Maybe it’s because I was only eight years old when it happened, but the fact is that to this very day, every Nov. 22 of every year, I think about it.
Nov. 22, 1963 was the day President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The trauma of that event, the tragedy of such a young, dynamic, articulate president having his life ended, seared such pain in me that even more than 50 years later, I think of it every Nov. 22.
I don’t know if it’s because life moves so much faster these days or if all our devices have so numbed us to what real human emotions are, have so robbed us of any sense of sentimentality or true caring, but I predicted shortly after 9/11 that within five years of its occurrence, we’d barely take notice of its anniversary.
And I think that’s proven true. I don’t remember the last time on 9/11 I stopped to reflect on what happened on that 9/11. And sadly, so it is with one of the most horrific events in recent Jewish history, the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
When it happened, we were all beyond shocked, shocked that a prime minister of Israel had been murdered in cold blood, not in some foreign country, but on the streets of the Jewish state, murdered not by an Arab or an anti-Semite but by a Jew.
I can still remember when I heard the news, how my head literally became hot with disbelief and grief, and how I felt like I was in a state of suspended animation for the next few days.
But do you remember what year that happened? When the anniversary of the assassination is? My guess is you don’t. My guess is you haven’t known that for years, let alone stopped on that day each year to reflect, to mourn, to wonder.
That’s pretty much been how the Jewish world has treated the anniversary of the Rabin murder. With nothing. We’ve gone from shock to wondering how we could get to a place where a Jew would kill the prime minister of Israel to not even having a memorial service in our shul to mark the anniversary.
Well, the 23rd anniversary of the assassination is coming up in a few days, on Nov. 4. Maybe give it a moment’s thought.
Israel itself recently held a very low key official ceremony on the Hebrew date of the anniversary and it was something that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said that really caught my attention. Rivlin expressed concern that the new generation does not understand the seriousness of the polarization and incitement that led to the murder. “Day by day, the generation that did not know Yitzhak grows. The generation that did not itself see the dark slippery slope from incitement and hatred to bloodshed. Children and young people who have grown up and were born and immigrated over the last 20 or 30 years, the leaders of our tomorrow, did not know Yitzhak. And did not know the murder. And the truth is that something is not working. Because each year we make speeches and hold ceremonies, and yet we see the erosion of the centrality of the murder and what it means in Israeli public discourse.”
His words are especially timely and especially profound as more and more in Israel those who don’t see things as the government does, or even as the majority of Israelis do, are being singled out, attempts being made to keep them out and keep them quiet.
In the last few months, for example, a whole spate of people have been detained at Israel’s airport, either delayed from entering Israel or delayed in leaving Israel, simply because of their political views. While some are supporters of BDS and other things abhorrent to most Jews, the political crackdown has also ensnared the likes of Meyer Koplow, the board chairman of Brandeis University and a long time financial and political supporter of Israel; as well as well- known American journalist Peter Beinart.
Koplow was interrogated in what he described as a hostile fashion by Israeli security because he had in his suitcase a magazine he picked up while he had visited Palestinians in the West Bank during his visit. Beinart was aggressively interrogated because he has been a frequent critic of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
That’s not how a democracy is supposed to work. Demonizing those who think differently than we do is very dangerous, as Rivlin warned, and can lead to things we once thought unimaginable.
Most recently, Israel detained and tried to bar an American college student due to her alleged support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. A 2017 law allows Israel to prohibit entry to BDS supporters. Lara Alqasem was detained despite having been granted a scholarship for the graduate program at Hebrew University and a student visa from Israel’s consulate in Miami.
In the end, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that she should be allowed into Israel, with Judge Anat Baron calling the decision to bar her a danger to Israeli democracy. “The undeniable impression is that the revoking of her permit was due to the political opinions she holds,” Baron wrote in the decision. “If that is indeed the case, this is an extreme and dangerous step that is likely to lead to the crumbling of the pillars on which Israel’s democracy is built.”
What I found most chilling, indeed blood curdling, was before the court issued its ruling, an Israeli government minister said Alqasem would be allowed to enter Israel if she renounced the boycott movement against Israel. “Alqasem comes forward tomorrow morning with her own voice, not with all sorts of lawyers’ wisecracking and statements that could be construed this way or another – and declares that supporting BDS, she thinks today is illegitimate and she regrets what she did on this matter, we will consider our stance,” Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said.
