When a Jewish extremist murdered Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the end of a peace rally 20 years ago this week, many U.S. reporters based in Israel thought of the event as the country’s Kennedy assassination. Both murders induced a kind of national trauma. Both left people with a sense of foreboding about the future of their nation.
“Certainly this is on par with the Kennedy assassination,” Walter Rodgers, CNN’s Jerusalem bureau chief, told Wolf Blitzer in a live broadcast shortly after doctors declared Rabin dead at a Tel Aviv hospital. “Because in the lifetime of Israelis, this hasn’t happened here.”
I shared that feeling as a young reporter in Israel at the time. I covered the rally where Rabin was assassinated and attended every session of the trial of his killer, Yigal Amir. But in the past two years, while writing a book about the murder and trying to understand what it meant for Israeli society, I came to think of it as the analogue of a different event in American history: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Historical parallels are risky. In most ways, modern Israel bears little resemblance to the United States of the 19th century. But the correlation felt so compelling that I ran it by preeminent Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. Let’s just say he didn’t laugh me out of the room (a beautiful room at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, which Holzer runs).
So here goes. The United States in the 1860s and Israel in the 1990s: Both countries are in formative periods, when big questions about identity and the kind of society people hope to create are still in play.
Both countries are divided, almost evenly, over one core, vexing issue. In the United States, it’s the extending of slavery. In Israel, it’s the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where millions of Palestinians live under military rule with few of the rights that Israeli citizens have.
Both countries choose a leader in a fractious election, and in both countries these leaders set out to resolve the core issue according to the vision of only a section of his country — the section that voted for him. So it goes in democracies.
In the United States, we all know, the result is a long and dreadful civil war.
In Israel, it’s not quite a war. But the conflict between left and right — between pragmatists such as Rabin who want to cede West Bank territory to the Palestinians and ideologues who think of it as sacred Jewish land — gets heated and ugly. Rightists portray Rabin, a former general who led Israel to victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, as a traitor. Rabbis cite ancient Jewish laws to justify the idea that a death sentence hangs over him.
In Washington, a supporter of the Confederacy in his mid-20s shoots the president in hopes of upending the results of the war, which is a decisive victory for the Union. In Tel Aviv, a Jewish extremist in his mid-20s shoots the prime minister with the aim of reversing the first steps toward peace — a series of deals Rabin had struck with the Palestinians known as the Oslo Accords.
And that’s where the stories diverge. Lincoln dies, but his legacy — preserving the Union and doing away with slavery — remains intact. The assassination goes down as a failure.
Rabin dies as well. But his murder sets off a chain reaction that shifts power in Israel from the pragmatists to the ideologues and ultimately guts his peace process. As assassinations go, it stands as one of the most successful in history.
I told Holzer I thought what accounted for the difference in legacies was largely timing: Lincoln had already won the war when he died. Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee surrendered five days before Lincoln was shot. Rabin had yet to win the peace. That we’ll never know whether he would have succeeded is one of the most frustrating consequences of the assassination.
Holzer indulged my analogy long enough to speculate about what would have happened if Lincoln had died before the Union victory — say, a year earlier.
“I think without Lincoln, the national will doesn’t have an advocate. And the will of the people to keep the system that they had created so uniquely and so successfully evaporates. He’s that good at making the case in his orations,” he said.
“His leadership is unique. And if not for his will and his way of expressing national purpose, it’s a whole different ballgame.”
Rabin’s leadership was unique as well, and Amir knew it. In his confession, Amir said that he killed Rabin because his record in war made him a singularly effective advocate for peace. Amir’s brother, Hagai, who helped plot the murder, predicted Israel would be a different country without Rabin.
“According to Judaism, killing a king is profoundly significant. It affects the entire nation and alters its destiny,” Hagai Amir wrote in a letter from prison days after the murder.
He knew what he was talking about.
Dan Ephron is author of “Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel.”