On Saturday evening, as I have done every year since that fatal night 12 years ago, I went to Rabin Square in the heart of Tel Aviv, opposite the municipality, to mark the anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It feels like a tribal ritual, but it is an act I am compelled to carry out each year, whatever the weather or my own state of mind or wellbeing.
I was there on the night of November 4, 1995, 12 years ago. At the time there was a feeling that we were taking the streets back from the extremists on the right. The former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat was the head of the organising committee, and the French Jewish philanthropist Jean Friedman also played a major part. As a member of the national leadership forum of the Peace Now movement, our role was to help bring out the demonstrators. There had been concern that not enough people would come, and that perhaps there would be hostile snipers stationed on the rooftops around the square – but the people came, over 100,000, to take back the night from the rejectionist forces of darkness.
I remember being particularly upbeat after Rabin spoke. He was not a great speaker, and tended frequently to place the wrong emphases within his sentences, perhaps due to the fact that he had never totally gotten used to the necessities of public life.
This time, I remarked to those around me, he spoke well, perhaps gaining strength from the masses below him. His call for peace and against violence, with his familiar deep voice, sounded as if it was expressed from the depths of his being. And at the end, he even seemed to smile as he sang Shir Lashalom, (Song for Peace) together with blond singer Miri Aloni and the other politicians on the platform.
In recent years, the memorial gathering has always begun with a video image and recording of excerpts from Rabin’s final speech, followed by the chilling announcement by his bureau chief Eitan Haber that “the Government of Israel, announces, with astonishment, that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has been shot, killed by a Jewish assassin.”
This time, the 12th anniversary of that tragic night, 150,000 gathered in the square, the largest number in recent years. Perhaps they were motivated to come as a counterpoint to the fact that the assassin, Yigal Amir, was about to celebrate the birth of a son in prison. And perhaps they came to demonstrate an expression of hope as we near the Annapolis Conference, another crossroads in the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace. One of the signs that floated over the square read: “Olmert, the time has come to decide.” And perhaps they came to gain strength from each other.
The oldest demonstrator, at the age of 91-plus, was probably Fiska, the legendary cultural impresario, who ran the Tzavta Club for progressive culture and politics for many years, and used to record five hours of performances for Israeli television in its infancy in the late 60s and early 70s. He is always there, at every memorial demonstration.
But the most encouraging element of this demonstration was the fact that the clear majority of the crowd were teenagers or in their early 20s. As both President Shimon Peres, who was at Rabin’s side as his foreign minister on that other night 12 years ago, and Rabin’s son Yuval said looking out at the audience – you, the younger generation are the key to the future. Perhaps there will be some in the audience who will take those words seriously, and will consider their presence at the evening a formative experience in their lives.
There were veterans who have been burned out from too many demonstrations and too few results, who decided not to come. And there were others who didn’t like the fact that Labor party leader and defence minister Ehud Barak was one of the invited speakers. The Meretz party held up signs saying: “Barak, you have forgotten Rabin’s legacy.” In response, for the first time since his return to politics, Barak declared that the Annapolis Conference was an opportunity, and that he was committed to seeking peace.
The most interesting moment in the evening took place in the middle of the speech by the Orthodox religious mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski. His appearance was a surprise, and an anomaly amid the overwhelmingly secular speakers, singers and crowd. Lupolianski decided to remind the audience that two weeks before his death, Rabin had declared that the one thing that unites all Israelis is their belief in a united Jerusalem. He then paused … and was greeted by total silence. Not a single clap. If he had said this in Jerusalem, or at a right-wing rally, he would have been greeted by thunderous applause. But here, in the heart of Tel Aviv, just silence. A silence which projects hope for the future. People are tired of slogans, and want solutions that work.
Peres was tired; Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai said the correct educational words reading from a text; Barak was clearly uncomfortable, trying to recapture the support of the camp he lost when he declared that there was no Palestinian partner for peace, and when he ran away from politics to make money.
The singers sang their songs, to give peace a chance. [But] the powerful emotional tone was set by Yuval Rabin. Everyone wanted to quote the Song for Peace. But Peres and Lupolianski were only capable of quoting the first lines: “Let the sun rise / and the morning bring forth its light.”
The younger Rabin had the courage to conclude his presentation with the final words of the second verse: “Don’t say that a day will come / Bring forth that day / And in all the city squares / Shout only peace.”
This entry by Hillel Schenker was originally published at the UK Guardian Weblog