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Rabin’s Handshake

Michael ShireI won’t forget that Saturday night 4th November 1994, twenty years ago, as we returned from dinner with friends to turn on the news and hear of the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Stunned and shocked, the British Jewish Community (where I was living) turned out 5,000 strong for the memorial ceremony at the Royal Albert Hall where ministers of HM Government, Jewish leaders, rabbis and foreign ambassadors spoke of Rabin’s legacy for peace in a changing Middle East. How must he have felt, they reflected, on shaking the hand of  Zionism’s arch enemy Yasir Arafat at the White House? As Rabin said himself, first he was a man of war, a soldier and then he began to fight for ‘Shalom’; for reconciliation and compromise with the acknowledgement that these two peoples need to live side by side. It was to be a two state solution! Cruelly however he was cut down before completing his mission.

Twenty years on, we commemorated the life and work of Yitzchak Rabin at Hebrew College. Speaker after speaker bemoaned the lack of change in the Middle East since Rabin’s death and the slide of Arab nations into fundamentalism and tribal violence. Relations with the Palestinians was not even mentioned at the event much less the idea that the two state solution was even possible anymore. However there was a glimmer of hope, and it came from four young people; two American and two Israeli. The Americans were students from Beacon Academy, a school providing enrichment high school education for low-income minority Boston families housed in Temple Israel of Boston. These students have studied the life of their hero Yitzchak Rabin and their views on tolerance for minorities, for pride in a Jewish State and for continuing hope and work for peace have been energised and activated in them. The Israelis were young gap-year students from Haifa working in the Boston Jewish community before going into the army. Their Israeli public education, since Rabin’s death, has emphasised democracy and the social contract of the nation state. They have been inspired by their work serving the Jewish People and coming to understand the vitality and diversity of multicultural societies.

It was Israeli Consul General Yehuda Yaakov who sealed the moment for all of us that day. Noting that the American and Israeli flags always stand side by side at these events, he invited the young Israelis and Americans, sitting across the aisles from each other, to come forward and stand together side by side. He encouraged them to get to know each other and share their activism and commitment to a better world for their generation. It was a new handshake for a new generation, and we can only hope it will prove to be what Rabin always wanted.

Rabbi Michael Shire is the Chief Academic Officer and Dean of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education and Jewish Studies Program at Hebrew College.

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