The attack on Rabbi Ascherman – Reflections on the 20th Yahrzeit of Yitzhak Rabin

by Rabbi Colin Eimer

Imagine the scene. A rabbi in Israel is being attacked by a man wearing a balaclava and threatening him with a big and dangerous looking knife. They struggle and fall to the ground; the man has the rabbi in a stranglehold, still waving the knife, but incredibly not sticking it in. Eventually the man runs off. Given what’s been happening on the streets of Israel in recent weeks, you might be thinking that it’s not surely all that surprising.

What made this incident out of the ordinary was that the attacker was a Jewish settler. This took place on the West Bank about 10 days ago. The rabbi was Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel. He was part of a group of Israelis and Palestinians trying to prevent West Bank settlers from destroying nearby groves of Palestinian olive trees. Sadly, a not unusual occurrence. Rabbis for Human Rights brings together rabbis from across the religious spectrum who are concerned about violations of human rights in Israel as well as in the occupied territories: responding to that basic Jewish imperative about pursuing justice for the weak, the stranger, the dispossessed in society. Rabbis for Human Rights, is called Shomrei Mishpat in Hebrew, “guardians of justice and the law.” They work with the homeless, the unemployed, migrant workers all over Israel as well as with Palestinians beyond the Green Line.

What happened to Ascherman is doubly shocking: the attack itself and, in addition, by a fellow Jew. We don’t like to think of Jew on Jew violence. The murder of Jews by non-Jews isn’t, alas, all that unusual. Assassination of Jew by Jew, however, is much more shocking.

And so this Wednesday we mark the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin had been brought up on the prevailing reality and mythology of Israel; he was a major military commander in all of Israel’s wars. In 1967 he was the ‘creator,’ in a sense, of the situation he was to inherit later as Prime Minister. He somehow managed to embrace another possibility, another way of viewing relations between Israel and the Arabs. He might not have been entirely the hawk turned dove, but he was the warmaker who tried his best to become peacemaker.

Like many of you I watched with tears in my eyes as events unfolded on the White House lawn in 1993. What a journey he must have made from his army career to that handshake with his avowed enemy, Yassir Arafat! A recognition that the mythology he had been living with all his life needed reassessment. I don’t imagine he believed that suddenly all would be lovey-dovey between Israelis and Arabs. He knew the realities well enough. But he seemed prepared to try – perhaps realising that doing nothing was even more fraught with danger. Part of the difficulty of making those sorts of sea change is the strength of our mythologies and the grip they have on our thinking. I use the word ‘mythology’ in its absolutely serious sense, to describe a narrative, a set of underlying, motivating beliefs, understandings, assumptions, attitudes relating to – in this case – what is understood by the words ‘Israel’ and ‘Zionism.’

If you had been brought up in the years before the State came into being or in its early years, there would have been a number of elements to that mythology.

It would probably have included images from the 1950s of pioneers draining the swamps of the Huleh valley, struggling against heat and malaria, fulfilling the Zionist dream of turning useless land into green, productive fields. There was the mythology of Israel as a place of security for any Jew where the horrors of the Holocaust could never happen and how many lives might have been saved if only Israel had existed. There was the mythology of physically building the as-yet-unborn State at the same time as fighting off Arab attacks and struggling for freedom from the British.

These things came to be seen as mythic tasks, endowing those who did them with heroic status. And if the Arabs figured in that mythology at all, it was usually as indolent peasants, ever poised to wipe out Israel, who had no appreciation of the infinitely-better standard of living they now enjoyed. 2000 years of Jewish history were portrayed as little more than a history of persecution while we waited in the corridor to enter the land – a land portrayed as essentially empty and desolate, waiting for the Zionist endeavour to reclaim, settle and redeem it. Zionism would transform not just the land, but also those settled in it. In the words of an old chalutz, pioneer, song, “we are going up to the land livnot ul’hibanot bah, to build and to be rebuilt by it.” The strong Israeli would replace the ghetto Jew, too ready to be led like sheep to the slaughter, but now ‘never again.’

