Three shots were fired at Yitzhak Rabin’s back on the Saturday night of November 4, 1995, ending the Israeli prime minister’s life. Rabin, a retired IDF chief of staff who had led the IDF in the Six-Day War, was assassinated at the end of a peace rally in Tel Aviv. The murderer, Yigal Amir, was a fanatical Jew who was carried away by the public mood of those in the opposition camp to the Oslo Accords, and decided to exact the price he believed Rabin should pay for his acts.
The murderer did not act in a vacuum. In the months prior, the right-wing led a solid opposition to the government, mainly against the Oslo Accords and the vision of peace that Rabin had promoted. The number of suicide bombings in the streets and the rising number of murdered Israeli civilians took their toll, and public opinion was hostile and full of fear.
Out in the streets, the gloves were off—daily demonstrations and rallies were taking place, with protestors carrying nooses and coffins graffitied with the words “Rabin kills Zionism.” Calls like “By fire and by blood we shall get rid of Rabin” were leading the riots. Posters portraying Rabin as a traitor to Israel, wearing a keffiyeh (Arabic scarf), were all across the country.
But it was not only the “street” that issued vicious condemnation of Rabin; Israeli political and religious leaders were no less violent in their rhetoric. The opposition, led by charismatic Member of Knesset (MK) Benjamin Netanyahu, used public sentiment to slam the government. Right wing MKs equated Rabin to Nazi collaborators Marshal Petain and Benito Moussolini, calling upon Israelis to act against the government just as the French did to the Vichy regime of France. A young Kahana Chai (“Kahana Lives,” a group founded after the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahana) activist (and now a member of the Knesset), Itamar Gvir, was interviewed on the Israeli TV news with the hood ornament from Rabin’s Cadillac in his hands and said “Just like we got to the car, we can get to Rabin.”
Lending a religious imprimatur to this devastating discourse, a group of rabbis publicly called for Rabin’s death by conducting an ancient mystical ritual meant to end the lives of sinners. The murderer himself sought religious justification for taking Rabin’s life by consulting with several rabbis and Jewish legal authorities.
For me, a young Jerusalemite high school student who on the one hand experienced the fear of exploding buses and other terror acts while on the other hand spent time volunteering in peace organizations, the environment felt really toxic. I chose not to attend the peace rally in Tel Aviv after I was attacked the Friday before by right-wingers who wouldn’t let me hand out Pro-Peace stickers and flyers at the entrance to the city. I thought that my camp abandoned Rabin, and that we were not doing enough to show support of the peace attempts.
Rabin’s assassination shocked the nation, who couldn’t believe that an Israeli Prime Minister could be killed—especially by a Jew. For me, it was a sign that Israeli democracy was imperiled, that too many citizens did not understand what democracy meant. How could one take the law into his hands and do something that shakes the whole country in order to make a political change?!
Soon enough, reality took over, and people went back to their lives. The assassin was sentenced to life imprisonment, but in the public sphere there were no honest discussions about freedom of speech and protest, and no one questioned how the assasination might have been prevented by strengthening Israeli democracy and the democratic consciousness in Israel.
Twenty-six years have passed since that night. Prime ministers and governments have been elected and have peacefully ended their terms, upholding the bedrock of a democratic society; yet, many Israelis experience that, in many other ways, democracy in the country has been weakened over the years.
Attempts to create discussion about what resulted in Rabin’s assasination, including criticism of the opposition’s inflammatory role in public discourse and the boundaries of freedom, were turned down over the years by leadership. Commemoration ceremonies are held annually but without a real discussion about the meaning of Rabin’s assasination, without talking about his legacy. (What was Rabin’s legacy?! The left wing decided that his legacy was just the Oslo Accords, while the right wing decided it was all about bloodshed and witch hunting.)
The wound created in Israel by Rabin’s death has not healed, even after all these years—but there is a path forward. The way to heal is by defending democracy, by acting to strengthen the public discussion around democracy, rights, and boundaries. Only by securing the democratic pillars in Israeli society will we be sure that the national tragedy Israel lived through 26 years ago will not happen again.
That is how I see the political and democratic situation in Israel, and that is why one of the things I am the most passionate about is discussing Israeli politics, explaining its pillars, and supporting organizations who try to strengthen Israeli democracy and its institutions. Those of us who live outside of the Land of Israel need to remember that Israel is a young democracy facing many challenges. Our role is to expand our knowledge, and to support the leaders who seek to deepen democracy’s roots in Israeli society. This is a core lesson of Rabin’s death, a lesson we still need to learn.