The Murder of Rabin, the Murder of Optimism
by Sarah Kreimer
And I will establish my covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant. And I will give to thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land in which thou dost sojourn: all the land of Cana’an, for an everlasting possession.” —Genesis 17:7
TWENTY YEARS AGO, the actions that were giving me hope for Israel’s future were sapping the hopes of other Israelis. My promised land, which shimmered like the rainbow over the Jordan Rift, threatened a different Biblical promise, coveted by other Israelis: Eretz Israel HaShleima — the Greater Land of Israel.
The Greater Land of Israel movement rested on the assumption that Israel’s victory in the 1967 war was a sign of Divine intervention, and a partial fulfillment of the Divine promise to Abraham, as written in the Biblical book of Genesis. This promise focused on the heart of the area won by Israel in the 1967 war — the Biblical Judea and Samaria, known internationally as the Israel-occupied West Bank. Settling this land was seen to be the fulfillment of Divine commandment, a path toward redemption of the Jewish people, a sacred, historic duty, and the ultimate realization of the Zionist enterprise.
Relinquishing this land to Palestinian sovereignty — even in the context of a peace agreement such as the Oslo Accords — was considered to be anti-Zionist, traitorous and even blasphemous. Rabbi Avraham Shapira, the venerated head of the religious Zionist Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva, taught that no action of a human, democratically elected government should be allowed to interfere in the unfolding of the Divine will to return the Biblically promised Land to its people.
The Rabin government’s pursuit of agreed-upon borders for Israel rested not on a Biblical mission, but on a strategic understanding that the real security risks to Israel arise from powerful surrounding countries such as Iran and Iraq. In order to form regional alliances to meet those risks, Rabin knew, it was necessary to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. That resolution required historic reconciliation: that the Zionist movement make its peace with Palestinian national aspirations, and vice versa, and that the two national movements arrange to split sovereignty over the Land — for the good of future generations of Israelis. The government was thus systematically abandoning the settlement movement and the dream of the Greater Land of Israel — and the settlers did not take this threat lightly.
The only settler I saw regularly back then, my bank teller, Shmulik, was a rotund, balding immigrant from South Africa. Every time I came in to make a transaction, he told me about the Palestinians from the neighboring village, Mashha, whom he had brought to work that morning. “We have good relations with our neighbors,” he assured me, his one wisp of hair waving emphatically. “They are miskainim (unfortunates); they have no transportation, no jobs nearby. I always pick up a few of the men waiting on the road, and bring them to Tel Aviv where they can find work.”
“Aren’t you nervous that one would be a suicide bomber?”
“No,” Shmulik smiled, passing me a bank form. “I’ve known them all for years; some of them built my house in Sha’are Tikva.”
“What would you do if Sha’are Tikva were slated to be turned over to the Palestinian Authority?” I asked, signing the form.
“Oh, it won’t come to that,” Shmulik replied with confidence.
How can he be so confident, I wondered, hoping and believing that he would be proven wrong.
AS I TRAVELED around the country in fall 1995, I began to see posters on city billboards, depicting Yitzhak Rabin in a Palestinian kafiyeh. I understood the feeling behind the photo-montage, but found it offensive, a humiliating distortion of the man and his motivations. Rabin, a military man, saw peace with the Palestinians and Syrians as a strategic asset for Israel. As Chief of Staff during the Six-Day War in 1967, Rabin had led the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to their astounding victory over the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan — gaining the very territory that he was now using as a bargaining chip for peace. As Minister of Defense when the Intifada broke out in 1988, Yitzhak Rabin had publicly ordered soldiers to break the arms and legs of Palestinian rock-throwers.
Rabin, who had dedicated his life to defending the State of Israel, could hardly be seen as a weak-kneed quisling of the Palestinians; and certainly not as a traitor.
Walking in Jerusalem with my friend Orly in late September, I saw a poster of Rabin dressed in a Nazi SS uniform. I was enraged. But Orly, who had voted against Rabin in 1992, felt trapped between extremes. “Rabin’s idea — giving land to that terrorist Arafat — scares me, Saraleh. They will be right next to us then; and who can count on them? But what khutspe, to show the prime minister as a Nazi! Those settlers are fanatics.”
