PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
Louis Farrakhan and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin
Last October, nearly a million Black men elevated Louis Farrakhan to the main stage of U.S. politics. Three weeks later, a lone Jewish man removed Yitzhak Rabin from the stage of world politics. For American Jews, the fates of these leaders are surprisingly intertwined.
It was Rabin who transformed Yassir Arafat from the Jews’ personification of absolute evil into a partner for peace. Farrakhan, now more prominent than ever, will probably inherit Arafat’s role as American Jewry’s Public Enemy Number One. But the manner of Rabin’s tragic death--and its links to his life--ought to make Jews stop and think about how we view Farrakhan.
Rabin died because there are Jews so convinced of their rectitude, so unwilling to compromise or negotiate with their opponents, that they’ll stop at nothing, not even the most dastardly violence, to get their way. He died, the eulogists say, as a martyr to moderation.
The irony, they add, is that he rose to power as a tough-fisted, uncompromising professional soldier. In 1967, as army chief of staff, Rabin organized the victory that gave Israel control of all Jerusalem (which he swore, to his dying day, would never be shared with Palestinians) and the West Bank.
His Labor Party soon put Jewish settlements in the West Bank, expropriating Palestinian land and resources while denying that the Palestinian people even existed. When the right-wing Likud party came to power, it only accelerated the settlement process that Labor had begun. The settlers had the same commitment from both parties to keep them in their new homes.
When the Palestinians rose up in protest at this seemingly permanent conquest, it was Rabin, now defense minister, who ordered his troops to use an "iron fist" and "break their bones." Jews in the West Bank were encouraged to arm themselves and use their weapons with virtual impunity. They were encouraged to believe that there would never be any compromise.
Rabin eventually approved a compromise. As a good general, he took a risk that was carefully calculated, offering much to gain and little to lose. In effect the PLO agreed to take over from the Israeli army as enforcers of Israeli policies, with no guarantee that there would ever be an independent Palestinian state.
Rabin’s main risk was to his political career. He was betting that Israelis would understand his aim: to keep the privileges of hegemony for Israel without the headaches of day-to-day administration in the occupied territories. As an Israeli government speaker recently admitted here at CU, his government has no more concern for the fate of the Palestinians than its right-wing opponents.
Rabin also bet on his widespread popularity to get his program through. And he had gained that popularity just as the first great Jewish general, King David, did: by killing his tens of thousands.
When many Palestinians resisted, sometimes violently, what they saw as a sellout by the PLO, Rabin continued his "iron fist" policy, now using compliant Palestinians to do much of the dirty work. (It was apparently his Israeli agents, though, who assassinated the head of a Palestinian opposition group just a week before his own assassination.) Despite his Nobel Peace Prize, he was hardly a model of moderation. He remained an uncompromising warrior to the end.
His end came because he sold out other Jews. The ideologically committed settlers in the West Bank and their many Jewish supporters, having good reason to believe that Rabin would always support them, were understandably outraged. And he had shown them by his own example--as had nearly every other Israeli leader--that when differences arise, they should be settled by force, not by compromise or mutual understanding.
Intransigence has become a way of life for so many in Israel. And somewhere there must be an Israeli equivalent of H. Rap Brown proclaiming that violence is now as Jewish as chicken soup. Rabin bears a part of the responsibility for this. Sadly, he alone had to pay the full price, and now he is gone.
But Louis Farrakhan is still here, and probably will be for many years to come. In the last years of his life Rabin taught us that, when you live side by side with another community, you must eventually talk with that community’s leaders, no matter what you think of them. Had he learned that lesson sooner, many lives could have been saved.
Rabin’s death should teach us that no good will come from demonizing and vilifying leaders we dislike. It should also teach us that refusing to deal with others’ genuine grievances only perpetuates the spiral of tragedy.
Farrakhan articulates genuine grievances. His sweeping denunciations of Jews, like so much else in his bigoted rhetoric, must be repudiated. But he speaks anti-Semitically because it strikes a responsive chord in his audience. Why?
We hear much in the media about Black anti-Semitism, but little about Jewish racism. In fact, there has always been some racism in the American (as well as the Israeli) Jewish community. In some circles it has been pervasive.
In northern cities, Blacks have run into a disproportionate number of Jews holding positions of authority--in neighborhood stores, in schools, and in medical, legal, and social service offices. To many Blacks, Jewish racism has felt particularly demeaning and damaging. From their perspective, it makes little sense for Jews to act as powerless persecuted ghetto-dwellers.
To bring real peace we Jews must recognize that we have taken power into our own hands and are responsible for the consequences. We must stop insisting on our pure innocence as passive victims of anti-Semitism. We must listen to those who oppose us, both here and in the Middle East, and acknowledge how our power has hurt them.
We must make real compromises. We must create a culture of caring for and working with others who are victimized by far worse prejudice than we are, to alleviate their suffering. Only then can we hope to be free of fanatical assassins and bigoted politicans.
Yitzhak Rabin did a little bit to promote these lessons in the last years of his life. If we could learn them more fully from his tragic death, it may not have been wholly in vain.
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