Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s Decision and the Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin: Yom Kippur Reflections

Jeremy Ben-Ami Image
Jeremy Ben-Ami
on September 29, 2020

Yom Kippur proved to be the perfect time for me to reflect on the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin and on the decision by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to withdraw from a memorial marking 25 years since his horrific assasination.

Over Yom Kippur, we consider our wrongs, and we ask forgiveness. We recommit to the path of justice and to the quest to make our world a better place.

I reflected deeply over the 24 hours about the path from warrior to peacemaker. I contemplated the many wrongs committed by those in history who – on balance – sought to do right. I considered my own errors and failures on my own path to advance what I believe is just.

And I accepted that the balance sheet of a lifetime spent defending one’s country and protecting one’s citizens is unlikely to be pure.

The violence surrounding the fight for Israel’s independence in 1948 and the fighting over the decades since has been horrific. Generations have experienced decades of conflict, terror and occupation. Much blood has been spilled; many wrongs committed.

As I reflect, I see no clean hands.

Yet I also know that the road to peace and reconciliation originates precisely where there has been war, violence and conflict.

That is why the handshake between the general who led Israel in war and the Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat who waged a bloody battle for his people’s freedom meant so much in 1993.

I similarly honor former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for his historic decision to reach peace after leading bloody wars against Israel. He too gave his life. The fact that members of my family were injured in those wars does not dissuade me from honoring his legacy.

It is precisely that transition – that turn from war to peace, from conflict to reconciliation – that frightens those who believe they have a monopoly on truth or that they miraculously have a clean balance sheet. In Rabin’s case, opponents on the right took his life in one of the most tragically effective assassinations in history.

Every year, at memorials for the late Prime Minister, we honor, in a sense, the same transition we go through on Yom Kippur. We consider our past. We consider our legacy. And we turn. Teshuva in Hebrew.

When I honor Rabin’s memory, I don’t run away from his past, I see it squarely – including the fact that he was the commander who opened fire on my father and his comrades on the Altalena in 1948. And then I embrace the moral strength and courage it took for him to make that turn.

Perhaps even more important, by honoring his memory every year, I restate my intention to prevent those who incited against him and who choose conflict over compromise from succeeding.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an inspiring, up-and-coming politician. She represents for many Americans – and for many progressive Jewish Americans like me in particular – hope for the future. She leads vital struggles on climate change, health care for all, racial justice and more.

Yet, in deciding to step back from the opportunity to honor Yitzhak Rabin, I believe she has made a mistake.

At a memorial to Yitzhak Rabin, she could have spoken to all the values she represents and honored the complexity of leadership and of history. She could have considered, as I have over Yom Kippur, the heroic changes people make on their path to meaningful leadership.

One of the most troubling trends in politics today is that we speak and listen to only those with whom we agree unquestioningly. Debate and discussion are shutting down. Nuance is being lost. The space to reconsider and to turn is disappearing.

At some time in the future, I hope Representative Ocasio-Cortez will reconsider her decision. I hope she will recognize that by honoring Rabin’s memory and his historic turn toward peace, she would be not only paying tribute to the courage required for meaningful transformation but committing to join forces with those seeking compromise and building peace.

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