Despite the increasingly violent opposition — both Israeli and Palestinian — Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the “Oslo II” agreement in Washington on September 28, 1995. In contrast to the Oslo I framework agreement, ratified by an optimistic and overwhelming Knesset majority two years earlier, Oslo II was received with trepidation. It committed Israel to painful withdrawals from West Bank territories that had been occupied for almost thirty years. Israeli troops and civil administration were to be redeployed out of seven Palestinian cities, and the Palestinian Authority would take on their management and policing. Israel would be leaving part of the Land.
On October 5, the night of the Knesset ratification debate, I watched the broadcast of an opposition rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square. Likud leaders Ariel Sharon and Bibi Netanyahu overlooked the crowd from the wrought-iron balcony of the Ron Hotel. They waved to the angry thousands gathering under the banner, “Rabin — Arafat’s dog.” Watching Netanyahu relishing the invectives, “Nazis, collaborators, Judenrat,” shouted against Rabin and his cabinet, my stomach knotted.
Inside the Knesset, Oslo II squeaked by with a one-vote majority. Only the support of Israeli Arab parties saved the government from parliamentary defeat. With growing discomfort, I wondered: where were the voices in favor of the peace process? Where was my own voice?
WHEN I HEARD that Rabin’s old army buddy, “Chich” Lahat, former Tel Aviv mayor and Likud Party member, would take the lead in organizing a mass demonstration in support of government policy and against the growing violent atmosphere, I was relieved. In a bold gamble, the organizers chose as the venue Tel Aviv’s Malchei Israel Square, site of Israel’s largest civil demonstration to date — when 400,000 came to protest Israel’s collusion with the Lebanese Christian militias in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. A showing of less than 100,000 in such a place would signal that the current government and the peace process itself were trapped in a dangerous tailspin of declining support. But how many people would actually come out of their homes, not in protest but in favor of the government and its controversial policy of withdrawing from territory?
It was dark and chilly outside as I prepared to take my 4-year old Shai and my 3-year old Liad to the peace rally on November 4, 1995. I had told them we were going to a peace rally, and that we would meet Michael, Daniel, and Maya there. They hadn’t asked any questions; for them, this was one more activity, like the bicycle parade for bike paths for Tel Aviv. I didn’t know quite how to dress the kids in this twilight weather — should I take their winter jackets or not? If I took them, Liad would inevitably refuse to wear his, but, if I didn’t take it, he would surely want it. I grabbed Shai’s blue parka and Liad’s green fleece, and stuffed them into my backpack, along with a bottle of water and some snacks, to be doled out when the kids got bored. It was 7:30, and we were already late; I had arranged to meet my friend Michael and his kids at the corner of Frishman and Ibn Gvirol Streets, at the edge of Malchei Israel Square.
Warnings of a possible terror attack, and of violent counter-demonstrations by Israeli rightwingers, had circulated over the last days, and I hesitated at my apartment door, wondering again: Should I be taking the kids at all? Just the idea of keeping Shai and Liad close in a crowd of thousands was frightening. What would the kids do in a demonstration anyway? It was already their bedtime; they were bound to be tired and whiny.
I remembered walking through the streets of downtown Pittsburgh with my mother and father and Seth in a river of thousands of demonstrators in 1968, commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. and protesting his murder. It was a beautiful spring day, and I had felt important and grown-up, joining my parents in a show of solidarity with the Black community, saying, with my 12-year-old body, We are with you. I, too, was sad at the death of this wonderful leader, who had galvanized millions to fight discrimination, to cling to a dream. I felt proud that Mom and Dad had brought me; I was a part of their adult lives and beliefs.
Then, as now, the fear of retribution had added a touch of bravery to the march. Then, as now, thousands of citizens had come out to express solidarity in the face of violence, turning the usually busy streets into a platform for public expression. I remember standing at Point State Park at the concluding rally, feeling warm, despite the chilly air. Surrounded by tens of thousands of other people — black and white — at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, we sang “We Shall Overcome,” led by a stately black woman on a far-away stage. Her gospel voice soared over the crowd, as we all sang fervently: “Deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome someday!”
Damn it, I can’t not bring my kids to this rally, I thought, calling the boys, and scooping up my fat backpack. As we walked down Remez St. toward the square, I could feel the excitement of the gathering crowd, as individuals flowed out of their homes and private lives into the tributaries of a great communal effort. We heard strands of popular Israeli music drifting out from powerful amplifiers, and we passed, single-file, through police barricades set up to monitor everyone who arrived. Liad, his strawberry blond hair shining under the street lights, got tired of walking, so I shifted my pack to my shoulder and hoisted him onto my back. Shai, small and resolute as usual, walked quietly beside me, his warm palm damp in my cold hand.
