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Memory of Assassination Divides Israeli Society

November 05, 2005|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

TEL AVIV — On the vast, drab plaza that bears Yitzhak Rabin's name, an Israeli group that promotes tolerance recently brought together a few dozen teenagers, some wearing nose rings and resolutely secular, some in the modest dress of the religiously devout, to consider the tragedy that occurred on that spot 10 years ago Friday.

On the night of Nov. 4, 1995, moments after an enormous peace rally that overflowed the square in central Tel Aviv, a young Jewish assassin who said he was acting in God's name pumped three bullets into Rabin. The 73-year-old prime minister, who had spent decades fighting Israel's wars before embarking on a mission to forge an accord with the Palestinians, died on the operating table.

The students who assembled in Rabin Square this week, all of them kindergartners at the time of the assassination, began talking about how religious and secular Israelis could find common ground. But then they bickered over old disputes and shied away from discussing the assassination.

A decade after Rabin's abrupt and violent death, Israel's religious and secular camps remain deeply isolated from one another, with little in the way of a common lens through which to view one of the most wrenching moments in the nation's history.

"In terms of nationhood and the large events that mark it ... it is difficult to find a more fragmented collective memory than this particular one," said Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, a sociologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "The assassination and how people feel about it now has become the ultimate expression of a divided society."

Commemorations are spread out over the 10-day span between Friday's anniversary and Nov. 14, when the event falls on the Hebrew calendar. A few ceremonies, including a graveside visit Friday by close friends and family, have already been held, but a round of elaborate state-sponsored events, including a tribute in Rabin Square next weekend to be attended by dignitaries including former President Clinton, are still to come.

For many in Israel's secular left, this anniversary is an elegy to the promise of peace, yet also a vindication of the path taken by Rabin -- one that was ultimately accepted, they point out, by current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who 10 years ago was an implacable opponent of any concession to the Palestinians.

But to those on the country's religious right, many of them still embittered by the withdrawal of Israeli troops and the uprooting of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip this summer, Rabin is a man to be remembered chiefly as a symbol of misplaced trust in Palestinians in general and the late Yasser Arafat in particular.

They believe the Oslo interim peace accords Rabin helped inaugurate in 1993 when he reluctantly shook the late Palestinian Authority leader's hand on the White House lawn ushered in the bloody Palestinian uprising seven years later.

Moreover, the assassination itself remains a sensitive topic: Many religiously observant Israelis feel an entire social class was tarred by Rabin's killing. With each anniversary, they chafe anew at the sense being unfairly punished.

"The whole religious-Zionist population was blamed as an accessory to murder," said Bracha Drukaresh, a teacher at a religious school. "Seventeen-year-old students couldn't walk down the street with a yarmulke on their heads. It was a terrible time for us too."

That sense of polarization has returned. In recent weeks, the family and supporters of Yigal Amir, who is serving a life sentence for Rabin's assassination, have launched a publicity blitz demanding that the 37-year-old be pardoned or granted a new trial. They back conspiracy theories that would exonerate him, and insist on his right to father a child with Larissa Trimbobler, an ultra-Orthodox immigrant from the former Soviet Union whom he married in a proxy ceremony not sanctioned by prison authorities.

For those caught up in mourning the late leader, the calls for Amir's freedom, the assertions of his innocence and his growing status as a hero in far-right circles are an unbearable affront.

"It feels awful," Dalia Rabin-Pelossof told reporters this week at the research and education center built in her father's memory.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav said he would never grant Amir a pardon and urged his successors not to either. "This villain deserves neither pity or forgiveness," Katsav said at a candle-lighting ceremony Thursday at the presidential residence.

For nearly all Israelis old enough to remember Rabin's killing, the event is frozen in time.

"It was like the Kennedy assassination and the killing of John Lennon rolled into one -- everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing," said Vinitzky-Seroussi, the sociologist.

The night of Rabin's shooting and the days that followed became a jumble of iconic images. Many of these haunting sights and sounds are reappearing in reprinted newspaper photos and in old TV footage.

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