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The State of Israel

November 1995

On November 4, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli law student. The assassination of a key player in world affairs is always a traumatic and destabilizing event--especially when the fallen figure, like Yitzhak Rabin, had established himself as a force for peace in a volatile area. For many, however, what is deeply upsetting about this most recent assassination is that Rabin was murdered by one of his own--a fellow Jew and Israeli citizen. For the state of Israel represents as much the embodiment of an ethno-cultural vision and shared spiritual project as it does a geographical or political entity; many Jews regard their return to Israel as a fulfillment of Scripture, a homecoming to a land of healing and empowerment.

Through the years a number of contributors to The Atlantic have reported on various aspects of the spiritual-national project that is Israel. What these pieces most emphatically convey is the depth of meaning that Israel holds for its citizens, and the depth of their commitment to its well-being. "The Kingdom of the Spirit" (Atlantic, November, 1961) by David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, explains that, far more than a mere "national and political unit," Israel is to become a spiritual arena in which "a new way toward freedom, peace, justice, and equality, the advancement and redemption of humanity" will be "point[ed] out to the world."

In "Israel: Young Blood and Old" (Atlantic, October, 1949), the American artist George Biddle recounts his visit to Israel only a year after its official establishment. He explains that what most impressed him was the sense of mission and spiritual purpose that animated its citizens: "the real excitement has been to watch in its early germination a social and moral experiment in government. . . . Often I think, too, of the same mental eagerness, democratic simplicity, pride, and prophetic sense of fulfilling a world mission that shine through the writings of Americans at the birth of our country." His observations, however, while detailed and vivid, reflect a somewhat anachronistic viewpoint and considerable prejudice against the displaced Arabs.

Jon Kimche's "Israel in 1965" (Atlantic, November, 1961) speculates about Israel's national and international status four years into the future. He points out that prime minister Ben-Gurion had emphasized from the outset that Israel is an ongoing project, and that its citizens must not become complacent lest they find themselves unprepared to address some new adversity.

New adversities have, in fact, arisen with some regularity throughout Israel's brief history; not surprising for a nation surrounded by enemies in a politically unstable region. The success of recent Arab-Israeli negotiations, however, seemed to suggest an easing of tensions. In "Lions in Winter," (Atlantic, January, 1993), Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari suggest that three of today's Middle Eastern leaders might finally be capable of achieving a workable compromise. "Whether or not . . . negotiations will end the long and brutal Israeli-Arab conflict essentially rests in the hands of just three people: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization . . . Yasser Arafat."

Now one of these men is dead, killed by an assassin's bullets. Are peace and compromise in jeopardy? Who will lead Israel and what political stance will the country adopt? By his own account, the assassin acted out of a fierce and protective love of his country that he felt was being betrayed by compromises with the Arabs: "I acted alone on God's orders," he said, "and I have no regrets." Will the peace process continue to progress undeterred from its present course? Or will this event turn out to be a historical turning point, touching off new, explosive conflict?

Additional articles:

"Happy Birthday to Israel" by Ephraim Kishon.

See the Flashbacks archive

See The Middle East: Peace in Jeopardy?

See the A Century of Zionism

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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