Amid the seas of jeans and sneakers and parkas, closing in tighter and tighter as we reached Ibn Gvirol Street, Shai suddenly looked up and pointed. An enormous blue and yellow hot-air balloon, floated, tethered, over the Square, proclaiming “Yes to Peace; No to Violence.” The recorded voices of popular Israeli singers Ehud Manor and Hava Alberstein lent a festive air to the gathering, and the warm smell of roasted nuts and coffee drifted from all-night stores and cafes. As we crossed the street and entered the Square, the warmth of thousands of bodies took the edge off the night chill, and I smelled the clean scent of after-shave and shampoo. It was, after all, Tel Aviv on a Saturday night, and all the demonstrators knew they would bump into friends and colleagues in this giant social event.
Heading to our meeting place at the southeast corner of the Square, I spotted Michael with Maya and Daniel pressed close to him. Because of the kids, we decided to stay on the edge of the crowd, far from the podium, which was set atop a flight of stairs leading to City Hall, an oblong eight-story Soviet-style building. As we waited for the rally to begin, I kept Maya and Daniel with me while Michael ducked into the yellow Magen David bloodmobile, stationed on the sidewalk, to donate blood.
The rally was not only a peace demonstration, but a bonanza for a range of “good causes” — the blood drive, collecting signatures for an animal rights petition, recruiting for Green Action protests against new highway construction. Young communists in red shirts stenciled with Che Guevara circulated through the crowd, passing out newsletters, documenting the latest conspiracies of capitalism and government. Surveillance helicopters buzzed overhead; police snipers stood on the rooftops surrounding the Square; armed police with night sticks patrolled the perimeter and mingled with the crowd. Their presence was both reassuring and unsettling.
AS PEOPLE FLOWED into the Square, a sense of victory swelled with the crowd. Over the last few months, the streets had belonged to the opponents of the Oslo process. Now, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Israelis who believed that our future was being built through negotiations with the Palestinians, I was excited. Each of us standing on the Square, stamping our feet to keep the blood circulating, provided a vital lifeline to a government perched on a rickety Knesset coalition.
Finally the MC took the microphone, and the music gave way to speeches. My back ached from Liad’s weight. I wanted to stay to hear the Prime Minister speak, but was haunted by the thought that the most vulnerable moment for a terror attack would be the disarray of the rally’s breakup. Shai, rubbing his eyes, pulled on my hand: “Mommy, I want to go home.”
As Yitzhak Rabin stepped up to the podium to speak, we said goodbye to Michael and his family, and started making our way out of the Square. We listened to the speeches as we walked. “Permit me to say that I am deeply moved,” boomed Rabin’s deep, slow voice over the loudspeaker system.
I wish to thank each and every one of you, who have come here today to take a stand against violence and for peace. This government, which I am privileged to head, together with my friend Shimon Peres, decided to give peace a chance — a peace that will solve most of Israel’s problems.
Great applause and whistling erupted.
I was a military man for 27 years. I fought as long as there was no chance for peace. I believe that there is now a chance for peace, a great chance. We must take advantage of it for the sake of those standing here, and for those who are not here — and they are many.
We wove in and out along the edge of the cheering crowd.
I have always believed that the majority of the people want peace and are ready to take risks for peace. In coming here today, you demonstrate, together with many others who did not come, that the people truly desire peace and oppose violence.
As we reached the corner of King David Street, at the edge of the Square, past the parking lot underneath the steps on which Rabin spoke, we heard Rabin’s final words echoing from the surrounding buildings:
There are enemies of peace who are trying to hurt us, in order to torpedo the peace process. I want to say bluntly, that we have found a partner for peace among the Palestinians as well: the PLO, which was an enemy, and has ceased to engage in terrorism. Without partners for peace, there can be no peace.
Rabin was nothing if not blunt. His words punctured one of the great myths of the Israeli narrative: that there is no partner for peace. Perhaps that was why Rabin was so hated by the settlers and by the right. He did not duplicitously tell them that he was with them, but confronted them, and told them that their path was an obstacle to peace.
As we passed back through the place where the police barrier had been, we heard the familiar strands of the peace song, Shir HaShalom, once banned from Israel’s Army radio channel, drifting over the houses: “Let the sun rise / and the morning bring forth its light… Don’t say that a day will come / Bring forth that day / And in all the city squares / Shout only peace.”
