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How political struggles are blurring Israel's national memory

Israel's love for its assassinated heroes is proving fickle, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s legacy of peace diminishing by the year while the right builds up that of far-right tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi.
Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (2nd L), Defence Minister Shimon Peres and Security Advisor Ariel Sharon (R) walk together during a visit to an army base in the Golan Heights in this file picture taken December 11, 1975 and released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO). REUTERS/Yaacov Sa'ar/GPO/Handout (POLITICS) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. ISRAEL OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN ISRAEL. BLACK AND WHITE ONLY - RTR2UFU7

Within the space of a few days, Israel marked the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi and the 21st anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Both men, each a former senior military officer, have official memorial days to honor them. Both have their names on Israeli roads and city streets, and Israeli children study the legacy each left behind. But they are separated by an ideological, moral and political divide — the growing polarization tearing apart Israeli society.

Knesset members of the center-left Zionist Camp and leftist Meretz boycotted the special Knesset session memorializing Ze’evi, who was nicknamed “Gandhi.” Absent funding, the public memorial rally for Rabin held every year in Tel Aviv was canceled. “Our enemies targeted Gandhi precisely because of his ideological intensity, precisely because of his fervor, precisely because of the path he chose on this earth,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the official Nov. 1 memorial ceremony on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl. The exact same things can be said about Rabin.

Ze’evi was targeted and assassinated in 2001 by Palestinian assailants because of his ideological fervor. Central to his ideology was the idea of “transferring” Israel’s Arab citizens to Arab states. He was the equivalent of today’s Avigdor Liberman, but unlike the Soviet-born Israeli defense minister, Ze’evi was a native son, encased in the glory of a war hero and authentic patriot. His zeal was channeled into a relentless struggle against any compromise with the Palestinians. He was an ardent proponent of grabbing every piece of the biblical Land of Israel in total defiance of world opinion. Rabin was targeted and assassinated by a Jewish enemy replacing his ideological use of military force to establish and guard the State of Israel with a belief in relying on military force to protect the Jewish nature of the state and its democratic principles. In his final years he was consumed with passion for ending the bloody conflict with the state’s Arab neighbors. To do so he was willing to give up parts of the Land of Israel, and started realizing his vision of turning the Jewish state into a "light unto nations."

In the traumatic days after Rabin's assassination in November 1995, Israel's top politicians created the so-called “Rabin legacy.” Although this legacy was not made sufficiently clear, it was perceived as a type of last testament willing the completion of the peace project with the Palestinians launched with the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accord.

Palestinian terrorism and domestic incitement, of which Netanyahu was one of the instigators, made Oslo anathema. Fewer and fewer participants turned out for the annual public memorial rallies held in Tel Aviv at the square that bears Rabin’s name, and the perceived significance of the assassination dwindled. The admired prime minister who risked his life in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, who led Israel’s military victory in the Six Day War of 1967, became mired in controversy along with his vision of peace.

Proponents of the political right, among them those who took part in an October 1995 demonstration at which Rabin was portrayed wearing a Nazi SS uniform, found themselves trapped into attending memorial ceremonies for a man they despised. By law the Knesset is now obliged to allocate several million shekels to the Yitzhak Rabin Center every year.

With the waning political significance of the assassination of a Jewish leader by a Jewish gunman came the waxing meaning of a Jewish minister’s assassination by an Arab.

Right-wing politicians who had made their way to the top of the political pyramid were no longer content with the Menachem Begin Heritage Center dedicated to the legacy of the late prime minister, as his heritage includes withdrawal from territories conquered by Israel (when signing the peace agreement with Egypt) and uncompromising adherence to democratic values. The Ze’evi assassination handed the right an object of its very own for commemoration, along with another heritage. And what is that heritage?

“Great achievements, great achievements for the state, for all of us, and it behooves us to express our gratitude,” said Netanyahu at the commemorative ceremony. Prime ministers such as Moshe Sharett and Levi Eshkol, presidents such as Chaim Weizmann and Itzhak Ben-Zvi, did no less for the state, but were not accorded an iota of the honors and accolades being lavished on the late minister of tourism.

Netanyahu described Ze’evi as a “daring fighter, revered commander, lover of the Land of Israel with all his being, highly knowledgeable, a dedicated and ardent public servant endowed with the ability to get things done.” Israel’s military cemeteries are filled with fighters and commanders no less daring, whose love for the Land of Israel, erudition, dedication to their homeland and ability to get things done were no less impressive. Some of them fell in battle. The difference between them and Ze’evi is that he established a radical right-wing party and lost his life while representing it in the Knesset and government. There’s another difference: Ze’evi’s name has been linked to organized crime, sexual assault and acts of cruelty. His alleged doings were featured in detail on the respected television program “Uvda.” Critics of the investigative piece argued that it was not fitting to publish accusations against a deceased person who cannot defend himself. On the other hand, the Ze’evi legacy is not dead, but being taught to school children. It’s only fitting that the students be aware of verified facts that expose dark corners of his personality and activities, and then they can decide whether he is a worthy role model.

“Creating a commemorative culture that is Hebrew, local and inherently native is one of the most important accomplishments of the formation of Zionist culture,” wrote Maoz Azaryahu in his work "The History of Commemoration." The Haifa University expert on the political geography of culture noted that remembrance is a central motif of Jewish culture. He noted, for example, the biblical commandment “Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy” or “Remember what Amalek did to you” are the building blocks of the continuity of Jewish identity. Nonetheless, he emphasized, “Although commemorations are intended to be eternal, the collective memory of a nation is dynamic and hierarchical and eternity is essentially a process of choice and rejection.”

The choice and rejection of memory, as well as of democratic values, peace and minority rights, are now under the control of a radical right-wing government. It is a government that Rabin, a leader who paid with his life for his devotion to peace, would never have joined. Ze’evi, on the other hand, would have felt right at home in this government. They would have deserved each other, and in democracies, people get the leaders and values for which they vote.

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