Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Two Faces of Israel Eye the Past, But Plan for Different Futures

Wanted for sabotage and terrorism by the British rulers of Palestine, Yitzhak Shamir didn't think he'd live to see the day Israel was established.

After a half-century of leading and molding the state of Israel, Mr. Shamir sees an unquestionable cause to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding.

About these ads

Yuval Rabin, the son of the slain prime minister who was at loggerheads with Shamir's politics most of his life, isn't feeling quite so jubilant on the jubilee Israel officially marks April 30, according to the Jewish calender.

Mr. Rabin's father, Yitzhak, stood on the lawn of the White House nearly five years ago and recited words from Ecclesiastes (3:8): There is, he said, "a time for war and a time for peace."

But it sometimes seems as if people in this tiny country live in different time zones. Is it time to revel in the achievements of the past 50 years? Or to explore mistakes and assess how the next 50 can be made more peaceful?

That is why, in a country with 14 different political parties represented in the Knesset, or parliament, it is almost impossible to tell the story of Israel's impact through one person alone.

But conversations with Shamir and Rabin shed light on why Israelis see their country so differently - and why they have taken such divergent roads on the way to building their state.

The differences between them reveal much, not just about the gaps between right and left in Israel, but also between the founding generation of Shamir, now an octogenarian, and the new breed represented by Rabin.

To Shamir, the endurance of the Diaspora, the majority of the world's 13 million Jews who live outside Israel, leaves the Zionist vision unfulfilled. His generation saw no greater good than in bringing new immigrants, and even created a term for people who "abandoned" the country: yordim, meaning those who "went down."

About these ads

But Rabin's peers - and a younger set he represents through his organization, Peace Generation - are likely to leave the country for a few years and escape to other parts of the world. And when the direction of the country looks dismal, they sometimes talk of packing their bags for good.

For Shamir and the founders, Israel's very existence was often in doubt, propelling them into a collective struggle for survival and leaving a deep impression on many Israelis about the need for security. But Rabin and younger Israelis grew up in an age when their country was a fact on a map that could not be erased, even by five wars with Arab neighbors.

Even the two men's names are symbolic of how Israeli society has evolved. Born Yitzhak Yzernitzky in 1915 in Poland, Shamir adopted a biblical surname after he moved to what was then Palestine at age 20. Shedding ethnic names to adopt classic Hebrew ones was encouraged as a matter of restoring national pride, creating a new identity, and resurrecting the ancient Jewish language.

Now, new immigrants rarely drop the names that identify them with the countries they came from. Compared with a religious staple like Yitzhak (Isaac), Yuval is a popular secular name meaning river or stream.

On April 30, Israel will hold a reenactment of its declaration of independence in Tel Aviv. Back then, Shamir was the leader of the extreme nationalist Stern Gang. He was out of the country when David Ben-Gurion, who headed the mainstream Hagana - which became the Israeli Defense Forces - declared independence from the balcony of the Tel Aviv art museum on May 14, 1948.

Shamir was aboard a French ship just before the declaration, where he heard from the sailors that the outside world thought the time was near.

"They told me, 'It's clear you will have a state very soon.' I was not so sure at the time," says Shamir, who, in semi-retirement, has retained his signature narrow tuft of mustache and an affability that belies his gruff reputation. "I was sure that we [would] reach our goal, but I wasn't sure I would still be alive at that moment."

He also never imagined he'd go on to be Israel's prime minister and lead the Likud Party, which grew out of early nationalist movements like his. Carrying the rightist banner of building a "Greater Israel" and rejecting any land-for-peace tradeoff with the Palestinians, Shamir came to be a symbol of refusal to compromise with Arab enemies. His famous "not one inch" vow lost him his last election, to Yitzhak Rabin in 1992.

And yet, Shamir says that back in the days of the state's founding, he and his comrades didn't see the Arabs as their enemies.

"We did not hate anybody at that time, except the British," he says.

But Israel's creation set into motion an official enmity between Arab and Jew, one that had roots in violence stretching back to the beginning of the century. And Shamir's Stern Gang, known in Hebrew by an acronym for the nobler Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, planned raids, assassinations, and attacks in which innocent civilians were killed.

Shamir says he has no regrets about their approach. He defends the decision to lay road mines, explode bridges, and blow up the King David Hotel, then the headquarters of the British authorities.

"Our fight was a positive one. We never targeted civilians, and we gave warnings that there would be a bombing. These were great operations, and they had a great impact abroad. People said it's a liberation war of the Jewish people," Shamir says.

Though many in the mainstream defense corps disagreed with the tactics of Shamir and other ultranationalists, Israelis who fought in the 1948 war or lived through it say the same: That the fight for independence was legitimate, unavoidable, and courageous, that they did what they needed to do to survive. On this day, despite divisions, Israelis are universally proud to have a place to call home.

But how much of this land should be called home? Shamir still dreams of masses of Jewish immigrants settling the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to establish their state. Upon return from a tour around the territory, which he calls by the biblical names Judea and Samaria, he speaks with the same language heard from Israeli leaders two decades ago.

"The most imposing impression was the emptiness of these lands. They don't belong to anybody," says Shamir. "No one has been living on them for a thousand years, and these are the cradle of our nation. We need to absorb more immigrants, and for that you still need land."

