Israel’s Demons

Jerusalem

A few weeks after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, the country is still swept by shame, shock, pain, guilt, remorse, and mutual accusation. Large crowds, mostly of young people, continue to gather at Rabin’s graveside in the National Cemetery on Mount Herzl outside Jerusalem. Day in day out, thousands of memorial candles spell out their sentiments at the tomb or near the municipal building where Rabin was slain or outside his house in north Tel Aviv.

The main question asked, and only partially answered, is “Why?” It dominates the Op-Ed pages. Talk shows on television and radio continue the debate from early in the morning until late into each night. The left, the supporters of the Labor coalition, accuse Likud and its allies of causing the catastrophe by their verbal violence against the government during the past two years—“Rabin Murderer,” “Rabin Traitor.” Likud leaders complain that the left originated this violent style during the Lebanon war. After the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, Begin and Sharon, too, were called murderers. The answer from the left has been, in effect, “Yes, but whom did we kill? The bullets in Israel are always shot from right to left.”

West Bank settlers—more isolated and anxious than ever before—claimed that the killer’s act was born of the despair among patriotic Jews caused by the government’s betrayal of Eretz Israel—“the Land of Israel.” The continuing debate must be understood as another episode in the long struggle over whether Israel is a civil-democratic or a tribal-messianic society.

The political leaders, sanctimonious as well as cynical, have their eye on the upcoming elections. The country remains deeply divided between supporters and opponents of peace with both Syria and the Palestinians in return for withdrawal from land occupied in 1967. Laborites are concerned that Peres may not be able to muster the same public support for peace that Rabin, the war hero, could have counted on had he lived. Likud leaders are on the defensive, but they are not likely to remain so for long. In other circumstances, the insistent appeals they have been making since the assassination for “unity” and “reconciliation” might have been widely welcomed; but at a time when so many Israelis—74 percent in the latest polls—feel they must stand up in favor of the peace settlement Rabin advocated, such rhetoric appears merely defensive. The police investigation of the self-confessed murderer and his alleged accomplices brought into the open the seedy underworld of ruthless terrorists informally allied with fairly prominent religious leaders, rabbis, mystagogues, kabbalists, and other salvation-mongers.

Everybody who follows public events knew of, or suspected, the existence of this underworld. For years its exponents had been talking their heads off to the local and foreign press. Yet in the past hardly anybody in power had been willing to deal with them seriously—perhaps because they had mostly threatened only Arabs in the Occupied Territories. To the …

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Letters

Israel’s Demons’: An Exchange January 11, 1996