Rabin’s assassination showed how dangerous language and a different mythology can be. After the 1992 Oslo Accords, Rabin and Peres were treated to ‘Nazi,’ ‘terrorist,’ traitor’ and so on, even in the Knesset itself; bumper stickers flashed the same message. It’s not naïve to think that people won’t be affected. “Sticks and stones may break my bones” – but there is a point where names do begin to hurt me.

In the 20 years since then, we have seen how Israel has been held responsible for all the evils in the world. Anti-Semitism becomes kosher because “I’m not anti-Semitic, of course, just anti-Israel.” Israel is compared to an apartheid state; some abhorrent cartoons in a French satirical magazine somehow justify attacking a kosher supermarket. The litany is endless.

In 1q992, three years before Rabin’s assassination, Amos Oz was awarded the International Peace Prize of the German Publisher’s Association. In his acceptance speech he said:

How can one struggle against cruelty without catching it? The syndrome of fiery idealism or of anti-fanatic fanaticism, is something to which well-meaning people should be alert, here, there and everywhere. As a storyteller and a political activist, I constantly remind myself that telling good from evil is relatively easy. The real moral challenge is to distinguish between different shades of grey; to grade evil and try to map it; to differentiate between bad and worse and worst.[1]

Arik Ascherman thankfully survived the attack. Afterwards he wrote:

We founded the State of Israel correctly vowing “never again.” We must always have the power to ensure that Jews would never again be helplessly slaughtered and persecuted, as we had been for 2,000 years because we had been stateless and homeless. There are still those who would “throw us into the sea” if they could, and we are not yet in a messianic age in which the Jewish people can survive without power. The day after I was attacked, I recited the traditional blessing in synagogue for having survived great danger, and then took my turn standing guard as we have been doing since the latest round of Palestinians murdering Israelis. However, in the course of the years since Israel was founded, that vow has morphed. We have forgotten that long before “never again,” God commanded us, “never, ever.” We should never, even once, do to others what was done to us (Exodus 23:9). We have moved from using our power to guarantee our survival and wellbeing to exploiting our power to take from others what we desire. The Midrash teaches us not to delude ourselves. The hand that strikes the non-Jew will eventually strike the Jew as well. The violence unleashed against me is the inevitable outcome of the civilian and state violence directed at Palestinians on an almost daily basis. And, “The sword comes into the world because of justice denied and justice delayed” (Pirkei Avot). Our sages didn’t justify the sword, but understood that our unjust actions bring it upon us.

What can we do? We stand clear about Israel’s absolute right to exist and for her citizens to live within secure, protected borders. That must be our starting point, the bedrock on which we stand. But we recognise, like Arik Ascherman, and thousands like him, that without compromise and ultimate reconciliation nobody will enjoy peace.

We can’t influence the political situation. But what we can do is to support programmes which bring Israeli and Palestinian together, so that they can see that the ‘other’ is not really ‘other,’ different, but an ordinary human being just like they are. Support initiatives such as the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Parents’ Association which brings together parents of children who have been killed on both sides.

The atmosphere seems bleak at the moment. Arik Ascherman survived his attack. A man called Richard Laikin didn’t. He died on Wednesday after being stabbed and shot on a bus in Jerusalem. He had dedicated his life to educating Jews and Arabs to live together. There seems little optimism in the air. Even David Aaronovitch could lament in the Times this week that the “peacemakers, the persuaders are dying.”[2]

In the last paragraph of the Amidah, we speak of, oseh shalom, of making peace. The tradition is to take three steps backward at that point – a physical act recognising that to make peace you can’t stay where you are, you have to step away from previously held positions. Without that, there can be no peace.

Yitzhak Rabin showed that it is possible to take that step back, to rethink the mythology and produce a different picture with the same pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. That took real courage, but it cost him his life, yet another sacrifice on the altar of fanaticism. 20 years on, that vision seems ever more remote. May we have something of his courage and be able to find the capacity to hold on to that vision even in the face of apparent failure and continue to do what we can to work for its realisation.

[1] Reprinted in Israel, Palestine & Peace: Essays (Vintage Books, Londn 1994, pp68/69)

[2] The Times, October 29, 2015, p27