Growing up in Israel, every November 4th the common question amongst my age group was, “Where were you when Yitzhak Rabin’s was assassinated?” Even for those of us who were barely old enough to understand at the time, that moment shaped and impacted the national environment in a way that cannot be overlooked. The country was outraged, frightened, and confused.
I was seven at the time. I remember lying in bed and hearing commotion coming from my parents’ bedroom. I couldn’t resist getting up and checking what unusual event was going on after bedtime. My parents, who were never Rabin supporters, stared at the television screen and told me the prime minister was shot. I admit I didn’t really understand what that meant at that moment, I just enjoyed not being sent back to bed immediately. That morning, my older sister had asked to go to the fateful peace rally in Tel Aviv with her friends. My parents didn’t allow it, so she looked on shocked at the television with the rest of us.
At school the next morning, Rabin’s assassination was the only topic people could talk about. One of my classmates said in class that Geula Amir – Yigal Amir’s mother – was her kindergarten teacher, and that the Amir family lived in her neighborhood. Though it didn’t feel powerful at the time, all these tiny pieces of information still vividly resurface when I think of that day, confirming that even as a child I realized that a traumatic event was happening in my country.
Ever since that day, November 4th has turned into a politically tense date. People and institutions started commemorating Rabin from the perspective that fit their agenda – Rabin the man of peace, Rabin the fierce leader, Rabin the general, and so on. As Rabin was glorified, the national-religious movement was feeling completely estranged. Many private commemoration events emphasized the importance of the Oslo Accords, while the religious right was collectively blamed for the murder and the incitement that preceded it.
The decision to hold a national remembrance day did not include holding an annual rally, but since Rabin was shot while exiting the stage of a peace rally, his followers found it appropriate. The rally was never an inclusive event. It was developed to commemorate the man and the murder. While the discussion in schools – which is part of the national curriculum – emphasizes the importance of democracy, pluralism, accepting different opinions, and the dangers of incitement, the Rabin memorial rally is traditionally a mish-mash of political statements, music segments by the hottest bands, and video clips about Yitzhak Rabin’s legacy.
The rally converged a mass of blue collar movements that were affiliated with left wing parties and actively promoted the Oslo Accords. They brought buses packed with kids in blue uniforms from all over the country. As an enthusiastic member in one such movement, it was the annual meeting for all my friends from summer camp. I listened to the speeches only when a big name – like Bill Clinton – was speaking. These were also the only moments Rabin Square would go mute and people really listened. We used to call it “Festi-Rabin” because you would mainly enjoy the songs, talk with friends, and grab a bite at a nearby pizza joint.
Initially the participants in the rally were predominantly upper middle class, mostly Ashkenazi Jews that vote (or will vote when they come of age) Labor or Meretz. Slowly, though, more kippot started popping in the crowd, more scouts – who were officially requested by their leadership not to show up wearing their uniforms – painted the crowd with spots of khaki, and more people that didn’t fit the archetype of “leftist” attended.
However, the Rabin memorial rally crowd never managed to become a balanced representation of Israeli society, and the event was always considered elitist (also because of its location which is right in the heart of the Tel Aviv “bubble”). It’s not that no one tried. On the contrary, every year a new topic was chosen – more simplistic, more inclusive, more all-encompassing. But the ambience of Festi-Rabin stayed the same, just with a different underlying message. In a way, the rally is an epitome of Tel Aviv – claiming to open its doors to the greater public and be more inclusive but also wanting to maintain its unique character.
Perhaps this shows that it wasn’t the topic that attracted new attendees, but other elements that contributed to the decision: maybe it was the perspective of time, the distance from the murder and the harsh feelings, or realizing that political incitement persists to threaten Israeli democracy. Maybe it was because people don’t always fit the stigma we attribute to them and the fact people wear a kippa doesn’t mean they won’t vote Labor, don’t agree with Rabin’s way, or want to build more settlements.
The Rabin memorial rally is not the only event that commemorates Rabin, it is in fact a private initiative while the national memorial day and the official events – a ceremony in Mount Herzl, a designated Knesset meeting and ceremonies in schools – are constituted by law. The Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Day Law was legislated in 1997, in a bill that passed during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first premiership, and states that “schools should honor the memorial day in activities that emphasize Rabin’s character and contributions, in activities that highlight the importance of Israeli democracy and the threat violence poses to society and the state.” Even though this instruction does not seem contentious at first glance, many schools fear confronting students on these issues so they offer reduced, less controversial content or even commission private educational NGOs to teach the subject, as the Hebrew edition of Ha’aretz recently published.
This year, Commanders for Israel’s Security and the grassroots movement Darkenu are trying to execute a different type of rally – one that focuses on unity and doesn’t accentuate the division. The slogan of the event is “we are one people”. While I understand the mission to make the rally open and inclusive, I fear that opening the door too wide will also antagonize the people who have been diligently attending it. I’m not sure if inviting a settler woman who was evicted from her house in Ofra or the mayor of the West Bank settlement of Efrat is the right formula to commemorate the events of November 4th. This is not because they aren’t a part of the national tragedy but because their path is miles apart from Rabin’s and, after all, it is a private event in his honor. Unity is important, no doubt, but is that the topic a private memorial event should adopt? If so, to what extent?
Rabin was shot at the end of a peace rally in the midst of the Oslo process. He was shot for his political decisions, and his legacy has been constantly targeted since. Those facts are blurred in the national ceremonies, but should they also be blurred in a private one organized by his ostensible political adherents?
Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that not everyone relates to the rally (or that not everyone wants to live in Tel Aviv) – it is not an official event and it has special meaning to people who felt their hope and dreams were shattered with Rabin’s death. Many things should be changed regarding the conduct of the rally: it shouldn’t feel like a festival, but it should also continue serving the people that feel re-energized and refueled by it. Despite my criticism I continued going to the rally after I finished my years in the youth movement because nothing compared to the feeling I would get when I looked up and saw thousands of people holding signs, singing songs for peace and hoping for a better future. I would look to my right and left and see that I’m surrounded by people who share my beliefs in a non-cynical moment. Maybe it’s fine that schools teach a palatable version (assuming teachers are the ones who teach it and not NGOs), and it’s more than okay if not everyone in the classroom agrees with Rabin’s legacy, as long that they agree that these events can never recur.
This year I won’t attend the Rabin memorial. I’ll probably be somewhere in New York City, writing a paper about current events in the Middle East in the neighborhood cafe (like in my Tel Aviv days), but I won’t forget what Rabin’s legacy means for me – a leader who had political courage and an understanding that war doesn’t mean anything if you can’t make peace afterwards. Maybe that’s why I remember the day of his death so vividly.