A drive up north on Yitzhak Rabin Day led to recollections and reflections of more than a life cut short
By David E. Kaplan
While Americans of a certain age will ask each other where they were when they first heard the news in 1963 that President Kennedy was shot, Israelis are more likely to question of their own leader assassinated on November 4, 1995:
“What would have happened had he lived?”
Reflections of “WHAT IF” have persisted unabated every year around the time of the anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who was gunned down in office while addressing a peace rally in Tel Aviv on November 4, 1995. Despite his physical absence, his spiritual presence remains profoundly felt – even at places far beyond the borders of the country he so valiantly served.
More than killing a man, the assassin killed a peace process leading to an accelerated and deepening polarisation in Israel that has influenced the country’s domestic and foreign policy ever since. One wonders if Rabin had not been killed by Yigal Amir that fateful November Saturday 27 years ago, would Israel be different today?
These were the thoughts that I pondered as I traveled north with a JNF (Jewish National Fund) delegation from South Africa, who together with members of our Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee (Israel), were meeting with the Mayor of Megiddo, Itzik Holawsky and members of the Megiddo Regional Council to discuss joint projects in a region that is so enrichingly connected to the Jewish community of South Africa.
The day’s programme, although not intentionally connected with Rabin, resonated with the spirit of Rabin from the moment we peered out the vehicle’s window as we headed north and saw the sign in bold – Yitzchak Rabin Highway – the official name of Highway 6. Seeing that sign, jolted my memory back to my interview with Rabin’s trusted friend and confidant, the late Eitan Haber who said “that it was most fitting that Israel’s Cross-Israel Highway (“Highway 6”) was officially dedicated as the ‘Yitzhak Rabin Highway’. He was such a powerful force behind this project as he was in pushing ahead with road development throughout the country.” Nevertheless, the irony was not lost that on this anniversary of a nation mourning the loss of its visionary leader, the leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu was forming a coalition – whose collective mindset represented the antithesis of what Rabin stood and for what he was gunned down for.
Our day would play out with constant interludes of Rabin from entering Mayor Holawsky’s office and noticing the photograph of Rabin on the wall behind his desk to visiting a school where the young students – boys and girls – were all singing songs from the Rabin era.
We all joined in. As I watched these youngsters, I wondered what they knew of the life of the former Prime Minister.
“My father was a happy man; he loved life and loved his tennis,” Rabin’s daughter Dalia Rabin told this writer in an interview at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv in 2010. We were standing next to the glass-encased cabinet of Rabin’s rackets and tennis balls, testimony to the relaxed side of a personality that carried the weight of a nation on his broad shoulders.
Earlier in the interview, Dalia explained the importance of the Center in outreaching to the children of Israel:
“We need to reach today’s young generation. We are all concerned about the increased level of violence, a thread, I believe, traceable to the night of the assassination. People woke up the next day to a new reality they were not prepared for. Unfortunately, the shock was never dealt with by the leadership of all political parties at the time and that has impacted on our culture. When you have tensions that are not addressed, when your minorities do not have adequate platforms to express their ideas and beliefs, it leads to frustration. Seeking an outlet, this pent up frustration can lead to violence. We believe that our initiative to ensure every schoolchild in Israel should visit the museum and hopefully thereafter attend our workshops will help address some of the pressing issues confronting our society.”
I thought too of another image of Rabin that Haber had raised, a far cry from the ‘cigar and champagne’ image of some of today’s leaders and that would be important for children of today to know about. Haber had told me that “The trappings of high office never got to Rabin, as it might others with less moral stature.” Supporting this observation, Haber revealed a feature of Rabin’s personality that was quite unique for a leader of a country.
“He constantly voiced to me the need to justify his monthly salary. He might have held the highest office in the land, but this man never forgot he was a servant of the people and that he had to give it his all.” It was that “all” that would later cost him his life.
On the return drive home later in the day and seeing once more the sign as we got onto Yitzchak Rabin Highway, the name again sent my mind back in reverse, this time directly relating to ‘highways’. I though back to the meeting I attended in the Prime Minister’s office in 1995 representing TELFED with a delegation of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) leadership from South Africa. After welcoming us each individually – there must have been twelve of us altogether – he said:
“I am not sitting behind a desk, please grab a chair and let’s sit in a circle.”
From what could have been a typical formal meeting separating the Prime Minister from his guests, he immediately transformed it into a relaxed gathering with friends. He made us feel we were meeting with the first name, ‘Yitzchak’, and not the revered surname – ‘Rabin’.
And then, at some stage during our discussions, Rabin did the unexpected by breaking off from the intense conversation with this surprising question:
“Do you know what still excites me?”
We all sat there puzzled.
The question, which came out of nowhere, was of course rhetorical, so no-one ventured an answer. No-one was expected to. But for sure, most were probably pondering:
“What could still excite a man who was in his second term as Prime Minister; had previously been a Minister of Defense, an Ambassador to the USA, Chief of Staff and participated in some capacity in most of the major national events, from all the wars to the most famous rescue operations in history – The Entebbe Raid?”
“What was realistically left?” all must have thought at the time.
We did not have to wait long.
“Waking up on mornings knowing that I would be cutting a ribbon that day opening a new stretch of highway, a bridge or an underpass.”
After a lifetime of excitement, I thought that this sounded so mundane!
I was so wrong!
Only on that 1995 drive back from the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, did the proverbial shekel drop! It was not so much the “stretch of highway, bridge or underpass” where Rabin was cutting the ribbon that was so significant – it was what potentially lay ‘down the road’. The roads, bridges and underpasses were metaphors – signifying to the Prime Minister easier access to a better future – for they would lead to expansion – new towns, new factories and new lives as Israel developed. Rabin was a man of foresight; he looked not only at the road but down the road and beyond!
Of the many photographs of Rabin throughout his military, diplomatic and political careers, the one that resonates for me the most is one with the late King Hussein of Jordan, taking time out to enjoy a smoke together. It was taken at the Jordanian royal residence in Aqaba after the signing of the historic peace treaty between their countries on the 26 October 1994. Rabin is guiding Hussein’s hand as he lights his cigarette. Rich in symbolism, it captures the atmosphere of two former enemies who had waited a long time for this precious moment who were not only enjoying a ‘smoke break’ but enacting the symbolic ritual of smoking the proverbial ‘peace pipe’.
As they puffed away, they had moved on from warriors of war to worriers for peace.
Later reflecting on the singing children at the Megiddo School, we welcome the day when future leaders will be ‘cutting ribbons’, opening new sections of the road ahead – to peace and prosperity.
Visiting a school where the young pupils – boys and girls – were all singing songs from the Rabin era.
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