JWR Israel: Dreams, Realities
May 1, 1998 / 5 Iyar, 5758

‘Bless with peace ...'

By Sam Lipski

AS WE CELEBRATE the 50th Yom Ha'Atzmaut, (Israel Independence Day), it is the memory of the late Yitzhak Rabin which stirs and troubles me. Only a Hebrew phrase can express my sense of his absence at the festivities: Hu chasser li Literally translated: "He is missing to me." And in Yiddish, Er felt mir.

Nor is this because of any bias towards the Labor party or a column against Binyamin Netanyahu. In Israeli terms I have been bilti-miflagti, non-partisan, all my adult life. I admit, however, to having become a "Rabinist" shortly after he won his second prime ministership. Purely personal.

Nor does that mean I am being sentimenal as Yom Ha'Atzmaut evokes mixed and contradictory emotions. Having reported on Rabin at close quarters for a number of years, and having followed his public life closely for nearly three decades, I regarded him as the least sentimental of men, every bit the taciturn soldier, a sabra of few, mostly abrupt words.

Yet, paradoxically, what I miss just now about Rabin are some of the speeches he gave in his second prime ministership, the most eloquent addresses by any Israeli prime minister to read, and yet the most poorly delivered of any by a man who had to steel himself to speak in public.

Let me, nevertheless, make a sweeping claim. In Israel's first 50 years there are two historic documents that stand out because each marks a watershed in the history of the reborn Jewish commonwealth. The first is the Declarattion of Independence on May 14, 1948. And the second is Rabin's address to the Knesset on July 13, 1992, when he presented his government for the first time after the elections.

Although the speech made news at the time, its philosophical underpinnings received little attention, then or since. Rabin, after all, was not seen as a Zionist thinker; it was known that his adviser Eitan Haber had written the words; and history moves too fast in Israel for anybody to pause for too long over yet another speech to the Knesset.

Still, since Rabin's death his speeches have taken on a life of their own. This one, above all others, was special. It struck me as such at the time and even more so this week of the Jubilee. Read now in the Hebrew - reprinted in the collection Rodef Shalom - it is more powerful than ever. And at the risk of repeating some of my initial reactions here is why the speech mattered.

To begin with, the fundamental theme. Rabin said: "No longer are we necessarily ‘a people that dwells alone' and no longer is it true that ‘the whole world is against us.' We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in thrall for almost half a century. We must join the international movement toward peace, reconciliation and co-operation that is spreading over the entire globe these days --- lest we be the last to remain, all alone, in the station."

Essentially Rabin was making two radical points: Firstly, he was rejecting an influential strand of thinking with its origins deep in Jewish theology. In the modern Zionist and post-Holocaust era the notion of "peculiarity," although held by many secular Zionists, was most notably expressed by a religious Zionist, the late Yaakov Herzog in A People that Dwells Alone. The book's title, and Rabin's quote, refer to the Biblical description of the Israelites by the non-Jewish prophet Bal'aam. In essence, this view holds that the Jews have been so peculiar a people that, no matter what they do and even today in Israel, the world (ie the goyim) will always reject them and force them to live outside history. Secondly, by speaking of the "isolation that held us in thrall for almost half a century" Rabin was breaking not only with the style of Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, but also of Labour icons David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. They were all founding fathers and mothers of Israel. But, as is clear from their own writings, the defining experiences of their youth, unlike those of Rabin the sabra, happened in the Diaspora.

And yet what made Rabin more than just the speechmaker for the "new Zionism" and the future -- as against the "old Zionism" of the Declaration of Independence and the past -- was the way he wove other themes and quotations into his address. Thus there are six quotations from history and tradition; three are from secular Zionist sources -- the Yishuv (Pre-State) poets Rachel and Shaul Tchernichovsky and political Zionism's founder Theodor Herzl -- and three are part of the Jewish heritage taken from prayer texts or the Bible. He closes the speech with the classic text: "May the L-rd give His people strength; may the L-rd bless his people with peace."

In short, Rabin's 1992 address offered a bridge between the "new" Zionists and the "old" between "secular" and "religious," between "traditionalists" and "modernisers" and between "doves" and "hawks."

Indeed, by 1992 Rabin had transformed himself into a leader who could look not only at his people's past, but to Israel's future. The fact that Eitan Haber, a speechwriter who closely reflected his ideas, had fashioned the phrases is secondary. And that Rabin did not always live up to his own speechmaking, and sometimes failed to be the bridge, is all too true.

But the vision was there and, bottom line, Rabin knew whereof he spoke when he started Israel's journey in 1992 towards "peace, reconciliation and co-operation," just as Ben-Gurion knew that it was time for a new Genesis with the Declaration of Independence.

There was no turning back then, and despite the temporary diversions, there will be no turning back from Rabin's hope that one day all Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora, secular and religious alike, could recite together... "May the L-rd give His people strength; may the L-rd bless his people with peace."

Veteran Jewish newspaperman Sam Lipski is publisher of the Australian Jewish News.
©1998, Australian Jewish News