From Ashes to Spark: How the Tragedy of Yitzhak Rabin’s Assassination Helped Ignite the Reconstruction of Israeli Society

On October 16, Israelis will observe the 18th Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Day.

By Merav Barr Grindlinger, JCF Israel Office

Yitzhak Rabin


Eighteen years ago, the Jewish State suffered a debilitating blow. It wasn’t a terrorist attack or a bombing of an Israeli embassy. Rather, an assassin – a Jewish Israeli assassin – gunned down Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin just moments after the great military leader-turned-politician stepped off the podium at a major peace rally in the heart of Tel Aviv. That rally was in support of the Oslo Accords, then advertised with the motto, “Stop the Violence.” The killing reverberated across the globe, and inside Israel – the nation wept. The peace rally at Kings of Israel square that, moments earlier, held thousands of jubilant hopefuls was transformed overnight into an enormous shiva (the seven-day period of mourning after a person dies).

How Could This Have Happened to Us?

Rabin’s murder shocked the world. The assassin was a Zionist, a law student at Bar-Ilan University, an observant Jew, and an otherwise law-abiding citizen. How could one of Israel’s own commit such a treacherous crime against an entire nation? The crisis prompted Israelis to confront a growing reality in the Jewish State – the widening gap between the political right and left. With a majority of Israelis blaming fanatical interpretation of Judaism as the culprit in Rabin’s death, the gap also widened between religious and non-observant Jews.

The Genesis of Pluralism in Israel

The nation had hit rock bottom. And then, eventually, the shock began to transform into something constructive. While the crisis deepened cracks in the society, from these rifts emerged centers of great social action in Israel whose missions were to find meaningful ways to express Jewish identity in a pluralistic Israel and, in doing so, advance a Jewish democratic state. This national and international tragedy spurred the birth of the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, as well as other burgeoning social action organizations first funded by the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation. In fact, our Federation led the way for like-minded communities to assume the challenge of devising a just, pluralistic, and democratic society. Critically, in 2000, the Federation proactively created Gvanim, an Israel-based program designed to train leaders from every sector of Israeli society, who, in turn, promulgate the principles of pluralism, religious diversity, and unity to their own communities. Today, the Federation continues to support organizations and leaders working to strengthen Israel and create a more pluralistic, democratic and just society with equality of opportunity for all of its citizens. Eighteen years following Rabin’s death, the work of incorporating religious pluralism into Israeli society continues across the country, parallel to significant conversations on how democracy will continue to thrive in a Jewish nation. Today, Kings of Israel Square – now renamed Rabin Square – belongs to the memory of the great leader, his willingness to confront hardships in battle and politics, and ultimately his unwavering and earnest commitment to the democratic Jewish State of Israel.

The BINA Center

The BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture was founded just one year after Rabin’s assassination in response to a Jewish identity crisis wherein many non-observant Jews sought ways to express their Judaism culturally, and not solely religiously. BINA focuses on reaching young adults who will in turn improve their communities through the Jewish value of tikkun olam, and lead a democratic and pluralistic Israeli society. The Federation is proud to fund BINA’s social action program, BINA BaShchuna (“wisdom in the neighborhood”), a community-wide program operating in disadvantaged neighborhoods throughout Israel. BINA participants work together with local communities to provide after-school tutoring for underprivileged children, programming for youth-at-risk, and festive, pluralistic holiday celebrations that highlight the organization’s commitment to tikkun olam. Like every year at this time, young activists from BINA are now working together with hundreds of students in schools throughout Israel, K-12, creating memorials to Yitzhak Rabin. “Commemorating Rabin’s assassination reflects the core values of BINA – reconciling Israel’s pluralistic society with its quest for peace as a Jewish and democratic state,” says Uri Carmel, Director of Community Development, BINA BaShchuna. “BINA’s young volunteer activists facilitate thought-provoking workshops with students in schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, creating a perfect opportunity to dialogue about current key issues that surround the day, such as democracy, freedom and acceptance of others.”

A student workshop in a Be'er Sheva elementary school, facilitated by a BINA youth activist.


Gvanim – a one-year action-oriented leadership development program promoting Jewish pluralism in Israel among professionals – was established by the Federation in the wake of the public discourse surrounding religious pluralism that Rabin’s assassination magnified, in order to strengthen the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state. The Gvanim program is unique in that it gathers leaders from different denominations and Israeli sectors and seats them all around a single table. Gvanim Director Tamar Alperovitch explains that the personal and social impacts of Rabin’s death are regularly discussed in the different Gvanim groups today. “The magnitude of the event is a formative experience that dictated the personal and professional development of many of my colleagues in Gvanim, and often we hear that it is one of the reasons they chose to dedicate themselves to building a just, democratic and pluralistic society in Israel,” says Alperovitch. Gvanim just welcomed its 10th cohort this month with 17 new fellows, and will be celebrating the program’s anniversary, appropriately, at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, together with Dalia Rabin, the former Prime Minister’s daughter.

The 10th Gvanim cohort kicking off their new year in Jerusalem.


Learn about the work the Federation does in Israel and overseas. For more information, contact Siggy Rubinson or call 415.512.6429.


October 11, 2013