By Jeannie Gerzon
Twenty years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the flame of his memory still burns for many, including former President Bill Clinton – so much so, he made a special trip to Israel to speak at the annual memorial rally. I was among the thousands of Israelis, non-Israelis, Jews and non-Jews, elders and youngsters who attended the rally. In his speech, Clinton remarked that for him the rally commemorated the peace rally 20 years ago, focusing on the need to restart the peace process. I know many others who attended that felt the same way, but to the youth in attendance at the event, it was obvious Rabin’s legacy represents something different. Why is Rabin’s legacy inspiring a new generation of youth 20 years later?
Looking back at the history of this rally – over the past two decades, with the passing of time and distance from the trauma of the assassination – commemorative rally organizers have struggled to get financial support and bring out the crowds. With national talk of doing away with the rally, what I found especially compelling was the determination of Israel’s youth movements to salvage the annual event and bring new life into its meaning. It will no doubt be the young people of Israel who will continue to carry the torch of Rabin’s legacy as they see it in the future. As the rally organizers, the youth movement controls the roster of speakers and the messaging. This year, their message rang loud and clear – while the pursuit of peace may be on the minds of many, young people are equally concerned about the quality of Israeli society. Rabin’s legacy for them has to do with the importance of free expression, democratic values, societal and internal issues. They are concerned about economic distribution, housing, cost of living, jobs and education. They are concerned about the leadership of the country and the democratic process. And, as evidenced in the joining together of different religious streams, there is an inescapable and important theme of living together as Jews and Arabs in a democratic country, expressing different opinions freely.
As referenced in a recent NPR story, Danny Hirschberg, general secretary of Bnei Akiva, Israel’s largest religious youth group movement, traveled to the rally from his home in Talmon, a settlement of some 300 families surrounded by Palestinian villages in the northern West Bank. He acknowledges that Rabin was against the settlements in the West Bank. Nonetheless, he yet helped organize the rally according to the agreed-upon rules: “We wanted the rally to stay away from controversial issues like peace of territory. We would go for what connects us – our commitment to democracy.”
It will be the Israeli youth – a generation consisting of many whom are too young to remember that night 20 years ago – who claim Rabin’s legacy for the next 20 years. They are inspired by his leadership example. Stav Shaffir, the youngest female Knesset member in Israel’s history and former spokesperson of the 2011 social justice protests, is one of these youth movement leaders. Now an outspoken advocate for fiscal oversight and accountability in government, Shaffir has expressed her inspiration from Rabin’s leadership example: “I always reflect upon Rabin’s many efforts to close the gaps in Israeli society and that’s where I see myself following in his footsteps” (quote taken from Huffington Post article: “Lessons From Israel’s Youngest Lawmaker: Q&A With Stav Shaffir”).
However, in order to continue this viewpoint on the legacy, education of Israeli youth on democratic values must be a focus. Teaching these democratic values in a country surrounded by undemocratic nations, and with a population made up of immigrants who emanate from undemocratic nations, the challenges of preserving civil society are daunting. Prof. Reuven Hazan, immediate past chair of the Political Science Department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has had the opportunity to educate this next cadre of youth leaders. He said:
“Rabin’s dream was not just the creation of a safe homeland for the Jewish people, but a stable, pluralistic, inclusive democracy. Rabin bequeathed a model of democratic politics at its best, where the army – despite its centrality – is subservient to the elected officials, and where those officials have a clear vision of how best to serve and to lead the people… Rabin was assassinated at a rally calling for non-violence, for legitimizing divergent ideologies through the democratic process. It was probably the most traumatic event in the history of the modern state and had an unimaginable impact on Israeli society.”
To the youth attending the rally October 31 in Rabin Square the meaning of Rabin’s legacy and its focus on democratic values has provided them with one of the most important things Israeli society has today: HOPE for the future. Rabin was a patriot who served his country with integrity, someone who strived for his ideals of living in a Jewish democratic state, providing opportunity to every child growing up. Let’s rally around Israel’s youth and focus on educating them on democratic values to keep this hope alive.
Jeannie Gerzon heads the American Friends of Yitzhak Rabin and has held the position of National Director for the past 10 years. The AFYR has provided major funds for construction and programing at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. It recently changed its support focus, commencing with the establishment of the Yitzhak Rabin Fellowship in Graduate Democracy Studies in the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University. The fellowship will provide an advanced curriculum for a select group of the best and brightest students accepted to the Political Science and International Relations Department with the goal of nurturing critical thinking and encouraging analytical academic scholarship. The program will play a role in shaping Israeli democracy and Israeli society, providing a resource for democratic standards to leadership and reinforcement of democratic values.