That was scary first because when asked in a lower court if she supported the boycott movement, Alqasem said, “I don’t support BDS.” Evidently, sworn testimony in court didn’t do it for this government minister. But what was really scary is that he was saying that in order to enter the democracy that is Israel, this student with a scholarship from an Israeli university and a visa from an Israeli consulate, had to hold political views that the government found acceptable. Otherwise, she would be kept out.
Israel is supposed to be a country of values, not just interests. Free speech is a democratic and Jewish value. And standing up, speaking out for what is right is a Jewish value. Which is why I have found it particularly upsetting that some pro-Israel voices have chosen to demonize Jamal Khashoggi, the victim of a gruesome murder almost certainly ordered by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
It was an act that has horrified the world and the absurd cover up that has taken place since has made things even worse. The Saudis first saying that Khashoggi walked out of their consulate in Turkey alive and well, then after three weeks saying yes, they did kill him but it was an accident, they didn’t mean to. Even though they flew 15 Saudis to Turkey the night before he was killed, including a body double of Khashoggi, brought a bone saw with them, and to this day say they have no idea where Khashoggi’s body is.
And yet as the world is more and more disgusted, too many Jews have taken it upon themselves to aim their fire not at MBS, the crown prince, or at the Saudis, but at Khashoggi. See here’s the thing. Bibi has spent the last year making real nice to MBS, currying his favor, seeking alliance with the Saudis in the belief first that they will help him in his battle with Iran, a common enemy of both Israel and Saudi Arabia; and second that they will help validate his strategy of downplaying peace with the Palestinians, believing he can make Israel at home in the region without the Palestinians. MBS is a key figure in this strategy.
Meanwhile, the crown Jewish prince, Jared Kushner, has spent the last year playing footsie with MBS, having long and late night chats and meals with him, currying his favor in the belief he will get the Saudis to back his grand peace plan to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. Indeed, Jared is so invested in MBS he recently gave a TV interview, which he never does, specifically to say he believes MBS is trying to determine the truth of what happened to Khashoggi.
So both Bibi and Jared are on MBS’ side and can’t let a triviality like the premeditated murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi get in the way of things. And so what to do? The cynical, sickening answer is to paint Khashoggi as a bad guy, as someone who pretty much got what he deserved.
And so we’ve seen some Israel supporters describe Khashoggi as a terrorist sympathizer and fierce opponent of Israel. Their goal appears to be to counter a portrait of Khashoggi as a Saudi reformer and free speech activist, and so derail pressure building on the White House to punish Saudi Arabia for his murder.
And so, we had the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s European office send out a release titled “Wiesenthal Centre exposes Jamal Khashoggi Antisemitic Tweets.” And we had Josh Block, the CEO of The Israel Project, post multiple tweets implicating Khashoggi in an array of terrorist activities. Block quoted a New Yorker article describing Khashoggi as a journalist, and commented, “Uh, U mean frontman for Islamists & paid spook for Qatar, Turkey & Turki al Faisal, whose ‘journalism’ was a cover for his real work, just as he wrapped his Islamist ideas in flowery language of ‘human rights’ as he praised Hamas & called for Israel to be destroyed by violence.” Block cited no sources for his claims.
But if putting the heat on Khashoggi not MBS will save Saudi Arabia, giving up the Jewish commitment to human rights might be worth it, think some Jews. Not Daniel Shapiro, Obama’s ambassador to Israel, who rejects the argument that confronting Iran is more important than dealing with Khashoggi’s murder.
“It has a whiff of trying to say this murder wasn’t as bad as it is because of the investment made in Saudia Arabia under [MBS] as a strategic anchor under the anti-Iran coalition,” Shapiro said. Groups that want Iran isolated, and quickly, are frustrated by the Khashoggi distraction, Shapiro said. “If indeed the United States cannot conduct business as usual while this is unresolved, it puts at risk that whole kind of strategic concept Israel has counted on and strong opponents of Iran have counted on,” he said.
It may be in Israel’s interest to protect Saudi Arabia, but it is definitely not in keeping with Jewish values to paint Khashoggi as a bad guy to allow MBS to pretend he’s a good guy.