Fifteen years ago: A devastating blow to the Jewish people

By Andrés Spokoiny, Chief Executive Officer, Federation CJA

I consider myself to be an incorrigible optimist. I’m an eternal searcher of glasses half full and silver linings. Yet, there was a day on which I couldn’t find a glimpse of optimism or a spark of hope. It was a November night in 1995, when an assassin killed Yitzhak Rabin and ended one of the most prolific and transformational lives in the history of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

Assassin is a fairly common word. Yet, not a lot of people know its origin. The “assassins” were a sect of Muslim fanatics in the 14th century that would set out to kill their political or religious opponents – especially within their own people – after being intoxicated with hashish. “Assassin,” in fact, derives from the word ‘hashish.’

Yitzhak Rabin

Yigal Amir was not high on hashish when he pulled the trigger. But he was indeed intoxicated. He was intoxicated by the belief that he owned the truth; by the conviction that a political adversary is an enemy. He was intoxicated by radicalism, by the idea that disagreement isn’t legitimate, and that all means are valid to achieve an end. He had been slowly but surely inebriated by the degradation of the political discourse, by the lack of civility that transforms those who disagree with me into ‘traitors.’ He had absorbed a culture that called names instead of discussing ideas and that believed in pointing fingers rather than opening arms.

Throughout our history the most powerful empires of the world tried to destroy the Jewish people: from the Egyptians to the Crusaders, from the Romans to the Soviet Union, from the Greeks to the Nazis. Nobody succeeded. All these empires collapse and crumbled. After 3,500 years of ineffective attempts, we can safely assume that nobody can destroy the Jewish people. Nobody, except the Jewish people. That is why, for me, November 5th, 1995 was such a devastating day. I’m not afraid of those who, from the outside, try to destroy us. Racists and anti-Semites look pathetic to me. I know they, too, are going to be swallowed in the gutters of history.

But I’m mortally afraid of Yigal Amir and the like of him. I’m scared of Jewish radicals, left and right, even when – thank G-d – they don’t actually assassinate anybody.

Yigal Amir was intoxicated by a vision of Judaism that is profoundly anti-Jewish. Jews gave the world the dignity of difference. Our forefathers went to martyrdom to defend the right to be different, to think differently, and to defend their freedom of conscience. They would die for their ideas rather than kill for them. The Talmud is nothing but an open debate of ideas, an homage to diversity, and an ode to the plurality of coexisting truths. None of the Talmudic rabbis called those that disagreed with them “traitors.” Rather, on the contrary, they say “always judge your neighbor with a favorable yardstick; always presume good intentions.” When the Mishna presents the debates between the opposing schools of Hillel and Shamai, it concludes by saying, “Elu ve’elu divrei Elokim chaim;” “the words of both of them are the words of the Living G_d.”

And yet, today we see that Yigal Amir was not the only one intoxicated. We live in a world in which radicalization seems to be the norm. From the political debates in the US to the discussions around multiculturalism in Europe, from Shi’ites and Sunnis to nationalist clashes in South East Asia the entire world seems to be on the same drug. Jews are also affected by this phenomenon. The Jewish world is polarized to an unprecedented level. We see rampant delegitimization of other Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. We don’t dialogue, we pontificate. We don’t learn, we give lessons. We don’t listen, we simply wait for our turn to speak. Sometimes I feel that we have transformed the Jewish conversation into a cacophony of dissonant monologues. How far we are from the rules of respect and open debate that our ancestors died for. What would Hillel say if he’d see us today: the right calling the left “traitors” and the left calling the right “enemies of peace?”

Yigal Amir pulled the trigger, but his act, as extreme and unthinkable as it was, is the reflection of an ugliness that is becoming ingrained in our public discourse; of an intolerance that brews – incredibly – inside the most tolerant of peoples. This intolerance is not confined to one particular camp. Left and right, orthodox and secular, they are all influenced by this worldwide spirit of radicalization.

So what is the “detox?” How can we all go to “rehab?” I venture to say that, first, we need to take a hard look at ourselves. How do we think of each other? How do we speak to each other? We need to purge our public discourse of accusations and name calling. We need a cure of humility, to admit that we may be wrong and that the Truth (with a capital T)  is a beautiful patchwork made up of the sum of the little pieces of truth that each of us holds. We need to re-learn what we once knew so well: to embrace instead of judging; to listen instead of screaming; to respect difference instead of suppressing it. The richness of the Jewish people is its capacity to take the best of the world and reject the worse. In a word, we need to resist the temptation of being carried away by intolerance and polarization that seems to sweep the world.

Montreal, as a community, has a unique history of open, constructive and positive debate; of cohesion despite differences and of a Jewish solidarity that recognizes that we are all part of the same family. We are experts at looking to what unites us instead of what divides us. Seeing rabbis of different denominations talking to each other with respect and even reverence, for example, is one of these “only in Montreal” things. However, this spirit of tolerance is becoming counter-cultural in today’s world. It is becoming fragile and easily breakable. We’ll need to swim harder against the current; we’ll need to strive even further to be a beacon of civility and respect in a polarized and divided world.

The Jewish people will outlive any external enemy. The only thing that can destroy us is ‘sin’at chinam,’ ‘internecine gratuitous hatred.’ Fighting that hatred and intolerance with all our might – whatever it comes from – may well be the best way in which we can honor Rabin’s memory.