Avi Benlolo: The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was the Jewish world's 'JFK moment'
Twenty-five years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in cold blood. And so were the dreams of peace in the Middle East
Author of the article: Avi Benlolo, National Post Nov 04, 2020 • Last Updated 2 hours ago • 4 minute read
It was a beautiful sunny autumn day in Washington, D.C. The world was watching with anticipation as leaders gathered on the White House lawn. We were filled with hope and awareness about witnessing a historical moment, which was capped by a now-infamous handshake and what promised to be a new chapter that would end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
That fateful day on Sept. 13, 1993, could not have been more exciting for me, having just started my career in the Jewish community. My earliest recollection as a child was seeing my father in army fatigues come home from the brutal Yom Kippur War. The possibility of losing my father to war left me with an indelible impression and a longing for peace. And so, the signing of the Oslo Accords and the Declaration of Principles was cause for hope. Little did I know that just two years later, I would be thrust into organizing a 5,000-plus person memorial for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the Centennial Arena in Toronto. Rabin’s assassination by a fellow Jew hit the Jewish community like a bulldozer. Young students cried, sang and lit candles outside the arena. They shared their shattered hopes and dreams for the future.
It’s incomprehensible to think that 27 years later, a full generation of Palestinians and Israelis have grown up without having witnessed the pledges for peace that were made on that day in Washington. They missed the part where PLO leader Yasser Arafat promised U.S. President Bill Clinton and the Palestinian people that he would promote the “values for freedom, justice and human rights.” His promise to “usher in an age of peace, co-existence and equal rights” meant nothing. It flew in the face of his handshake with Rabin, and Clinton’s warm embrace.
Rabin was often criticized for what many said was naivete for believing Arafat wanted to make peace with Israel. However, Rabin’s grim face during the signing and reluctant handshake revealed that the deal pained him. A former war hero, he knew his enemy well but decided to give peace a chance. In his remarks, Rabin explained that he was determined to “put an end to hostilities so that our children, our children’s children, will no longer experience the painful cost of war, violence and terror.”
He held up his end of the bargain for two years and on Sept. 28, 1995 — just one month before his assassination — he agreed to move to the next stage of the Oslo Accords, the Interim Agreement. It marked the conclusion of the first stage of negotiations between Israel and the PLO. Its main objective was to broaden Palestinian self-government in the West Bank through an elected self-governing authority, in order to foster a new era of co-operation and peaceful co-existence.
But while Arafat called violence “morally reprehensible” at the signing ceremony, nothing was further from the truth. Like the fable about a scorpion who can’t help himself and kills the frog that is carrying him across the water, Arafat would use his foothold in Ramallah to plunge his people into a war of attrition with Israel. Through his divisive actions, he lost control of the Gaza Strip, giving rise to a mini terrorist state now run by Hamas.
Months after Rabin’s death, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus in Jerusalem, killing 17 civilians and wounding 48. A month later, another killer blew himself up outside the Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, killing 13 people and wounding 130. The chaos of dozens of suicide bombings continued well into the 2000s. They included the horrific attack on the dolphinarium in which 21 youths were killed and the Sbarro attack in central Jerusalem in which 15 civilians were killed, including seven children.
Perhaps Rabin foresaw what would happen should the peace process derail. In his last moments of life, on Nov. 4, 1995, he still held out hope for peace despite the public and political pressure. In his final speech at a peace rally in Tel Aviv’s main square (now called Rabin Square), he said, “There are enemies of peace who are trying to hurt us in order to torpedo the peace process. I want to say bluntly that we have found a partner for peace among the Palestinians as well. The PLO, which was an enemy, has ceased to engage in terrorism.”
Moments later, following the singing of the classic Hebrew melody, the “Song for Peace,” Rabin was shot by a Jewish assailant who wanted to stop the peace process. He did. For Israelis and the Jewish world, this was their JFK moment. Time stood still. The pain of betrayal by one of their own still haunts the nation. But Israel’s quest for peace hasn’t abated.
And so, for everyone who shared this brief moment in time, who participated in the memorial rally 25 years ago, who sang the “Song for Peace” at the rally the night Rabin was shot and who continue to impart his message of hope and peace to the next generation — you might be wondering, where do we go from here?
We go to where the wisdom of sages point us in sacred text. They instructed that even while it may not be our responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, even when cut short as in the case of Rabin, we are not free to desist from it either. And thus, it is up to us to carry this work forward and to never give up on making peace. As Rabin aptly said, “The path of peace is preferable to war.”