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From Lincoln Tunnel to Rabin Square: Legacies of bold leaders, and assassination

Perhaps the greatest similarity between Abraham Lincoln and Yitzhak Rabin is that both men’s assassins succeeded in altering history. Following Lincoln’s death the reconstruction of the American south was abandoned and the Supreme Court accepted the notion of ‘separate yet equal.’ Following Rabin’s assassination, the occupation of the West Bank and the Palestinian people has deepened as Israeli settlements continue to grow.

By Ilan Manor

Abraham Lincoln (Photo: Mathew Brady)

It was Ernst Lubitsch, an American filmmaker of Jewish decent, who used his 1942 classic comedy To Be or Not to Be to remark on the fate of dictators saying that “if they named a brandy after Napoleon and a herring after Bismarck, what’s Hitler going to be? A piece of cheese?” While dictators do often end up in one’s kitchen cabinet, great leaders share a different fate altogether being memorialized by great urban landmarks such as New York City’s Lincoln Tunnel or Rain Square in Tel Aviv. However, unlike the late Israeli prime minister, Abraham Lincoln has recently been revived by another American Jewish filmmaker, Steven Spielberg.

Nearly 70 years after Lubitsch’s masterpiece first opened, Spielberg has returned to the issue of the legacy of leaders in his film Lincoln. Interestingly, there is no other American filmmaker so engulfed in the task of shaping America’s collective memory as Steven Spielberg. In a series of productions, ranging from Saving Private Ryan to the mini-series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Spielberg has defined what World War Two meant to America while adopting Ronald Reagan’s famous words “these are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

Now Spielberg has turned to defining what Lincoln meant to America, and perhaps to the world. While the film Lincoln focuses on a short period of two weeks leading to the passing of the 13th amendment to the Constitution and the abolishment of slavery, it aims to make a broader statement regarding the nature of Abraham Lincoln. Spielberg portrays Lincoln as a pure man, one who sees slavery as a stain on America worthy of a civil war. Yet Lincoln is also a pragmatic man, one willing to use the shortcomings of democracy in order to preserve and protect the American democracy. Fittingly, the film ends with the quote “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

As an Israeli who grew up in the United States, I couldn’t help but make an analogy between Spielberg’s Lincoln and the late Yitzhak Rabin. After all, both men came from humble beginnings, both rose to hold the highest office in the land, both dared to make history rather than succumb to its flow and both were murdered in an attempt to ensure that their vision would not become a reality. Much like Lincoln’s 13th amendment, Rabin’s 1993 Oslo peace accord was passed in the Israeli Knesset by a narrow majority of just two votes procured by political wheeling and dealing.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between the two leaders is that both men’s assassins succeeded in altering history. Following Lincoln’s death the reconstruction of the American south was abandoned and the Supreme Court accepted the notion of “separate yet equal,” a notion that would live on for a century. Following Rabin’s assassination, the occupation of the West Bank and the Palestinian people has deepened as Israeli settlements continue to grow. Much like the American Supreme Court, Israeli society has accepted a notion of “separate yet unequal” surrounding itself with concrete walls and settling under an Iron Dome of indifference.

Yet there is also a vast difference between Lincoln and Rabin. Most importantly, Lincoln’s vision of America would ultimately be realized. Beginning in the 1960s with the marches in Selma and Birmingham, and ending with the election of Barack Obama, America has nearly cured itself of the ills of slavery and segregation. In the American collective memory Lincoln lives on as the founding father of modern day America, the man who brought about the vision of the founding fathers of 1776.

With the swearing in of Benjamin Netanyahu’s third government, and the prominent role of the Jewish Home party in it, Rabin’s vision of peace with the Palestinians and the end of the Occupation seems to be fading away. In the Israeli collective memory Rabin remains a controversial figure; to some he symbolizes hope to others he remains a traitor. To some he is a courageous man, to others a naïve one.

Lastly, unlike Spielberg’s Lincoln, Rabin’s motivation for seeking peace with the Palestinians is still somewhat unknown. Was it a strategic decision? Was it because he feared Israel would lose the demographic war with the Palestinians? Was it because he had tired of war and bloodshed? Or was it, as in Lincoln’s case, because of a moral imperative? Because occupying another people is morally reprehensible and corrupting?

Whatever the reason, like his American counterpart, Rabin attempted to change Israel. One can only hope that both Israelis and Palestinians will not have to wait a century until his vision is also realized.

Ilan Manor is working on his MA in mass media at Tel Aviv University. He has previously contributed to The Jerusalem Post, +972 Magazine and The Jewish Daily Forward. His Hebrew-language blog has been featured several times in the Israeli press.

