Sermons

Where Words of Violence Lead

It was Sunday, November 4th, 1995. I had just got back to my flat in Jerusalem after a wonderful weekend festival in the Jerusalem forest. It was time to chill-out and get ready for work the next day.

I had made Aliyah three months earlier. What an amazing time it was to become a citizen of the State of Israel! Shimon Peres’ vision of a comprehensive peace within a European style Pan-Israeli – Arab Middle East seemed so tantalizingly within grasp. The Arafat/ Rabin/ Clinton handshake on the Washington lawn stood freshly etched on our expectations. The air was thick with Hope.

I was in the kitchen. ‘Lisa, you’d better come and watch this,’ called my flat-mate. I stood before the television, and heard the news reader announce that CNN news was reporting that Yitzchak Rabin, the Prime-minister of Israel, had been shot as he was leaving a mass rally in Tel Aviv in support of the Oslo Accords. He had been seriously wounded, and killed. ‘Don’t say such lies!’ I screamed at the TV in fury and disbelief. A few seconds later, the Israeli news reader confirmed that – Yitzchak Rabin - beloved leader of the nation, respected military hero, courageous broker of peace – was dead; murdered, as we later learned, by a fellow Jew who opposed his peace initiative.

The murder of Yitzchak Rabin by a fellow Jew, ultranationalist Yigal Amir, did not happen in a vacuum. For months before the assassination, the Israeli right had been using ever more violent language to oppose Rabin’s plans for peace. Rallies, organized partially by Likud, Israel’s right wing party, became increasingly extreme in tone. The leader of Likud, the current Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, accused Rabin's government of being "removed from Jewish tradition ... and Jewish values." Netanyahu addressed protesters of the Oslo movement at rallies where posters portrayed Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform or being the target in the cross-hairs of a sniper.

The tone of public discourse had become extreme, violent, filled with blame and accusations. Netanyahu and other leaders on the right failed to take responsibility for their words, or to rein in the rising violence of public discourse. There is no doubt in the assessment of political observers and the nation as a whole that the deliberate and sustained stoking up of violent language, blame and accusation created an atmosphere that led directly to the murder of the Prime Minister of Israel. We could be living in a very different world today had Rabin lived to fulfil his plans for Middle East peace.

This week 13 pipe bombs were sent in the post to prominent Democrats and critics of Donald Trump, including past president Barck Obama and actor Robert de Niro. Suspect Cesar Sayoc, a committed Republican and Trump supporter, has been arrested. President Trump called for “civility”, but then attacked the media, encouraged chants of “CNN sucks” and “lock her up”. Trump has consistently failed to take responsibility for his own words, or the coarseness of public debate in America under his watch, rather stoking up the violence of the rhetoric in a sustained and deliberate way. Make no mistake, there is a direct line that leads from stoking up violent language, blame and accusation to an atmosphere that gives permission to extremists to act in violence.

In Parashat Vayera, our father Avraham uses words to challenge God, God-self, in the name of truth and justice. Last Sunday we marked Israel’s official Yitzchak Rabin Memorial Day, a reminder of where violent language, blame and accusation can lead. May we all take responsibility for our own words, using our words to speak out in the name of truth of justice, using our words to speak kindness and peace.