1. Archive

Rabin and Lincoln had same dream

When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in early November 1995, I immediately compared his death to another tragic November event: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

But in the two years since Rabin was fatally shot at a Tel Aviv peace rally, I have changed my mind. A more accurate analogy is not JFK in Dallas, but the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Both Rabin and Lincoln were successful military leaders, they knew the bitterness and deep pain of war. Rabin was a field commander in Israel's 1948 War of Independence and army chief of staff during the 1967 Six Day War. At his death, he was his country's prime minster and defense minister.

At age 23 in 1832, Lincoln commanded a company of Illinois militia in an armed clash with the Sauk and Fox tribes, led by their famous chief, Black Hawk. And 30 years later, Lincoln was the commander-in-chief of the Federal armed forces during America's bloody Civil War.

But despite their personal involvement in war, the permanent legacy of both men is that of peacemaker. And while their challenges as political leaders were quite different, both men, at the time of their assassinations, were moving their nations forward on a peace process _ Rabin with the distrusted Palestinians and Lincoln with the rebellious Confederacy.

Rabin, the grizzled, battle-hardened general, sang a song of peace just before he was killed. The prime minister's goal was a strong and secure Israel living in peaceful co-existence with its Palestinian neighbors.

Lincoln's last public address was from a White House window to a crowd on the lawn. He offered his enemies a magnanimous peace with every Southern state being readmitted to the Union once 10 percent of its citizens had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States.

But assassins' bullets ended both men's dreams.

Perhaps Rabin could not have achieved his difficult goal, but we will never know. However, we do know Lincoln's peace plan was not carried out and the doleful consequences of that failure continue to mar the nation's life.

The assassins of both men demonized their high-profile victims.

Rabin's murderer, Yigal Amir, perceived himself as an Israeli patriot and considered the prime minister a "traitor." Amir was convinced God's teachings had justified the assassination.

Crying "sic semper tyrannis" (thus always to tyrants) as he leaped to the stage after shooting Lincoln and escaped from Ford's Theater in Washington, John Wilkes Booth believed God validated his murder of Lincoln.

Neither leader was considered a great speaker. The Israeli was gruff and direct in speech, while the American's high-pitched voice and sparse prose seemed to diminish his stature.

But in reading the public utterances of both men, I am struck by a similarity of tone and substance, especially on war and peace. This similarity is most visible in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address in 1865, a time when victory over the Confederacy was clearly in sight, and in Rabin's Hebrew University address on Jerusalem's Mount Scopus in 1967, a few days after he had led Israel to a great military victory.

Want to be painfully reminded of how much we lost when the American president and the Israeli prime minister were assassinated? Just read on.

Lincoln: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan _ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."

Rabin: "The joy of soldiers is incomplete and their celebrations are marred by sorrow and shock. There are some who abstain from all celebration. The men in the front lines were witness not only to the glory of victory, but the price of victory. . . . The terrible price which our enemies paid touched the hearts of many of our men as well. It may be that the Jewish people never learned and never accustomed itself to feel the triumph of conquest and victory, and we received it with mixed feelings."

_ Rabbi A. James Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.