Yitzhak Rabin & The Ethic of Jewish Power

Lessons learned from the assassination

Excerpted with permission of the author from “Yitzhak Rabin and the Ethic of Jewish Power” (National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, 1995).

The first tears are for Yitzhak Rabin. At an age when most people–their work done–retire and enjoy their waning years, he was totally engaged in doubling his life’s contribution to the Jewish people. Having been credited with the greatest war victory in Jewish history, which included the liberation of Old Jerusalem; he sought peace and pursued it. The collapse of Communism, the weakening of the PLO , and the softening of the Arab position created an opportunity. He reached for the risky ambiguous, fraught-with-frustration chance to bring shalom to the land of Israel. 

The second tears are for the loss of innocence in Israel; a devout Jew murdered a Jewish Prime Minister. In shock and despair, many ask: how could political murder terminate the head of government in Israel? That happens in totalitarian states where the sovereign rules by force or in neighboring Arab countries and other nations where leaders lack political legitimacy! After 47 years of national unity, building and defending the State against a sea of enemies, how could an eruption of internal hatred occur that would legiti­mate the assassination of a would-be peacemaker, a national hero?

It Can Happen Here

The answer is: It can happen here. No de­mocracy is exempt from the perils of violent rage in a time of heightened tension. Of the seven American Presidents elected in the 20 year inter­vals from 1860 to 1980, six were shot by assassins; four died. It is fallacious to assume that Jews are constitutionally programmed to be moral always. It is covertly racist or chauvinist to believe that a Jew is genetically incapable of such vile, violent behav­ior. The classic Jewish tradition unflinchingly portrays the Jews in history, flawed and acting much like other people.

It should not come as a surprise, either, that Jews are not immune to the ills of the body politic. The continuous exercise of political power in history makes it inevitable that corruption will occur and that violence will break out, even in a Jewish democracy. The only hope of avoidance lay in creating prevention systems–political and religious dialogue on the emerging ethic of Jewish power, a strong leadership forum cooperating across party lines on ethical issues, and cracking down on the perpetrators of the early moral breaches (such as Emil Grunzweig’s killing, the 80s underground, Baruch Goldstein’s support network). But this was not done.

In retrospect, Jews were too self-flattering. Even those who understood that the assumption of power would end Jewish innocence were too complacent. We fell victim to our tradition of faith in Jewry, our belief that Jewishness sets limits to the degradation and persecution of one’s fellow human beings. That fatal night, the Security Ser­vices around Rabin were so blinded by the convic­tion that only an Arab would try to murder an Israeli Prime Minister that they looked away from the killer within. Still, the Jewish people made a decision more than five decades ago that there is no moral alter­native to assuming power. It takes power to estab­lish a just society–as a step toward tikkun olam and the triumph of life. By contrast, powerlessness brings down greater evils. Our historic task then is to create, all together, an ethic of Jewish power that works in the real world of power which we now inhabit.

We know now: Jewish excellence is not auto­matic. Does Jewishness, then make a difference? If not, why be Jewish? But Jewish is as Jewish does. It will take an enormous effort to fuse Jewish memory and models to create a community that will sustain a higher standard of moral perfor­mance.

We live in a world where all of humanity seeks to attain power for increased life. Jews and Israel are in the spotlight continuously. If we succeed, then Jews are teachers and models to the world, “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). If we fail, then we become “an example and a byword [for failure] among the peoples” (Deuteronomy 28:37). Thanks to our emerging ethic of power, the choice is in our hands.

Ethical Principles of Power

The founders of modem Israel were the creators of the ethic of Jewish power. Using scraps of mem­ory, they forged this emerging ethic in the crucible of the 20th century–the greatest age of Jewish power and powerlessness.

The principles of the Jewish ethic, developed thus far, can be summarized briefly:

1) For the sake of life, the assumption of power is mandatory. To practice tikkun olam, one must be alive. To choose powerlessness is a sin, an invita­tion for evil to triumph.

2) Power must be exercised in the world–a flawed reality in which vested interests, entrenched evil and human error all play a role. Power links ultimate ends–the triumph of life and tikkun olam–with proximate means in a continual pro­cess. An ethical use of power means maximizing possible good (and life) and minimizing possible evil (and death). Therefore, typically, the standard of moral use of power is achieved on balance.

3) Jewish power is never self-validating or absolute. That would be idolatry. Therefore, power must be limited, guided and judged.

4) Given what cannot be changed, given the evil that cannot be avoided, there is still some best possible (or least evil) way of exercising power. Therefore, there can be no one-decision moral policy, only an endless series of judgments in specific situations, reconciling conflicting claims and shifting facts.

5) In an imperfect world, there will be inescap­able evil–or adverse side effects–in all use of power. The measure of morality, then, is to limit wrong action and correct it. Therefore, a moral society must incorporate checks on power and forces of self-criticism.

In Israel, these exist in the form of multiple parties with free elections, free press and media, the rule of law and an independent judiciary, separation between civilian and military authority, and tohar haneshek (moral purity use-of-arms doctrine). Distinctive memories and Jewish tradi­tions such as recollection of slavery and Exodus, of outsider status and suffering, of exile and Holocaust, also powerfully regulate Jewish behav­ior. One might add that since failure is inevitable, a moral society will need a deep capacity for repentance–and forgiveness.

6) To take on power is to take on guilt. Those who care, take on guilt. Those who refuse to act because they do not want to dirty their hands are morally irresponsible; in their hands, the ideal becomes the enemy of the good.

However, caveat actor. Those who do exercise power may be corrupted cumulatively, even totally. People on both sides of the issues must learn to articulate the nature and extent of the guilt. The joint goal is to check the inevitable coarsening of the moral fiber without ripping out the fabric of exercising power.

7) Being Jewish is not a moral guarantee. However, by tradition and self-definition, Jews are committed to strive for a higher standard of behav­ior. Risk-taking to achieve the goal is worthy behavior–but excessive risks are reckless and immoral.

8) Perfection is impossible to attain but a people that consistently achieves a higher moral living standard is being faithful to its Jewishness. Behav­ing five to ten percent more ethically than current norms of practice constitutes being “a light unto the nations.” But it is incredibly difficult to achieve this level over the long haul.


The assassination evokes another train of thought: it may be that continuously engaging in the comparison misdirects Jews by subtly convinc­ing them that they are intrinsically better. Instead, Jews need to build in a constantly challenging moral dynamic: how can we, as Jews, do 5% better in this situation than we did in the previous one? Israel has begun this process in the telescoped time of one generation. Strikingly, the internal policy of the 1950s vis-a-vis Israeli-Arabs was no longer acceptable by the 70s and 80s. The Lebanon war was checked by Arab resistance–and national revulsion–within months. The beatings policy to deal with the intifada–initially declared appropri­ate by Rabin–was overridden by the negative reaction of the Israeli soldiers and the media attention.

In the final analysis, no moral achievement in the exercise of power is permanent. Each situation brings with it moral costs and creates a new level of ethical risk. Here the emerging ethic of Jewish power closes the circle with the classic tradition. In the Bible, the meaning of the name Israel is: “the one who wrestles [continually] with God and humans [standards] and overcomes.” (Genesis 33 :29).

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