Yitzhak Rabin & The Ethic of Jewish Power

Lessons learned from the assassination

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Excerpted with permission of the author from "Yitzhak Rabin and the Ethic of Jewish Power" (National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, 1995).

The first tears are for Yitzhak Rabin. At an age when most people--their work done--retire and enjoy their waning years, he was totally engaged in doubling his life's contribution to the Jewish people. Having been credited with the greatest war victory in Jewish history, which included the liberation of Old Jerusalem; he sought peace and pursued it. The collapse of Communism, the weakening of the PLO , and the softening of the Arab position created an opportunity. He reached for the risky ambiguous, fraught-with-frustration chance to bring shalom to the land of Israel. 

The second tears are for the loss of innocence in Israel; a devout Jew murdered a Jewish Prime Minister. In shock and despair, many ask: how could political murder terminate the head of government in Israel? That happens in totalitarian states where the sovereign rules by force or in neighboring Arab countries and other nations where leaders lack political legitimacy! After 47 years of national unity, building and defending the State against a sea of enemies, how could an eruption of internal hatred occur that would legiti­mate the assassination of a would-be peacemaker, a national hero?

It Can Happen Hereyitzhak rabin

The answer is: It can happen here. No de­mocracy is exempt from the perils of violent rage in a time of heightened tension. Of the seven American Presidents elected in the 20 year inter­vals from 1860 to 1980, six were shot by assassins; four died. It is fallacious to assume that Jews are constitutionally programmed to be moral always. It is covertly racist or chauvinist to believe that a Jew is genetically incapable of such vile, violent behav­ior. The classic Jewish tradition unflinchingly portrays the Jews in history, flawed and acting much like other people.

It should not come as a surprise, either, that Jews are not immune to the ills of the body politic. The continuous exercise of political power in history makes it inevitable that corruption will occur and that violence will break out, even in a Jewish democracy. The only hope of avoidance lay in creating prevention systems--political and religious dialogue on the emerging ethic of Jewish power, a strong leadership forum cooperating across party lines on ethical issues, and cracking down on the perpetrators of the early moral breaches (such as Emil Grunzweig's killing, the 80s underground, Baruch Goldstein's support network). But this was not done.

In retrospect, Jews were too self-flattering. Even those who understood that the assumption of power would end Jewish innocence were too complacent. We fell victim to our tradition of faith in Jewry, our belief that Jewishness sets limits to the degradation and persecution of one's fellow human beings. That fatal night, the Security Ser­vices around Rabin were so blinded by the convic­tion that only an Arab would try to murder an Israeli Prime Minister that they looked away from the killer within. Still, the Jewish people made a decision more than five decades ago that there is no moral alter­native to assuming power. It takes power to estab­lish a just society--as a step toward tikkun olam and the triumph of life. By contrast, powerlessness brings down greater evils. Our historic task then is to create, all together, an ethic of Jewish power that works in the real world of power which we now inhabit.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).