyed to take part in this historic event for Israeli society and join the country in mourning and reflection. Even more so, I was honored to join the 100,000 Israelis and prominent leaders in the crowd who recognize that peace is not just an ideal, it is a goal that needs to be reached. Rabin made huge sacrifices and ultimately gave his life in his pursuit of a future where no Israeli needs to live in fear or contempt about their identity. In my opinion, the best way to honor Rabin's legacy is to finish what he started, which includes making tough decisions for the greater good. I hope that my work with Yahel contributes something to that greater good, and the peaceful future we all dream about is not so far off.

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