The General’s Main Chance

Yitzhak Rabin
Yitzhak Rabin; drawing by David Levine


Rosa Cohen, Yitzhak Rabin’s mother, was a daughter of the Russian Revolution, a non-Zionist socialist. She arrived in Palestine from Odessa having originally hoped to go to Scandinavia, remained there as a member of Kibbutz Kinneret, and took part in its life with immense revolutionary zeal. She had an uncle in Palestine—the distinguished Zionist publicist Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen (1856–1936), who had given the first speech in Hebrew at the founding Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897—a memorable accomplishment, since Hebrew was not a living, spoken language at the time. If Rabin’s great-uncle was capable of reviving a dead language, Rabin himself can cause severe injury to a living one. Rabin was brought up speaking Hebrew, but the Hebrew he speaks is wooden and full of embarrassing errors.

Rabin’s father, born in the Ukraine, emigrated to the United States as a young boy. During World War I he came to Palestine to join the Jewish Brigade, which included David BenGurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky among its famous members. A friendly, tender-hearted man, he married Rosa Cohen in 1921, and their son Yitzhak was born in Jerusalem in 1922. The family moved to the first Jewish city in Palestine, Tel Aviv. There, in the Labor movement school, Rabin was strongly attracted to the idealistic Zionism of his teacher Eliezer Smoli, the author of Frontiersmen of Israel, a saga of agrarian Jews working with their hands to create a just, communal farm life out of the hostile Palestinian swampland, and fighting with treacherous Arabs, much as Western frontiersmen once fought with the Indians.

When he was fifteen Rabin was accepted as a student at the Kadoorie agricultural school near Mount Tabor. Just as Wellington claimed that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” the Israeli War of Independence, one could claim, was won on the fields of Kadoorie. The first members of the elite fighting force called the Palmach—an abbreviation of the Hebrew term for “assault companies”—which did much to win the war in 1948, were recruited from the Kadoorie school in 1941. The Palmach was the most effective and professional branch of the Haganah, the Zionist underground military organization. Rabin was invited to join it that year by Yigal Alon, who had been in the first class to graduate from Kadoorie, and went on to become the Palmach’s commander in 1945. Rabin acted as Alon’s deputy in the War of Independence, and Alon was eventually appointed foreign minister in Rabin’s government.

Rabin was the outstanding student in his class at Kadoorie—a not inconsiderable achievement—and he won the British High Commissioner’s prize for academic excellence, as well as a scholarship to Berkeley to study hydraulic engineering. He might well have had a successful career in many fields, but he was unable to take advantage of the scholarship because of his commitment to the Palmach, and since he is too opinionated…

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