If you randomly ask Israelis the significance of the Hebrew date of 12 Heshvan, it’s fairly safe to say many will not know. But ask the same people about November 4, most people over the age of 30 will say without hesitation that it was the date that prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
The shock was so great that the date was etched into the national consciousness.
Certainly there had been threats against Rabin, as well as against the lives of his predecessors, but no one ever expected that a prime minister of Israel would be killed by a Jew. It was anticipated that he might perhaps be the victim of a Palestinian terrorist or of some misguided element from a neighboring country, who may have mistakenly thought that killing Israel’s leader would eventually eliminate Israel itself – but no one expected him to be killed by an Israeli citizen, least of all an Israeli Jew.
Not everyone is conscious of the fact that the assassination, perpetrated by Yigal Amir, had far deeper repercussions than an attempt to prevent the implementation of the Oslo Accords. It also put an end to the public’s access to any future prime minister.
Security surrounding Shimon Peres, who became acting prime minister after it was announced that Rabin had been murdered, immediately tightened, and has become progressively tighter with every successive prime minister – in the fear that if it happened once, it could happen again.
Unfortunately, the general public has had other major concerns since Rabin’s death. There was the horrendous second intifada; sporadic terrorist activities before and after; a dearth of tourism that severely affected the economy; corruption among religious and political leaders – with a president (Moshe Katsav) in prison, a prime minister (Ehud Olmert) possibly destined for prison, a chief rabbi (Yona Metzger) going in the same direction, additional prominent rabbis charged with sexual abuse, former government ministers charged with corruption and imprisoned or about to be imprisoned, mayors charged with corruption and incarcerated… and the list goes on.
The public has been confronted with so many scandals of major proportions that the assassination of the prime minister is losing significance as the years go by.
In fact, if it weren’t for the print and electronic media to remind people of the heroic soldier – who as a civilian fought for peace between Israel and its neighbors – not too many Israelis outside of Rabin’s military, political and social circles would pay much attention.
For the period that he was prime minister – actually for both periods, though far apart in time – Yitzhak Rabin was my neighbor. His official residence was at 9 Smolenskin Street in Jerusalem, on the corner of Balfour. The apartment block in which I live is at 3 Smolenskin Street.
When Rabin was prime minister, the stone fence surrounding the house was low, and the double front door was made of glass framed in wood. There was a low metal gate through which Rabin would stroll, coming and going, casually carrying his suit jacket over his shoulder when the weather was warm. In contrast to the current situation, there were no high fences with spiked tops and a camera in every spike, no permanent security barriers or guard boxes on either Balfour Road or Smolenskin Street. The whole area was just another nice, quiet neighborhood on the seam of Rehavia-Talbiyeh. Today, it looks like Fort Knox.
In the pre-assassination days, demonstrators actually stood opposite the front gate, and not around the corner in the next street. When Rabin held important meetings at his residence, reporters congregated directly outside, and could tell by the shadows on the door when the meeting was nearing its conclusion. Today, the closest they can stand is somewhere near the corner of Balfour and Azza Street, but it’s pointless – because they have no way of getting a hint of what’s happening inside, other than the possible revving of motors by the drivers of ministers’ cars.
The privilege of a bird’s-eye view belongs only to those neighbors living on upper floors in high-rise buildings on Balfour.
When Rabin was in the street, or for that matter at any event, it was relatively easy to approach him and exchange a few words without having one’s path blocked by a security official.
Even after his assassination, there was no immediate change with regard to the residence. I remember when King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan came to offer their condolences to his wife Leah Rabin. I was standing on the street when they arrived, and had no problem following them into the house. King Hussein – who, like Rabin, was a heavy smoker – asked Leah Rabin if she minded if he had a cigarette. She readily assented.
But I’m ahead of myself. As most people know, on the night of the assassination, there was a huge peace rally in Tel Aviv, with busloads of people from numerous leftwing organizations coming in from all over the country.
Most wore white T-shirts with prints of the logos of the organizations to which they belonged. The huge square – now known as Rabin Square, but then known as Malchei Yisrael – was packed with peace enthusiasts and activists of all ages. Young parents had toddlers on their shoulders.
Veterans of the War of Independence and subsequent wars almost had tears in their eyes in anticipation of the new era of peace that they erroneously believed was being ushered in.
In Israel, it’s the norm to accompany both happy and sad events with song, and the most appropriate song for the rally was “Shir Lashalom” (A Song for Peace), which was written by Yaakov Rotblit, with music by Yair Rosenblum and initially performed in 1969 during the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt. The original singers were the Israel Infantry Entertainment Troupe with Miri Aloni as the soloist. She sang it with so much feeling that it more or less became her signature song, and when it was chosen as the key song for the rally, Aloni was asked to sing it.
Rabin, Peres and other political figures standing on stage with Aloni joined in. It didn’t matter that some of them, Rabin included, couldn’t carry a tune. What was important was the message, which expressed both a yearning for peace and a tribute to fallen soldiers.
The atmosphere was euphoric. Once the rally was over, people scrambled to return to their buses. There were some steps at the back of the stage leading to where Rabin’s car was parked. I was on those steps only two or three minutes before him, intent on finding the bus that would transport me back to Jerusalem. There was a lot of good-natured pushing and shoving, people moving every which way, but the crowd didn’t seem to thin out. It was truly a miracle that the buses were able to get out of the area.
It was the pre-cellphone era, and it was par for the course that every bus driver would turn on the radio for the hourly newscast. But this had been an exciting night with live broadcasts, so the radio was already on before the hour. Suddenly, we heard the announcement that the prime minister had been shot. There was an audible spontaneous gasp – a chorus of intake of breath.
Then came the announcement that it was believed that the bullets were blanks. And after, a series of dramatic but uncertain bulletins came the fateful announcement from Rabin’s right-hand man Eitan Haber, who from the gates of Sourasky Medical Center’s Ichilov Hospital, where Rabin had been taken, told the nation the shocking news that the prime minister had been assassinated. People in the bus yelled, cried loudly and then in an effort to contain themselves, reduced their sobbing to a whimper so that everyone could still hear the radio updates.
It was as if we had all lost a father, but needed desperately to hear the circumstances of his death.
Before the funeral, which was attended by numerous heads of state and members of government, Rabin’s body lay in state in the grounds of the Knesset, with tens of thousands of people filing past to pay their last respects and youngsters remaining in the vicinity in clusters around the numerous memorial candles, which they lit and around which they discussed their feelings.
There were a lot of conspiracy theories associated with Rabin’s death, and there are still many unanswered questions.
Yet whatever the truth may be, what remains from that terrible night in 1995 is the feeling that a line had been crossed – and the people of Israel must work together to find their way back.