Rabin: Old salt as father figure

Grumpy Old Man: Reflections on character assassination, Jewish voodoo and looking the other way.

Yitzhak Rabin 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yitzhak Rabin 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I cried openly and without shame that horrible Saturday night 18 years ago when Eitan Haber announced to the world that Yitzhak Rabin was dead. My eyes teared up through the rest of the night as I remained glued to the TV, all the next day while I was in my office trying to work, and through the next evening as I sat at home with my family. My father had died 21 years previously, almost to the day, and now I felt like it was happening all over again.
Rabin as father figure? I didn’t always appreciate the logic of his policies, but as a military hero-turned national leader and statesman he provided for me and made me feel safe. Also, I couldn’t imagine being in his shoes. Those are things we often associate with fathers.
I got to see and hear Rabin up close.
One meeting stands out, an interview at Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv when he was defense minister, on a Friday afternoon just before the 20th anniversary of the 1967 war.
The ministry spokesman had granted me “no more than 45 minutes,” but Rabin waved off his repeated protests and sat with me for close to three hours.
In quiet tones, he told of the victory in which the IDF, in six short days, had turned things around for a nation literally contemplating its demise. But he spoke much longer, with what was clearly sincere and deep sorrow, of having sent over 700 men to their deaths.
Not once during that interview, even when prodded, did he bask in the limelight afforded those who help save their countries.
He was not the warmest of people (though most of those who were familiar with him and his ways understood that his distance was the product of shyness, not aloofness), and when he finally smiled halfway into our meeting, he looked like a bashful farm boy. The slight upward turn of his mouth, the small crinkle of his eyes after so much serious discourse, won you over immediately, and often for good.
Contemplating my grief the night before his funeral, I decided to join the throngs that filed past his army-issue pine casket lying in state in front of the Knesset. I went at 3 a.m., figuring the crowd would have tapered off. Instead, I found – in the middle of the night – a crush of silent, stunned humanity trailing 100-deep from the Knesset gates to the Finance Ministry 250 meters away.
Despairing of ever making it in, I fished out my government-issue press card and found myself being ushered by an old friend from the Government Press Office straight onto the Knesset plaza and, unbelievably, beyond the police barricades – where the casket lay on a black bier, surrounded by four ramrod-straight Knesset guards and two psalm-reciting army chaplains.
For a long time, as those who had waited hours to get in were gently urged on by police and granted no more than a 30-second look from over 15 meters away, I was able to stand for as long as I wanted mere centimeters from my dead prime minister. I could almost reach out and touch the casket. God knows, I wanted to.
I finally sat down on the platform that had been assembled a few meters away for the press. Resting my head in my hands, I wondered about my emotions: Why did I have to come here in the middle of the night? Why did I want to be so close to this man in death? Was it Rabin the father? Rabin the brave peacemaker? Maybe it was the fact that his assassination had left in its wake a sense of uncertainty about the future. Israel was navigating shallow and treacherous waters, and while so far a cautious old salt had been at the helm, the captain now would be Shimon Peres, a man who seemed more intent on getting into port on time and maybe with a little razzle-dazzle, even if it meant the possibility of ripping open the hull and taking on water.
In the end, I realized that it was guilt, pure and simple, that had brought me in the small hours to the dead Yitzhak Rabin.
EARLIER THE same night, the prime minister’s widow left her Ramat Aviv home to talk briefly with the many hundreds of citizens who had gathered outside. With heart-wrenching sincerity she thanked them for coming, saying their presence was a deep comfort. But where had they been, she demanded to know, with the same dugriut, or frankness, that her late husband was known for, when every weekend, rain or shine, protesters would gather behind police barricades across the street to scream “Rabin the traitor,” “Rabin the murderer,” “ Rabin the Nazi,” up to the eighth-floor windows? The writing had indeed been on the wall: the vicious chants and placards at the anti-government rallies; the photo montages on posters and placards showing Rabin in Arab headdress; the invoking of ancient Jewish curses on the prime minister by right-wing rabbis (rabbis, for heaven’s sake!); the calls for Rabin’s out-and-out murder by people who the next day might be in line ahead of you at the supermarket or using the locker next to yours at the health club.
Leah Rabin couldn’t have put it any better. Why had we chosen to look the other way? Why did we ignore the protests, their virulent tenor and tone? How could we have gone on with our routines when stalwarts of the Jewish state’s religious hierarchy were all but sticking pins in voodoo dolls? What made us pay so little attention when in those angry days, a young settler attempted to run a cabinet minister’s car off the road – receiving in the process the full and unabashed support of his father, of all things a former military judge? We knew that Rabin’s protection detail had been beefed up, and heard the rumors – false rumors, it would turn out – that the prime minister had now taken to wearing body armor. Why did we ourselves fail to take to the streets, if not to voice support for Rabin’s policies then only to say that enough was enough, that protest, no matter what the issue, had to remain within set boundaries if democracy was to prevail? PHYSICS TEACHERS will tell you that once you break the static friction, it’s relatively easy to push a heavy box across a rough floor. That’s what Rabin did. To hijack another metaphor, he was the Nahshon of Israeli peacemakers, the first to jump in. It certainly was not out of faith. He seemed to look back, as the biblical figure did at Pharaoh’s charging army, and decide that what lay before rather than behind the Children of Israel was the lesser of two obstacles.
Sure, he had his failings. And yes, he was dragged kicking and screaming into Oslo – it’s no secret that he was as revolted as the rest of us were when Yasser Arafat stuck out his hand that sunny day on the White House lawn. But he proffered his own hand in return, moving forward in the direction of what previously had not been tried, because that was all there was.
People still downplay this. They find any reason to denigrate him, paying lip service to the nastiness of political assassinations and then assassinating him again for the failure of Oslo, for supposedly turning his back on the “true Zionists,” and, as one Jerusalem Post reader pretty much put it in a recent letter to the editor, for not being worthy of the same heartbreak accorded Abraham Lincoln.
In these politically and diplomatically charged times, if we cannot find it in ourselves to praise Rabin or even just shed a tear for what happened to him, we must at least remember Leah Rabin’s plaintive demand: Where were we?