“I think that life in Israel is sometimes bigger than the movies,” Yitzhak Rabin says, and the irony is that a documentary was able to breathe life into an Israeli, and a twice-elected prime minister at that. Rabin in His Own Words is the story of a politician trying to lead his country toward peace, only to instead become the target of violence. As the title impl, it is a documentary that uses almost no narration outside of Yitzhak’s voice, taken from interviews and other media recorded prior to his death in 1995.
If anyone can assess the accuracy of the film, it might be Yuval Rabin, the Prime Minister’s only son. Yuval himself came to Tulsa’s nonprofit theater Circle Cinema as part of the 3rd Annual Oklahoma Jewish Film Festival. In addition to a Q&A after a showing of the film last Friday, Circle Cinema was generous enough to offer me a brief interview the morning of the premiere.
My first question addressed how true-to-life the film was. Despite its unique approach, the film could still distort Yitzhak Rabin’s image, simply by including contextless recordings, or perhaps leaving out a few key events in the Prime Minister’s career. According to Yuval, this was not the case. Speaking for himself, in fact, Yuval praised the methodology behind the film, calling it the most “hi-fi biography (he’d) ever seen.”
It is something unique to watch a man’s life as he himself might summarize it. In the documentary, Yitzhak Rabin speaks humbly of accomplishments which have gained him high praise. He elaborates little on his military accomplishments, and of his time as both a prime minister and as a diplomat to the United States, he seems to have a clear perception of both his successes and his failings. “My father was not an idealist, romanticist; he was pragmatic.” According to Yuval his career was one characterized by, “A very hardline pursuit of security and stability for the country. He knew its limitations.
One of many conflicts within the film that remains relevant today is that of Israel’s settlements in occupied territory, which the international community today considers illegal. Only a day before our interview, President Obama voiced his concern that the settlements were an obstruction to peace between Israel and Palestine. Like his father, Yuval agreed, emphasizing also Israel’s own inability to maintain the settlements. “What price are you willing to pay to sustain the settlements? Are you willing to give up education, healthcare, security? We were neglecting our internal issues in favor of sustaining these settlements that the world does not accept. No US administration will ever support these settlements. In that way, it is a bipartisan issue here.”
Rabin recently made national news when he related America’s current political climate, in which he sees hateful speech on the rise, to the environment that killed his father. In our interview, he clarified that he was not trying to make a political statement. “I just wanted to raise a flag from personal experience.” Yuval Rabin’s father was assassinated by an Israeli extremist who opposed his push for peace with Palestine. The man might have acted alone but he came “from an environment that encouraged demonization.” The film does not waver in depicting this demonizing of Yitzhak Rabin. Footage shows mobs of Israeli citizens chant for his death, proclaiming him a traitor to Zionism and his people as a whole. “Self restraint is the key,” Yuval Rabin says. “Circumstances are controlled by the leadership. Its up to the leadership to restrain itself.” With regards to the 2016 election, Yuval says that, “Winning is important but there may be unintended consequences to your words. All it takes is one individual to misunderstand a message or envision an imaginary perception of the world that justifies taking extreme action.”
When asked how extremism had become so prevalent in the middle east, Rabin said that “signing of Oslo continues to express itself in terrorism… 26 years from that signing, how much has Palestine and the PLO achieved through negotiation and how much have they achieved through violence?” He cited the Gilad Shalit Prisoner Exchange, in which 1 Israeli soldier was freed from captivity from the fundamentalist organization Hamas, who in turn received 1,027 of their own members from prison. “They have achieved quite a bit through violence.” This, Yuval argued, revived Hamas and jihadism, creating chaos in much of the Middle East. But “chaos creates opportunities, sometimes good. Risks are targeting not just the Middle East but the West as well. This means possible joint opportunities with US support to conduct the war on terror.” Ultimately, Yuval said, “The responsibility of leadership is to secure a safe environment for citizens. Peace in the Middle East is the responsibility of Middle Eastern leaders.” After this statement earned applause at the Q&A, he chuckled. “Of course, help is accepted if it comes in the form of billions of dollars.”
One of my questions asked in what ways Yuval Rabin might’ve tried to emulate his father in his own life. “Ooph,” he laughed, “that is a tough one… When I was growing up, there was not a set of expectations that were drawn for me to be what he was or wasn’t. The expectations were quite simple: be happy with yourself. That was pretty much the message. For the first 40 years of my life I didn’t get involved in any of the things he was doing, whether that be politics or military. I had to take on a new attitude and focus in my life after the November 4th 1995 assassination. I never looked at it as emulating.” Today, Yuval splits his time between profit and nonprofit, investing in the software industry and supporting the Israeli peace initiative.
As for the film, Rabin in His Own Words is an excellent documentary. It benefits from following the life of a practical man struggling with impractical forces, but really sets itself apart from other documentaries in the way it tells its story. By allowing Yitzhak Rabin to describe himself, the film establishes itself as one of the most sincere biographies I’ve ever witnessed. It’s one thing to hear others describe the plight of an icon. Its another to hear him recount the frustration he felt when labeled as a traitor, the exhaustion after days of negotiation, or the happiness that overtook him when an audience of Israeli citizens welcomed him with thunderous applause.
“I think that life in Israel is sometimes bigger than the movies,” Yitzhak tells an audience of filmmakers. “I’ve served many roles, but I’ve never been an actor.” It is for precisely this reason that “Rabin in His Own Words” succeeds.