I'll remember the anniversary of Rehavam Ze'evi's murder as a moment when my eyes opened to some of the facts of life in this country
By DAVID SERFATYA story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
"I want to get to Mount Herzl, please. Place with people under the ground. They are dead. You know, yes?" Fortunately the taxi driver was fluent in broken Hebrew and knew immediately where I was trying to get to. I wondered whether he also knew the reason I was going there, because I certainly didn't.
A few days earlier I had been told by the coordinator of my internship program, Career Israel, that they needed one member of the group to attend some kind of occasion at a cemetery in Jerusalem as a representative of something... I'm sure she told me what it was all about, but being new to Israel, and having had very little exposure to Jewish/Israeli bureaucracy, my brain turns to mush at the merest mention of agencies, organizations, institutions, etc. However, my desire for light refreshments is constant and unwavering, and so I accepted the mission without further question.
On arrival at the cemetery entrance I was met by a swarm of police who studied my British passport and quizzed me intensely. I think it was while walking through the metal detector and having my hands swabbed and tested for contact with chemicals that I began to realize this was no coffee and kuchen affair.
I followed the security barriers uphill to a serene spot with rows of military graves, adorned with greenery and candles, where people were scurrying around placing chairs, microphones and wreaths in preparation for the event. A lady recognized the disoriented look on my face and ushered me over. She explained that my task was to sit in a specially designated seat and wait for a prompt to get up and present a wreath to the head of the Jewish Agency. Simple.
At this stage I was pretty curious as to what was going on; why there were TV cameras and microphones being set up and why security was at such a high level, so I asked one of the guards.
"You know about Gandhi?" she said. "He was assassinated and this is the memorial. It happens every year." I nodded in true male fashion, as if I knew exactly what she was talking about. For a brief moment, in my mind, the story checked out. Gandhi was assassinated - true. But how is that related to Israel? I racked my brains for possible links; Gandhi... Jews... Ben Kingsley? Nope, I had nothing.
As I sat watching military personnel rehearsing their drill, a guy came over to me with the same look of utter bewilderment on his face. We talked and it transpired that he was there for similar reasons, having been asked by his program to attend, and likewise he had no idea what was going on. In the midst of all the comings and goings, we caught the attention of an important-looking guy (I later discovered this was Dr. Avshalom Kor, a well known linguist, media personality and emcee of the proceedings) who unravelled the mystery.
Gandhi, it turned out, was the nickname of a colorful and controversial general and founder of the right-wing Moledet party, Rehavam Ze'evi. The name derived from an incident during his student days: He had entered a room sporting a white towel and a shaven head, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Mahatma. Today's ceremony was to commemorate the anniversary of his murder by Palestinian terrorists on October 17, 2001. Three members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine gunned down Ze'evi - then minister of tourism - as he emerged from an elevator in the Jerusalem Hyatt Hotel on Mount Scopus.
My later research taught me that Ze'evi, born in 1926, was a veteran of the pre-state Palmah underground army who fought in all of Israel's wars and before retiring in 1974 reached the rank of major-general as head of Central Command, where he achieved fame for personally taking part in hunts for terrorists. During the 1970s he served as an adviser to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on intelligence and counter-terrorism.
In 1988, Ze'evi established the Moledet party and engendered great controversy with his idea that all the Palestinians should be transferred to Arab countries and that the rights of Arab Israelis should be curtailed. His ideas were received with great hostility by the media and most politicians, though he always maintained that his philosophy echoed that of founding father David Ben-Gurion and many Israelis and Arabs believe that he was only saying what most people were thinking. His party was part of Yitzhak's Shamir's hard-line government, but pulled out to protest participation in the 1991 Madrid peace conference.
After a decade in opposition, he joined Ariel Sharon's cabinet as tourism minister, but after Israel withdrew from a Hebron neighborhood he tendered his resignation, which was due to take effect on the day of his assassination.
On Mt. Herzl the ceremony was gearing up to begin, and the magnitude of the revulsion over the assassination of a cabinet minister became more and more apparent to me when I turned around and saw President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - both of whom were political enemies of Ze'evi during his lifetime - arriving. The proceedings began, and though I couldn't understand the Hebrew speeches, there was no questioning the sombre tone of the speakers and deep attention of the listeners.
Shortly after I presented my wreath, the ceremony drew to a close and the crowds dispersed. It was a particularly wet and gray afternoon in Jerusalem, and as I waited for the bus I made a mental note to Google Rehavam Ze'evi.
Later, I heard that the Knesset's memorial session for Ze'evi had been overshadowed by election politics and several members walked out in protest when Likud Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu's tribute speech gradually weaved untidily into a propaganda pitch. For me, in years to come, I'll remember the anniversary of Ze'evi's death as a moment when my eyes opened to some of the facts of life in this country.
A story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
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