Monday, November 30, 2009

Remembering, or forgettting, Yitzhak Rabin

By Michael Barajas

Commemorating the assassination the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has raised controversy ever since an extremist right-wing Orthodox Jewish man shot him dead 14 years ago.

Rabin signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, officially recognizing the P.L.O. and creating the Palestinian Authority while for the first time also making partial land concessions to the Palestinians. The landmark agreement also brought Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table for the first time, ending much of the violence of the First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

But ever since Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, Israelis have remained divided over what exactly the agreement accomplished. Many on the left cheer Rabin, praising him for pushing peace forward, while many on the right – and Orthodox religious communities – demonize him for giving up Israeli land and recognizing any Palestinian leadership.

In recent years, a new phenomenon has popped up in Israel in which Israeli rightists and Orthodox religious communities focus solely on commemorating the death of the Jewish matriarch Rachel at Rachel’s Tomb, disregarding the Rabin celebrations. Some say it’s a way to effectively dodge the dicey political issue that Rabin’s death evokes, turning the yearly gathering at Rachel’s tomb into a counter-Rabin celebration.

An Orthodox religious man prays inside Rachel's Tomb

Efrat Zemer wrote this week in the Israeli tabloid Maariv that many state religious schools have even begun focusing solely on the Jewish matriarch, though commemoration of Rabin in Israeli schools is mandatory. The anniversary of Rachel’s death, he writes, has suddenly become more prominent than it was in the past, before Rabin’s assassination.

It shows, Zemer says, how this divided nation is dealing with its troubled past. He claims many in the religious community separate themselves from the Rabin memorial, saying they don’t want to take part in remembering an assassination for which they were blamed. This year, organizers estimated that up to 150,000 people journeyed to Rachel’s tomb on the anniversary of both her and Rabin’s death – that’s up from 80,000 just last year.

The separation barrier surrounding the tomb complex

Though Rachel’s tomb is technically in the West Bank on the outskirts of Bethlehem, an Israeli barrier to separate it from the rest of the West Bank now surrounds it. The site is approachable from only from Israel, and access is generally restricted to tourists and Jewish pilgrims.

The area feels more like a heavily militarized zone than a tourist or pilgrimage site. The tomb is almost unrecognizable and blends in with the high walls, fences and razor wire surrounding it. The area was once a hotbed of violence during both Intifadas, and while some come here on the anniversary of Rachel’s death to escape the politically charged issue of Rabin’s murder, politics are hard to ignore while literally enclosed by the Israeli-West Bank separation wall.

Israeli soldiers stand guard outside the tomb

When asked, one rabbi organizing busloads of religious men and women into the imposing tomb complex simply said, “Our focus is not on Rabin, it’s on Rachel. Yitzhak Rabin was also a child of God, you can pray for him too if you want.”

Some, even in government, have been more vocal about their opposition to Rabin’s remembrance. Israeli Cabinet member Michael Ben-Ari announced Thursday that he was boycotting a special cabinet session dedicated to the assassinated prime minister, saying it alienates the country’s right-wing and turns Oslo process into a “festival.” Thursday, right-wing Israeli activists passed out flyers at Israeli university campuses urging people to protest Rabin remembrance ceremonies taking place all over Israel this weekend.

Thursday, standing near the drab entrance to Rachel’s Tomb surrounded by religious men bowing incessantly in prayer, one rabbi said, “Rabin was just a politician. People won’t remember him in 100 years from now. We’ll always remember Rachel.”

A guard outside Rachel's tomb

Michael Barajas is a recent Scripps graduate. He is currently interning with the Associated Press in Jerusalem, Israel. To visit his portfolio website, go to:

Images and content copyright Michael Barajas

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