Twenty Years After His Assassination, Academic Conference Hosted by Yeshiva University Reflects on Rabin’s Lasting Impact
On November 1, Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies (CIS) hosted an academic conference, titled “Yitzhak Rabin: Twenty Years After”, on the Wilf Campus to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s fifth Prime Minister. Conference presentations explored Rabin’s life and legacy and the ramifications of his assassination for the religious Zionist movement, Israeli domestic politics and Israel-United States and Israel-Arab relations.
Ambassador Ido Aharoni, consul general of Israel in New York, spoke about why Rabin, who led the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to sweeping victory in the 1967 Six Day War and later turned to peace negotiations with the Palestinians, culminating in the Oslo Accords, was widely revered as a leader. “He was the epitome of the term responsibility,” said Aharoni. “Everything he did was about serving the public. Rabin was, at his core, a decent, honest and fair human being. He was a pragmatist in the sense that he was not afraid to say, ‘I made a mistake, I changed my mind, circumstances have changed…’ In that sense, I think he was a student of David Ben Gurion.”
Rabin visited YU three times in total, and received an honorary doctorate from the institution in 1968. On November 4, 1995, he was assassinated at a Tel Aviv peace rally.
The first half of the conference featured presentations by YU rabbinic leaders. “There are very serious and critical aspects of the assassination itself and its consequences that relate to religious Zionism,” said Rabbi Yosef Blau, senior mashgiach ruchani [spiritual adviser] at YU, about the need for introspection, noting that Rabin’s unrepentant murderer, Yigal Amir, was a law student at Bar Ilan University, a graduate of Yeshivat Kerem Beyavneh, and a one-time Bnei Akiva emissary to the former Soviet Union. “In every respect, [Amir] seemed to reflect the heights of religious Zionism.”
Moreover, Blau noted that Amir’s stated reasons for the murder were “religious in nature and echoed ideas that had been said at the time by a group of leaders within the religious Zionist community,” some of whom had labeled Rabin a traitor for signing the Oslo Accords.
Blau explored the history of the religious Zionist movement. Originally a pragmatic appendage of Herzl’s Zionist Organization, the movement developed explicit messianic currents under the influence of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), and a nationalistic preoccupation with the physical Land of Israel following the 1967 War and the emergence of the Gush Emunim settlement movement.
Blau said that the assassination led some religious Zionist leaders to reflect seriously about the toxic anti-Rabin rhetoric that gained prominence in the lead-up to the assassination. However, he noted that elements exist within today’s religious Zionist community that downplay the crime, or subscribe to conspiracy theories that lend themselves, disingenuously, to exonerating the religious Zionist community of all responsibility for the assassination.
Rabbi Shalom Carmy, assistant professor of Jewish philosophy and Bible at Yeshiva College, offered philosophical reflections on “the importance of Jewish democracy for Israeli security,” including a discussion of Rabin’s own commitment to democracy and Israeli security that “should have put him beyond [the] suspicions” of his political opponents. Rabbi Ozer Glickman, a rosh yeshiva at YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, described his personal quest to understand the complex truth, too often simplified or distorted, of who Yitzhak Rabin really was as a person and as a leader.
The conference’s question periods yielded further intense discussions—about dangers of rampant inflammatory discourse on social media, the importance of opposing extremist rhetoric in day-to-day interactions, and the origins of violent extremism. (According to Carmy, violent religious Zionists are typically influenced not by religious philosophy but by nationalistic ideologies of the secular, violent hard right.)
Conference presenters appreciated the significance of holding the event at YU, itself a center of religious Zionism. “To have this kind of evaluation is gutsy, and I’m happy to be a part of it,” said Dr. Robert O. Freedman, visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and author of the book Israel Under Rabin. Freedman’s presentation was titled, “The Ups and Downs of US-Israeli Relations Since the Rabin Assassination.”
Other presenters included Dr. Akiva Covitz, a constitutional theorist and executive director for strategy at YU Global, who spoke about responses to extremism in democratic societies through the lens of the Rabin assassination, and YU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Selma Botman, who addressed the Arab world’s reaction to the assassination of Rabin.
Dr. Steven Fine, conference organizer and director of CIS, stated that the conference was a microcosm of commemorative and reflective events now taking place around the world, especially in Israel. “The power of this moment has lit something in us,” said Fine. “We’re not alone, and the nice thing is that it’s all kinds of Jews, Arabs and others [taking part in this effort].” Fine expressed hope that the conference will yield a published volume of essays.
YU President Richard M. Joel also addressed the conference, and Mrs. Dalia Rabin, daughter of Yitzhak Rabin and Chair of the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, sent video remarks. The event concluded with recitation of the Kel Maleh Rahamim prayer, and was co-sponsored by The Consulate General of Israel in New York and The Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv.