A soldier for peace, a realist not a dreamer

November 13, 1995|By Murray Saltzman

THEY ARE ALL wrong. All of them. Those who see in the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin the diminution of the historic Jewish ethic against violence misread this event's meaning.

Mr. Rabin was a soldier in the best sense of that profession. He abhorred war. His purpose was the defense of country and the advancement of peace. He never demonized the enemy. That he was murdered has shocked every thoughtful, decent Jew and stunned the world's observers of the Jewish people and their millennial struggle to live within ethical boundaries despite calumny, humiliation and persecution in every age and in almost every place.

The eruption of occasional chaos in creation does not deny the overwhelming orderliness and rationality of the cosmic design. The base murder by a Jew of Prime Minister Rabin does not negate the continuing vitality of the Jewish people's ethical opposition to gratuitous violence nor their celebration of all men and women as being but ''little lower than the angels, crowned with honor and glory.'' Even now, after the Holocaust, only the unhinged fringe in Jewish life repudiate Jewish humanism and universalism.

The essence of Yitzhak Rabin's character and life was the eschewal of sentimental chauvinism and the blind self-deception that extravagant emotionalism encourages. It is false that the reaction of Israelis to his assassination was similar to the American mood following President Kennedy's murder. I stood outside the Knesset in Jerusalem for hours the day Mr. Rabin lay in state. The hundreds of thousands who lined the streets and walkways, while shocked and grieving, were not in any sense bereft and devastated by the tragic event.

It was not that they had become desensitized to brutality by their many encounters with violence. Israelis are inherently open and emotional, quick to feel the pain of others because the bonds of community are so pervasive. Their emotional equilibrium as they gathered before the Knesset was because the prime minister never promised them Camelot. Peace was a great risk, he explained. He could not fully trust Yasser Arafat, he suggested, yet the effort for peace must be made no matter how perilous.

Though they shed copious tears at his death Israelis did not despair of their future. The peace process, filled with pitfalls, would inevitably go forward, perhaps even with more alacrity because of his death and because he had never offered Camelot.

The illusion of Camelot

Disillusionment and despair are born of extravagant expectations. In the Sixties so many of us in America naively believed that the appropriate legislation would liberate our nation from its heritage of racial bigotry and oppression. We believed in Camelot.

Prime Minister Rabin was a rationalist not a dreamer. He was a realist not a visionary. He never said peace was an easily achieved rose garden. To the contrary, he cautioned his people that they must be on guard and remain strong, that the way to peace would be filled with anxiety and setbacks. But, he insisted, there was no alternative except to make the effort for peace.

Optimism carried the state of Israel from a small, besieged garrison to the modern, economically and culturally vibrant nation it is. Israelis boast that the new national bird is the crane, because every where you look construction cranes dot the skies.

That optimism is now subdued. There are incursions of irrationalism in Israel as in life, as in the world. There are failures of security by even the best trained security force that Israel could conceivably organize. Jews are as prone to fanaticism and to moral frailty as is any people. No one, no people, no nation can live in the self-satisfaction of moral superiority.

When an Israeli religious fanatic murdered worshiping men and women and children in a mosque Israelis should then have been aroused by the danger posed by Jewish extremism. How grievous that it should have required the death of Prime Minister Rabin to finally stir their consciousness to an awareness that morality is not inherent in any people or nation, that morality requires the cultivation by conflicting political parties of rhetorical civility.

Judaism never suggested the moral superiority of the Jewish people. The theme of chosenness is often misconstrued. Noah, the archetype for humanity, consummated the first covenant with God, a covenant of righteousness and peace. The Jewish covenant passed on by Abraham gave Jews the responsibility of redeeming history by laboring for a time of ultimate reconciliation, when ''swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.''

Mr. Rabin was a mixture of Israeli secularism and Jewish religious messianism. Biblical messianism did not promise redemption in history. Every messianic expectation was introduced scripturally with the idiomatic phrase ''in the end of days,'' that is in God's infinite time. This tragic assassination reminds us of how far away is that time, and of how urgent is the task before us.

Like Yitzhak Rabin we must become soldiers daring to take risks for peace, knowing that God's perfect peace is beyond us. That he no longer is with us to remind us of this with his blunt words brings sadness to our time and our world.

Murray Saltzman is rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

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