Friday, November 2, 2007

Shalom Chaver

Sunday marks the 12th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. I wrote this 10 years ago, when I was living in Israel. It originally appeared in the Syracuse Herald-Journal.

TEL AVIV - I stood in an elementary school gym Wednesday morning not far from where the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin lived and recited a few lines in Hebrew about his life:

Yitzhak Rabin was the grandfather of Noa, Yonatan and Michael.
Yitzhak Rabin was the father of Dalia and Yuval.
Yitzhak Rabin was the brother of Rachel.
Yitzhak Rabin was the husband of Leah.

I looked at the children sitting on the floor in front of me. The youngest, first-graders, were closest. It is impossible to look into the faces of children here and not wonder what the future holds for them, especially at a time like this.

Wednesday marked the second anniversary of Rabin's death according to the Hebrew calender. He was assassinated on Nov. 4, 1995, minutes after speaking at a peace rally in front of Tel Aviv's city hall.

His murderer, Yigal Amir, opposed the Oslo agreement with the Palestinians. For the past week, Israelis have attended seminars, speeches, rallies and concerts in memory of the slain prime minister. Every school, including the one where I work, held a ceremony. Classes Wednesday were devoted to activities focusing on Rabin's achievements, the events surrounding his assassination and its meaning for society.

My role in our school's ceremony was small. I was nervous speaking in Hebrew but I was glad I could participate. I came to Israel for the first time because of Rabin. I felt that if Israelis were taking risks for peace, I wanted to show my support.

That trip, in August 1995, affected me in a way I never anticipated. I never expected to feel so deeply, so emotionally, about this country. When I saw what had been built here, despite nearly a half-century of war, terrorism and international isolation, I felt so proud to be Jewish.

And I felt a sense of hope that after 50 years, Israel's existence was no longer in jeopardy, that Israelis would be able to live in peace. I remember our guide told my tour group: "Before, it was like we were on another planet. Now, we can breathe like a normal country."

Three months later, Rabin was killed. I was crushed. I understood the criticisms of the Oslo agreement. I knew that some Israelis felt it went against Judaism to give up any part of the Land of Israel. I knew some Israelis felt trading land for peace had not brought security, only more terror.

But I wondered what had happened to the optimism and hope I felt in August. How could a Jew, a religious Jew, have murdered the prime minister of Israel? I remembered something else our tour guide had said, "The war between the Jews will be worse than the war between Jews and Arabs." Time has not healed the rift between Jews. The country remains split between right and left, religious and secular.

A poster for an educational organization called "Gesher," Hebrew for bridge, said, "If there's no bridge, there's no communication." The picture showed two cacti pricking each other. It's a fitting symbol. Native Israelis are called "sabras," after the fruit of the cactus that is prickly on the outside and sweet in the inside.

Israelis cannot even agree how to mourn Rabin.

Members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, from Rabin's Labor Party asked that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not speak at a session honoring Rabin unless he apologizes for "his contributions to the atmosphere of incitement" preceding the assassination. Netanyahu's supporters accuse the opposition of politicizing Rabin memorial events. Conspiracy theories have crept up regarding Rabin's assassination and the complicity of the country's security apparatus.

For nearly two years, I kept tacked to the wall above my desk at work a newspaper photograph from the rally where Rabin was killed. Last Saturday night, I became a part of that picture. I joined approximately 200,000 people at a rally on the same spot, now called Rabin Square.

A huge white banner with blue letters at one end of the square said "Friend, I remember." It's a new twist on the phrase Bill Clinton coined after Rabin's death, "Shalom chaver," "Goodbye, friend." Last year's version was "Friend, you are missed."

The crowd was mostly secular. There were many young people. I saw a few men with kipot, the head covering worn by religious Jews. It's sad that more religious Jews didn't come. Perhaps they feared that they would be unwelcome.

The rally was supposed to be nonpartisan. But there were a few anti-Netanyahu posters. The crowd booed the one government representative who spoke, Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky. I couldn't believe it. Booing Sharansky? The man who languished in a Soviet prison camp for years for the "crime" of wanting to immigrate to Israel? The man whose plight galvanized Jews around the world? I was glad that when he finished, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak went to the stage, held up his arm and called him a hero.

A sign on a building across the street urged Israelis to "return to the way of Rabin." Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres told the crowd, "We may be sad without him, but we may not despair. We have no other country and we have no other way except for Yitzhak Rabin's way."

Two singers performed John Lennon's "Imagine" in Hebrew. At the end of the rally, every one sang "Shir L'Shalom," "The Song of Peace."

In Jewish tradition, the anniversary of a person's death is observed by lighting a memorial candle and reciting kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Supermarkets have been selling candles with Rabin's picture. Many of those candles have been left at the spot where Rabin was killed, now marked by a memorial of black stones. People also leave bouquets of flowers and letters. There was a wreathe last week from the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles.

Around the corner, a wall is spray-painted with graffiti. There are snippets of songs about peace, a plaintive "lama?" "why?" and in English, "Do you remember the 4th of November?" The graffiti has been there for two years. Some call it a secular Western Wall. The Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest Jewish site, is where Jews have come for millennia to mourn the loss of the Temple.

One afternoon last week, I walked across the broad plaza, past workers setting up a stage for th rally, past a picture of Rabin and a sign that said, "Don't forget. Shout for peace." I walked down the stairs to the parking lot where Yigal Amir waited for Rabin.

At the foot of the stairs, I looked around at what Rabin saw in the last minutes of his life, a bustling, vibrant city.

In his speech that night, Rabin said, "I was a military man for 27 years. I fought so long as there was no chance for peace. I believe that there is now a chance for peace, a great chance." He acknowledged that "this is a course which is fraught with difficulties and pain. For Israel, there is no path that is without pain."

Whatever people thought of his policies, one thing cannot be denied: without Rabin and those of his generation, there wouldn't be an Israel today. Yitzhak Rabin was born in Jerusalem a Jew and died in Tel Aviv an Israeli. To that, I can only add, thank-you friend.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, I still remember exactly where I was when I heard the extremely sad news that Rabin had been assassinated. Thanks for providing this moving tribute to a great man.

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