Watching the United States From Israel, I Remember How Words Became Bullets
The cloud of fear and foreboding that was hanging over Israel in 1995 is similar to the anxious political climate of America today.
The photo made me suddenly anxious, the way a sight or noise does when it reminds you of an old danger even before your mind remembers what the danger was.
The photo was from Texas, very far from my Jerusalem home. It showed a white hearse. “Collecting Democrat Voters, One Dead Stiff at a Time,” was written on the side. Behind it was a Biden-Harris campaign bus. The hearse, I learned, was part of a caravan of Trump supporters—many reportedly armed—that tried to force the bus off the road last Friday. Afterward, the Biden campaign canceled two events out of security concerns. President Trump applauded his supporters, tweeting, “I LOVE TEXAS.”
After a deep breath and a moment’s thought, I recalled an older photo. It appeared in blurry black and white in the Israeli press in 1994. It showed Benjamin Netanyahu, then the leader of the right-wing opposition in Israel, leading a protest against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo peace process. Behind him, marchers were carrying a coffin. A man holding a long pole with a noose hanging from it briefly appeared in video footage of the scene.
The slogan on the coffin said, “Rabin is killing Zionism.” A literalist might claim that it didn’t intentionally call for the prime minister’s death.
But the photo was a harbinger. I remember it best not from when it first appeared but from stories published after Nov. 4, 1995—the night a right-wing extremist murdered Rabin. That was the night uncertain fear turned into fact—the night my country broke.
These memories are more immediate than usual: The 25th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination nearly coincides with a U.S. election suffused with anxiety, not just about the results but also about the potential for violence.
Yes, by comparing Israel in 1995 with the United States today, I’m showing symptoms of political post-traumatic stress. There are vast differences between the two crises. But what happened in Israel does offer lessons. One is that rhetoric really can ignite violence, and that even a brief, isolated outbreak can leave a country forever changed. Another is that you shouldn’t reassure yourself that your country is uniquely immune.
The Israeli crisis began with the political right’s response to the first Oslo Accord, announced late in the summer of 1993. “The people rise up against the treason of the Rabin government,” said a newspaper ad placed by the opposition parties.
Treason was the operative word. For Netanyahu’s Likud party and its allies, the agreement was not just mistaken policy. Negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization and agreeing in principle to give up control of part of the so-called Whole Land of Israel were betrayals of the nation. From the first major demonstration against the accord, even before the White House signing ceremony, protesters chanted, “Rabin is a traitor.”
Moreover, the Rabin government was the first in Israeli history (and so far, the last) that depended on the support of parties representing the Arab minority in the Israeli parliament. Seen through the lens of the right’s identity politics, the real Israel was only the Jews. So the government and its decisions could only be legitimate if they rested on a majority of legislators representing Jews.
The angry protests that shook the country for the next two years were the work of a partnership of mainstream secular right-wingers and an intensely motivated religious minority made up of the Orthodox settler movement and its supporters. For that movement, keeping the Whole Land had become more than politics; it was a core religious obligation.
Settler groups did the organizing. Likud politicians—most prominently, Netanyahu—addressed the crowds with blistering rhetoric, occasionally objected to the chants of “traitor,” and showed up the next time to bathe in the anger.
The violence that we saw and suffered was on the old Palestinian-Israeli front. Palestinian rejectionists carried out terror attacks aimed at scuttling the accords. In February 1994, a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire in a contested Jewish-Muslim holy place in the West Bank city of Hebron and murdered 29 worshippers during Ramadan prayers before he was killed. He, too, sought to end the peace process. Rabin described him as mentally ill. Israeli authorities were unprepared for domestic right-wing terror.
Social media did not exist yet. Extreme rhetoric spread easily enough on paper and was less visible to the wider public. Extremists on the religious right published a hagiography of the perpetrator of the Hebron massacre. One person who acquired the book was a law student, Yigal Amir, who also managed to get a hard-to-obtain handgun license under false pretenses.
By the summer of 1995, though, reading a mainstream newspaper was enough to provoke anxiety. In Haaretz, the journalist Yossi Melman quoted former security officials’ assessment that “the hostile environment on the right … could create the conditions for an assassin.” The head of the Shin Bet security service asked Rabin to wear a bulletproof vest; the prime minister refused. He was confident that a political assassination couldn’t happen here. In early October, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Jerusalem as the Knesset debated the second Oslo accord. In the crowd, handbills appeared showing Rabin in the uniform of a Nazi SS.
On Nov. 5, 1995, as Rabin left a huge pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv, Yigal Amir shot and killed him. Words and images had turned into bullets.
The country convulsed. Shimon Peres, Rabin’s less popular partner and rival in the Labor Party, became prime minister. The following May, he lost a national election by a hair’s breadth—to Netanyahu.
I can’t say what would have happened if Rabin had lived. But my best estimation is that the assassination effectively ended the Oslo process and set Israel on a different and darker course. It was one act of violence by one person. It was also the outcome of two years of reckless speech.
The United States’ current situation is very different. But from afar, the differences are not reassuring. It’s the nation’s leader, automatically granted perpetual media attention, who finds specious reasons to delegitimize a democratic process unless it leads to the result he wants. It’s President Donald Trump whose identity politics of the right implies a so-called real America that’s far less than the whole of the country.
It’s the president who has told the violent far-right Proud Boys to “stand by.” In the United States, unlike Israel, citizens can easily buy guns, and sales are soaring. Despite Trump’s incitement against Muslims and immigrants, the Department of Homeland Security’s own recent assessment says that “white supremacist extremists … remain the most persistent and lethal” terrorist threat.
One thing the Trump era has taught the world is that the United States is not uniquely immune to diseases that beset democracy. The International Crisis Group has just published a report on the risk of violence after the election, as it might for any country. It points at the potential triggering effect of a candidate declaring victory before the votes are counted.
The report urges “traditional and social media… not to pronounce winners prematurely” and foreign leaders to “to refrain from offering their congratulations” too quickly even if the Trump administration presses them to do so.
I am not making predictions. I am anxious. I am, as I said, suffering from political PTSD. I hope that, across the sea, words do not transmogrify into bullets. I pray that the photo of a hearse on a Texas road is not remembered as a harbinger of what would come.
Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli journalist and historian, is author of the forthcoming War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East. Twitter: @GershomG