It is no wonder that acerbic Israeli television commentator Tommy Lapid recently called Shamir "a man who made up his mind 20 years ago and hasn't changed his views since."

With more than a million Palestinians in the West Bank versus 160,000 Jewish settlers, pragmatists on both ends of the Israeli political spectrum have come to believe that Shamir's dream will remain just that.

Some Israelis say Zionism has done its job, but Shamir insists that another great wave of immigration must first be achieved in the next 10 years. "What is the struggle for? To be a normal people," he says, drawing on catch phrases of early Zionists. "As long as the majority of the people still live outside, we will not be a normal people."

But immigration is an increasingly tricky matter. In the early days, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and the eviction of Jews from Arab countries after Israel's establishment provided enormous influxes of immigrants. Today, fewer Jews around the world face persecution, and Israel faces the challenge of trying to lure a "voluntary" wave of immigration among people who are very much at home in America and other Western nations.

"My friends told me I was mad when I said we would get Jews out of the Soviet Union," Shamir laughs, recalling the days of communism when immigration and religious practices were all but banned. To Shamir, Israel's miracle is that it did succeed in absorbing so many immigrants. Recent immigrants have come such from such diverse places as Ukraine, Ethiopia, Kurdistan, and China. The 1948 population of 870,000 has soared to 5.8 million.

Shamir still vehemently rejects what some people see as one of the most momentous developments in Israel's 50 years: the 1993 Oslo accords. He says that peace can be made with Israel's Arab neighbors over time, slowly, eventually - words critics say mean never.

Yitzhak Rabin saw a window of opportunity for making peace now, and thought Israel would gain more security through regional acceptance than it could lose by ceding land to the Palestinians and Syria.

Shamir didn't agree then. Today, he dismisses the lionization of Rabin after his 1995 assassination. "Rabin was not a man for making miracles. He was not so great."

Yuval Rabin would beg to differ. It's clear who his hero is, though the humility he inherited from his father prevents him making such inflated statements.

In father's footsteps

Yitzhak Rabin's only son won't say he'll carry on his father's legacy, but he chairs Dor Shalom, the Peace Generation movement that attempts to do just that. In addition to hopes of making peace with Arab neighbors, Dor Shalom aims to bind wounds within Israeli society: not just between left and right, but between secular and religious - the divide emerging as one of the most acute internal conflicts Israelis will grapple with in the years to come.

When he's not representing Dor Shalom, he's a software engineer and product-line developer at Emultek, one of a multitude of high-tech firms that have flourished in the past decade. It hardly matters now that the socialist-Zionist movements that shaped three generations of Rabins once frowned on such capitalist enterprises.

Now, absorbed by a hot industry in an Israel fast moving toward a free-market economy, Rabin seems slightly reluctant to follow his father's road into politics. He has not ruled out running for office, but isn't sure if he sees himself or anyone else fit for the job.

"I don't know how I could describe the qualities of that mythical, unifying figure, let along be that figure," Rabin says.

To be sure, he is not the war hero his father was. Yuval Rabin served in the army for eight years as an artillery officer and a computer expert. But he cannot claim the military feats of his father, a decorated chief-of-staff, and most of the country's other leaders. Some analysts say when the day comes that army prowess is no longer as important to the electorate, Israel will have reached an age of peace and maturity.

At the same time, Rabin seems to have his father's analytical pensiveness and a taciturn demeanor that stands out in loquacious Israeli society. He resonates with his father's slow, rumbling voice, something those who have met them both say they find slightly haunting.

Rabin finds it a difficult time to assess the state of Israel. He thinks Israelis must appreciate the homeland they rebuilt against the odds. On the other hand, he says that the vitriolic rifts in Israeli society demonstrate that there has not been enough soul-searching in the wake of his father's murder. "This is a country that has suffered probably the worst thing that can happen to a democracy. Recent events make me think the Israeli public has not learned from it and absorbed it," he says. "But one has to rise above it, have some perspective on 50 years of Israeli history and recognize the achievements of the Zionist movement, which I think are tremendous."

Palestinians often complain that the Israeli peace camp has hardly made itself heard in the two years since the election of hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Rabin says that carrying signs at rallies in the Tel Aviv square named for his father isn't the answer.

"Our generation has the ability to accept unanswered questions. Not every problem is something that can be answered in a catchy three-word slogan. Some problems in this world are more complicated. We need to work to solve issues," he says.

Israel's choices

The prism through which Rabin sees Israel's future is different from Shamir's, but also from his father's. "The difference between us and my father's generation is that we have choices," he says, recounting the necessity of almost every man and woman having to fight for independence in 1948.

The young people Dor Shalom represents were born after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973.

"They were born into an era in which the mere existence of the Jewish state is no longer a question. Suddenly there was no power on Earth that could bring about the destruction of the state of Israel," he says. An Israel that is left to make choices about its future, unable to fault circumstances beyond its control, will have to decide how to find the security it seeks.

Rabin sees resuming peacemaking with the Palestinians as the only way to reach that point. "The goal of not having terror is a nice one, but without progress, violence will erupt." Even suicide-bomb attacks by Palestinian militants must not derail the peace train. "What are we comparing this to, the grand old days before Oslo?" he asks, recalling the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987. "One does still want to hope that it will get better."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.