The Trials and Hopes of a Jordanian Muslim Named Yitzhak Rabin

One family's 18-year quest to honor Israel's slain prime minister—and escape the resulting backlash.
Jordanian infant Yitzhak Rabin and his mother Miriam hold a paper with his name at their home in Jordan, in March 1996, shortly after the government permitted the boy to carry the name of the slain Israeli prime minister. (Reuters)

TEL AVIV – Yitzhak Rabin Namsy is, by all appearances, a regular Israeli teenager. The 17-year-old wears a Jewish skullcap, keeps the Sabbath, and upholds many of the faith’s other commandments (mitzvot). Like many Israelis his age, he dreams of enlisting in the Israeli army and fighting as a combat soldier on behalf of the Jewish state. Yet there is nothing normal about Namsy’s life story, beginning with his first and middle names, given to him in memory of the former Israeli prime minister, who was assassinated in 1995 just a few months before the boy’s birth. Then there’s the fact that Yitzhak Rabin isn’t even officially Jewish, let alone Israeli, but a Jordanian Muslim. Forced to flee his country of birth when he was a baby, Yitzhak, along with his parents, has been living as an exile in Israel for nearly 16 years—all because of a name.

These days, Yitzhak and his mother, Miriam, are waiting for the Israeli government to follow through on promises and extend them permanent residency in their adopted home. Since their arrival in Israel in 1998, both mother and son have been living as temporary residents—a status subject to periodic renewal and an unsettling state of affairs given that a return to Jordan is, for them, literally a matter of life and death.

Responses to the family’s petitions from the Israeli Interior Ministry have dragged on for years, but a positive resolution is finally, according to the family’s lawyer, expected soon. The ordeal has made headlines in the local press over the past couple months amid Yitzhak’s efforts to enlist in the military. When reached by phone recently, Yitzhak seemed tired of the press attention.

“The process has been approved, we received a letter from the Interior Ministry, we’re just waiting to finalize things,” he told me, “likely in the coming weeks.” The family’s lawyer, Naomi Gonen, is more circumspect, stating that until she sees the physical (and permanent) Israeli identification cards in the family’s hands, nothing is guaranteed. 

Soft-spoken, with a fully Israeli accent, Yitzhak peppers his fluent Hebrew with religious slang. “With ‘the Name’s’ help, this will all work out, and we’re near the end,” he added. You get the sense, speaking to him, that the teenager doesn’t see what all the fuss is about; he just wants to be like his friends and classmates, and live a normal life, for the first time in his life. “I want to become an officer [in the army], and continue in the path of Yitzhak Rabin, may his memory be blessed,” the younger Yitzhak told an interviewer in November. “I want to give back to the state in a way that would make Yitzhak [Rabin] … proud of me. I don’t understand what the problem is here.” 

Yitzhak’s mother, Miriam, likely has a better sense of the problems arrayed against her son, born of personal experience. She knows that theirs has never been a normal life, nor an easy one. During an hour-long conversation from her small apartment in the southern Israeli city of Eilat, Miriam, 46, exuded a spirited defiance and pride—she wants her family’s story told—along with the voice of a much older woman. She suffers from various ailments after years of working around toxic cleaning supplies in restaurants and factories, and is on disability welfare. She has undergone two separate operations in the past month alone. Yitzhak’s father left the family a few years ago and, although he still lives in Israel, has little contact with either his son or ex-wife.

In fluent Hebrew tinged with a heavy Arab accent, Miriam stated that her highest calling is her son. “I have one foot in the grave already,” she said matter-of-factly. “All I want in life is for my son to live well—that he continue with his studies, that he continue with school.… I want to protect the life of my child.”

Protecting Yitzhak has been her life’s mission ever since he was born, in January 1996, near the city of Irbid in northern Jordan—just two months after the assassination of the original Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of an extremist Israeli Jew opposed to the prime minister’s peace overtures to the Palestinians. Miriam decided to name her son after the Israeli leader in honor of the historic Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty signed in 1994 by Rabin and Jordan’s King Hussein.

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Neri Zilber is a writer based in Tel Aviv.

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