Once out of the crowd, walking the ten minutes home to our apartment, I felt triumphant. Our government was on a healthy track, for which hundreds of thousands of citizens had shown support tonight. It was a track that would help ensure my children’s future in this country. By taking part in this rally, Shai and Liad had “voted” for their own future, even if they didn’t realize it.
I PUT THE KIDS TO BED, and was just sitting down with a cup of tea when I became vaguely aware of helicopters buzzing outside our window. Odd, since the demonstration had ended some time before. We lived down the street from Ichilov Hospital; perhaps someone had been airlifted in.
The phone rang. It was my brother, Seth, calling from Philadelphia. “Did you hear? Rabin was shot!”
“How could that be?” I was incredulous. “The kids and I just saw him at the demonstration; we heard him speak a few minutes ago.”
I snapped on the television, to see scenes of the event I had just left. It might as well have been a different place. People were running, sobbing, standing in shocked groups. Over and over, grainy footage showed a scuffle, and Rabin being pushed into his car by his secret service guards. Interlaced with these home video clips, hospital spokesmen conveyed terse reports.
Suddenly the camera switched to Eytan Haber, Rabin’s close aide, who read out, in a flat voice, “The government of Israel announces with astonishment and deep sorrow the death of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered by an assassin tonight in Tel Aviv.”
I felt empty, numb. This was inconceivable; I had just seen Rabin. He was vibrantly alive, his path vindicated by hundreds of thousands of supporters. Who had killed him? How? What would happen now?
Without thinking, I picked up the phone and dialed the mobile number of Saeb Bamya, Deputy Minister for Economic Cooperation of the Palestinian Authority. Saeb was the Palestinian official who, from the beginning, unafraid of the tag of “collaboration,” had encouraged me in building Palestinian-Israeli economic links. Without his backing, these efforts would have withered. More than anyone, Saeb was my partner.
I reached him in Ramallah. “Saeb,” I said. “Did you hear? Rabin was assassinated!”
“Yes, Sarah, I heard.” He paused; I could hear him inhaling on a cigarette.
Immediately, I felt foolish; of course he knew. He had probably known before me. I realized that I had no idea why I was calling.
“What will happen now?” I asked lamely. “Can we go on meeting?”
“We must go on meeting; there is no other way.”
As usual, Saeb spoke in clear declaratives. It was comforting to hear his voice, to be told what to do. Perhaps that was why I had called him. Or maybe I had called to prove to myself that I was not subject to the havoc of an assassin’s bullet; that I could maintain human contact across the divide that threatened to remain unbridgeable.
I tiptoed in to the room where Shai and Liad slept, snuggling together like puppies, on mattresses on the floor. An hour earlier I had put them to bed, optimistic about their future in this Land; confident that, despite the difficulties, we were walking a path of promise and hope: a bridge over a deep ravine. Where would our path lead now?
Suddenly, I imagined my sons as young men in green IDF uniforms, grabbing their duffle-bags, saying goodbye before leaving to fight on the front. I choked; the air in the room was stifling. Quickly, I backed out, and slumped into the old brown armchair in the living room, gulping deep breaths.
My tea was cold; the TV was on, obsessively recycling images: Rabin speaking, the packed Square, Rabin being pushed into his car, Haber announcing his murder, people gathering on the Square with candles in their hands. Finally, I mustered the energy to turn off the TV and stumble into bed. Through an uneasy sleep, I dreamed of bridges collapsing and children falling; of small bands of people scrambling along a ravine, grasping at roots, descending to ford a swollen, rushing river by foot.
I WONDER WHAT THIS DAY will look like years from now, I wrote in my journal the next day. Was it the turning point toward peace? Or the beginning of civil war? Looking back, I think it was both.
Rabin’s assassination — not by a Palestinian, but by a national-religious Jew — exposed a deepening chasm in Israeli Jewish society between civil authority and religious authority; between those who believe that ending the occupation and dividing the Land is Israel’s vital interest, and those who believe that giving up the Land promised by God is anathema.
We will not reach peace in Israel without determining a winner in this clash of worldviews.
Sarah Kreimer is director of external relations and resource development at Beit Berl College. She is co-founder of Ir-Amim, an NGO that focuses on Jerusalem within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of the Center of Jewish–Arab Economics Development in Tel Aviv. She was a board member of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. This article is excerpted from Kreimer’s recently finished memoir of her years as an activist, entitled Vision and Division in Israel: My Journey Along the Seam, which will be published by our own Blue Thread Books and Music in 2016.