By Alexis Schwartz
Special to WJW
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist 25 years ago, and his legacy becomes more complicated with each passing year. Rabin was one of Israel’s greatest military leaders. He was a general and a war hero who took big risks to secure his country a decisive victory in the Six Day War of 1967. Two decades later, Rabin was the man brave enough to lead his country to seek peace with the very people against whom he waged war for nearly a lifetime.
Elu v’elu — these and these — a Jewish teaching tells us that it is possible for both things to be correct. The Jewish people are a nation of contradictions. And Yitzhak Rabin embodied these contradictions by being both a man of war and a man of peace. He fought fiercely to defend his country and he was killed for advancing peace for his people.
As a leader, Rabin did not make the easy choices; he made the right choices for his people. A pragmatic, battle-hardened warrior, he transformed himself and millions of Israelis into agitators for peace.
Rabin’s determined adoption of this difficult but necessary evolution continues to inspire and inform generations of Israelis and supporters of Israel around the world — including those born after his assassination.
This week, Jewish communities around the world will light candles, lay flowers and hold ceremonies in Rabin’s memory. But there is more we can and must do to preserve the legacy of this great Zionist leader. We can teach our young people to live up to the complex and nuanced values and ideals that he held. By embracing Israel education and engagement with authenticity and nuance, we have the opportunity to inspire future generations to follow in Rabin’s footsteps.
For eight years, the JCRC’s IEF program, developed in partnership with The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, has taken a nuanced approach to teaching our community’s teens how to engage with and advocate for Israel in a way that is unique to each participant. Many of the fellows identify as progressive Jews and are not sure if they are Zionists when they begin the eight-week course. We make it a priority for these students to digest and grapple with complexity.
The high school students who complete the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC)’s Israel Engagement Fellowship (IEF) instinctively grasp the experience of holding two truths at the same time. Many of them feel that they were never taught to wrestle with their own feelings about Judaism and their connection to Israel and that they weren’t permitted to experience their own authentic and complicated feelings about these pieces of their identities.
This summer’s Fellowship, which was held online because of the pandemic, brought together 43
Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and unidentified Jewish students. These teens chose to spend their summer vacation learning about Israel and preparing for college by discovering the importance of building relationships and coalitions to positively impact the campus dialogue about Israel. After completing the program, 92 percent of participants said they felt more confident and prepared to advocate for Israel in their own personal way, and many said they were more comfortable identifying as Zionists.
One student said the most important thing she learned was that, “Israel is highly complex, and you have to understand each individual part of Israel in order to understand the whole picture.” Another learned “to have patience and that being in support of Israel’s right to exist doesn’t automatically mean that you are anti-Palestinian.” And a third learned “that there is hope for the future.”
Judaism is a religion of action. When our ancestors received the Torah at Sinai, they said, “Na’aseh v’nishmah,” — first “we will act” and then “we will believe.” Believing is an important component for any community of faith, but action is what helps us live our values and shape the world to reflect them. Yitzhak Rabin’s legacy gives us a blueprint for how to nurture authentic Zionism in the next generation. By teaching with the integrity and authenticity that Rabin brought to his life’s work, we can inspire our students to act and believe. It is in their actions to agitate for peace and a better future that we truly will honor that legacy.
As part of IEF, fellows study Yehudah Amichai’s poem, “From the Place Where We Are Right.” Many students interpret the poem to mean that when we start with a deeply held belief, we are not open to change or evolution. They recognize that if Rabin had held fast to the mindset that served him in 1967, he would not have experienced a journey of growth, and he would not have taken bold action to achieve a better future for Israelis.
Often, it is the act of doing that transforms what we believe. Rabin understood Israel’s vast security needs and the limits of power, and he recognized the expanding complexity of the globalized, interconnected world. These beliefs and his hope for a better future gave him the strength to take action. This week, as we observe this solemn anniversary, let us also honor Rabin by acting and doing, showing that elu v’elu, all of these and these can be true.
Alexis Schwartz is the director of the Israel Action Center at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.