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    1. Don from TxSux

      It seems to me that fundamentally the difference between Israel and the US is our ideal of equality and equal rights. While it took far too long to extend this principle to African Americans, the hypocrisy represented by its denial to them was always evident.

      Israel wants to be a Jewish state above all. Equal rights for all its inhabitants (even citizens) is not a fundamental concern. Fundamentally there is acceptance that the non-Jews are permanent outsiders and a threat to the state’s Jewish identity.

      It has always seemed to me that rather than reassuring Israel, our indulgence of their behavior should make them wary. Evidence that no principles are involved; only politics…

      Reply to Comment
    2. Lincoln came to emancipation out of smaller steps of necessity. Before election, he advocated (some) repatriation to Africa for former slaves. In between his election and inauguration, he proposed a constitutional amendment which would have prevented Federal intervention over slavery in States presently having slavery (but not the expanding Federal territories, where the conflict was focused). And Emancipation was at first restricted to States in Rebellion.

      Rebellion drove his 13th Amendment logic. It was just implausible that preserved slavery would not again engender conflict. With the South broken militarily and economically (and socially), the structure should be erased at reunion. I think Union drove Lincoln more than slavery as such; indeed, his constitutional arguement against succession is rather weak. The war was extra constitutional, the 13th and 14th Amendments rewriting it in clear ways.

      My fear: what must Israel endure to rewrite itself?

      Reply to Comment
      • Two events in the past decade or so have enabled Israelis to all but ignore the occupation. These events are the separation wall with the west bank and the iron dome defense system. The wall separating the two people has created a situation in which Israelis know the occupation exists but since they cannot see or feel it they need not be bothered by it. The iron dome defense system has also enabled Israelis to ignore the siege on Gaza and “contain” the situation rather than actually deal with it. President Obama spoke out against this indifference in his visit to Jerusalem. His speech was not a passionate plea for peace but rather a reminder to Israeli society that the occupation exists and deepens only because we allow it to. If we wanted, we meaning Israeli society, it could end tomorrow. By doing so, Obama also reminded Israelis that they are accountable for the occupation and its violent, daily, manifestations.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Aaron Gross

      “[B]oth men’s assassins succeeded in altering history.”

      I doubt it. It was clear to most Israelis that the Oslo process was a failure long before the assassination. That’s why Rabin was so unpopular by then. Netanyahu had a significant lead over him in the polls.

      If Rabin hadn’t been killed, the most likely scenario is that Bibi would have defeated him easily in the next election, more easily than he defeated Peres after the assassination (with Israeli sentimentalism still on Peres’s side). The Oslo process would have continued to fall apart pretty much as it actually did in the 1990s.

      Reply to Comment
      • Giora Me'ir

        Rabin trailed Netanyahu slightly in the polls at the time of his murder.

        What would have happened in the ’96 election is unknown. Rabin had the military credentials that Peres never had.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          Of course it’s unknown, but as I said, the most likely scenario would have been that Rabin lost the election. Netanyahu was leading Rabin in the polls, and Rabin’s support had been declining steadily.

          Peres’s near-victory was itself a result of sentimental feeling for Rabin after the assassination, so it doesn’t give any indication of what would have happened if Rabin hadn’t been assassinated.

          Reply to Comment
    4. i_like_ike52

      I think attempts to compare Rabin and Lincoln are quite amusing. Linconln was NOT a ‘peace-nik’. His policy was “total war for total victory”. He was willing to pay whatever price in casualties and destruction that was necessary in order to to win the war. He was willing to hang traitors, he locked up subversives in jail without charges which is direct conflict with the Constitution. He was sure he was doing the right thing.
      Rabin was an exhausted old warrior who decided it was more fun to collect Nobel Prizes than continue the conflict, he hugged the enemy (did Lincoln hug Jeff Davis?), he allowed the enemy free access to kill Rabin’s fellow Israeli citizens while claiming they were “victims of peace” and there was nothing that could be done to prevent it.

      Rabin himself told Moshe Ya’alon and his daughter Daliah that the Oslo agreements were a failure and he intended to abrogate them after he was re-elected. He was trainling in polls behind Netanyahu before he was assassinated and would have certainly lost the next election. All the Labor party people I knew at the time despised him.
      HIs assassination STRENGTHENED the Oslo Agreements, temporarily, but they never had a chance in the long run even had Rabin lived because neither Arafat nor his succesors had any intention of reaching a compromise peace with Israel.

      Reply to Comment

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