The ties that bind the Rabin and Kennedy assassinations.”Mommy, Yitzhak Rabin was killed in Tel Aviv right? By a bad guy with a gun named Yigal Amir with a gun. And he was Jewish, too. Mommy, tell me again, why did the bad guy kill Yitzhak Rabin?”
It’s that time of year again.
As November rolls around, the questions begin flying thick and fast from my son Eitan – questions about Rabin’s assassination, exactly how he was killed, where he was killed, who killed him and the hardest question to answer – why?
Eitan is seven years old – he was born in September of 1996, ten months after Rabin’s assassination. He never lived at the same time as Rabin.
Yet – with all of the ceremonies, memorial rallies and class lessons about his life, through the ever-growing number of schools, parks, roads, and buildings named after him — Yitzhak Rabin is vivid and real and familiar to my son – much more so than today’s politicians.
Eitan can regale you with stories about Rabin’s childhood, where he went to school, and about his army career. But mainly, he can tell you the details of the assassination – the date it happened, the location – how Rabin was approached, how many shots were fired. He knows that the man who killed him was named Yigal Amir, and that he was Israeli and Jewish. He knows that Amir was angry at Rabin for signing a peace agreement with the Arabs. He knows that Amir is in jail and will never get out. And yet, every year, he wants to know more.
All of this feels eerily familiar. I was born in September of 1964, ten months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. At Eitan’s age, I, too, could rattle off stories of the Kennedy clan, recount the drama of Oswald and Ruby, knew where the grassy knoll was located, and the color of the suit Jackie Kennedy was wearing that was splashed with her husband’s blood.
In both cases, none of this intense interest came only from lessons in school or from the media. Primarily, it came from the emotions at home.
For my parents, Kennedy’s assassination was the same traumatic turning point in their lives as young adults as Rabin’s assassination was for my husband and myself. My parents were center-left New York Democrats: my husband and I were center-left Tel Aviv Labor Party supporters.
We remember Rabin’s killing in the same way my parents remember the Kennedy assassination: the same murder of a dream we once had for a new direction, a better future.
When I was Eitan’s age, with Vietnam and Watergate rocking the nation, I absorbed my parent’s nostalgia for the Kennedy Camelot I never knew, for a time when they were young and idealistic and so was their president. They never had to state it overtly, but I could tell that for them, Kennedy’s assassination was the trigger event that set the country on a path in which everything seemed to go horribly, terribly wrong. It was the beginning of the end.
To be sure, they were intelligent people. They weren’t fooling themselves into thinking the world would be perfect if Kennedy had lived. But somehow they believed that Kennedy would have been capable of handling this new, more complicated and frightening world in a better way, in a manner that wouldn’t leave them feeling quite so lost and vulnerable.
And so it is with Rabin. Like Kennedy, my husband and I know intellectually that Yitzhak Rabin wasn’t a mythic hero – he was only a man, flawed like the rest of us – or perhaps more so, with all of the moral compromises necessary for a life in politics. As time passes, and histories are written, their imperfections come into even clearer focus.
As we grow older, and our politics change and evolve, neither my parents’ generation in America nor mine in Israel are the young idealists we were at the time of the assassinations. We know full well there is the possibility that both Kennedy and Rabin would have proved failures had they lived. Kennedy might have become as fatally and inextricably mired in Vietnam as his successor Lyndon Johnson. Rabin may very well have lived to see the Oslo vision unravel before his eyes, grow disillusioned and admit that he had made a terrible mistake.
But we’ll never know, will we?
Because of the brutal acts of political assassins, neither my parents nor I will ever find out whether our heroes would have lifted their nations to greater heights or dragged us down with their feet of clay.
In both cases, the killers robbed us of our ability to find out.
While together with many of our peers, the political views in our family have taken a step rightwards under the shadow of the current intifada. We’re not certain if we still support taking the huge risks for peace that we supported in the Oslo era – we know too much about the price we pay if we gamble wrong.
But none of this dims the horror of the memory of the day on which I found out that the Prime Minister of my country was murdered by one of its own citizens.
I feel no need to apologize for memorializing, celebrating, and even idealizing Rabin as he was when he were taken away from us – just as my own parents did with Kennedy. I am comfortable with the fact that in my son’s eyes, Yitzhak Rabin is a martyr: frozen in time as a symbol of the potential that once existed for a better future: far brighter than the darker times in which I spent my childhood and Eitan is spending his.