Adam Keller: Contemplations on the Rabin Memorial Rally

By Adam Keller

“I am not going to that rally, not at any price. To be among Barak’s audience? Barak? Just this week, Shulamit Aloni said he should be tried for war crimes. And you call that a peace rally?” “But we don’t go to the Rabin Memorial Rallies for the sake of the speakers on the podium, we go there for the audience. This is the largest gathering in the whole year of Israelis who care for peace.  Even if there is a bastard on the podium, there are still a lot of decent people in the audience, young people who can be open to what we say. We should be there for them, to give out the leaflets, especially the leaflets about what Barak is doing in Gaza. ” “Sorry, this year you will have to do it without me”. 

Also people less radical than this veteran Gush Shalom activist had their considerable qualms. The call published by Peace Now reiterated that “The continuing occupation, the expansion of settlements, but also the window of possibility created by the upcoming Annapolis summit” made it “crucial for us all this year, especially this year, to attend the rally and voice our call for negotiations and peace”.  Nevertheless, former Peace Now Secretary General Moria Shlomot publicly expressed her dilemma:

“Year after year, I return to the Rabin Square, for the annual moment when the Peace Camp stands up to be counted. This year I hesitate. I am not tired, nor did I forget, but the name of Ehud Barak lies heavy on my conscience – a name with which I have no wish whatsoever to be counted as part of the same political camp.

Ehud Barak: leader of the Israeli Labour Party, builder of settlements, provoker of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the man who caused the most dangerous fissure with the Israeli Arabs, the greatest believer in unilateralism.

A man who sees himself as dwelling in ’a villa in the jungle’ since he regards everybody else as beasts or savages, whom there is no need to communicate with, to approach, to get to know or reconcile with. Barak ordered the electricity of Gaza cut off in response to the shooting of Quassam missiles, even when knowing that the shooting would only increase due to this move. He knows – but still he prefers to cover his paucity of ideas and absence of moral values by an act which would make Israel hated all over the world.

Barak represents the very opposite of what Rabin represented at the end of his days. For most of us, Rabin represented exactly the shrugging off of the illusions of power, the greatness of a man undergoing a complete reversal of outlook at a far from young age.

Barak is not Rabin`s successor, and I am deeply disappointed that this year he would get to mount a podium which should have been reserved for true people of peace.”

Despite all qualms, when the evening of the rally came by we set out for the Rabin Square, equipped with a folding table and carriage heavily laden with printed material – feeling nostalgic for last year, when active politicians were banned from the podium and an impressive keynote speech delivered by writer David Grossman.

On hearing our destination, the taxi driver burst out: “That’s very good, there should be many people there! This dirty murderer, Yigal Amir – how dare he make this dirty show with the circumcision? And the judges let him get away with it! He should have been hanged, yes, hanged! We have no capital punishment, but for the murder of a Prime Minister, we should have made an exception.  Yes sir! I did not hold with Rabin’s views, but this is really unforgivable. He should be happy that he got away with his life, he should never have gotten anything more. No conjugal visits to have sex with that crazy woman who married him, no visits at all. No privileges. Just lock him up like a dog, yes like a dog, and throw away the key.”

This kind of vindictive feeling was quite widespread in this year’s rally, fuelled by the new extreme-right campaign openly calling for Amir’s release and by the coincidence of the Amir child’s circumcision talking place on precisely the anniversary of the murder. (In some views, indeed, it was no coincidence at all, but diabolically clever planning of the conjugal visit’s date by Amir and his wife Larissa.) 

The signs and stickers reading “We shall neither forgive nor forget” seemed more common than in other years, and there were yellow unsigned leaflets actually calling for the enactment of a “retroactive capital punishment.”

We had an appropriate response, a Gush Shalom leaflet in the form of a multiple-choice questionnaire:

How to honour the memory of Itzchak Rabin

[] To show tolerance towards those who hated him?

[] To curse Yigal Amir by day and by night?

[] To continue on Rabin’s road: negotiate for peace with those whom the Palestinians have elected as their representatives?

Find the right answer and you win a good future for Israel.

“Thank you, I was starting to feel that I was all alone in thinking that the big fuss was exaggerated. Sure, he is a murderer; but isn’t he being punished already? I came here for other, more important issues," said a youngster who apparently did not belong to any of the Blue Shirt youth groups but had come all by himself – and very happy to find the Gush Shalom table, decorated with two-flag placards and a variety of explicit stickers.

“What is this? Talk to the Hamas? I think this sticker is premature, the time has not yet come for such a step” said the man with the big dog. “Why premature? We have come here to honour Rabin. Would you have stopped Rabin from going to Oslo? Also then there were people saying it was premature to start talking to start talking to the PLO.” “But they are shooting missiles, every day! What if some of our kids get killed!” “And we have already killed many of their kids, even if the media hardly reports it. We should make a cease-fire, no shooting of us on them or of them on us. We should do it before anybody else gets killed.” “Well, perhaps… I don’t know, the Prime Minister should be thinking about all this…”

Meanwhile, at the front – where you could be seen by the speakers on the podium, and more importantly by the TV crews – groups of youths are jockeying for position, wearing various kinds of shirts – Peace Now, Meretz, the Blue Shirts of the Working and Learning Youth. Enormous banners, each needing ten of more people to lift, lie on the ground, ready for the starting moment. We have declined to enter this race, circulating instead in the midst of the crowds fast entering the square from all directions. We are not the only ones, quite a few other groups are making use of this opportunity, the best in the whole year.

Peace Now and the Geneva Initiative have jointly launched a new graphic design, seen everywhere on big placards and small stickers: a bullet and a pen facing each other, with the caption “This is the Time! Choose for Peace!”

The Meretz Youth have “Peace was not murdered – Yithchak’s way will prevail”. Youths from the Galilee distribute an impassioned manifesto: “We youths must rise and cry out that we believe in Peace and Equality, that we believe in the Freedom of Speech and Human Rights, that we will never forgive and never forget the murder of Rabin. We must cry out now, or we won’t much longer have a democracy!”

”The slaughtering of animals is political murder, too” asserts the leaflet of the ‘Anonymous’ groups. “It is murder because animals have as much right to live as human beings; it is political because the entire political spectrum supports it”.

At the Peace Now table, signatures are collected on  a petition calling upon Olmert to “Sign peace within a year",  and invitations to a meeting where a glimpse  “behind the scenes of the Annapolis Peace Conference” is promised – as well as a brochures entitled “a beginners’ course on the settlements”, based on the findings of the movement’s famed Settlement Watch Team.

For their part, the Hadash Communists distribute a flyer entitled: “Why the Annapolis summit will not be a peace conference?” and giving the answer: “The Olmert-Barak Government has no intention of really ending the occupation. The moves to extend settlements at the E-1 area east of Jerusalem, and the cruel new invention of cutting off Gaza’s water and electricity, testify to the reality behind the words of peace”.

At another table, signatures are collected on a petition “against the shirking of military service, and for an equal division of the burden”. A youth is engaged in a hot debate: “Better to shirk the army than to serve the occupation!” “This is a rally for Rabin, and he was a military man most of his life. You extreme leftists are in the wrong place!” “Rabin made peace and was murdered for it. On the last hour of his life, right here in this square, he embraced Aviv Gefen – an artist who refused military service. It is you, the militarists, who are in the wrong place!”

The debate is cut short by the recorded voice of Rabin himself, strong and confident on the last evening of his life, followed by the recording of the announcement of his death at the hospital gates a few hours later, and then the singing of “Captain, my Captain” – Walt Whitman’s lament  for the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, which was translated to Hebrew, set to music and applied to Rabin.

After some more singing, the first speaker: Shimon Peres. He was always very popular in this millieu; all the more so tonight, his first appearance here as President of Israel. His words are punctuated by frequent cheers and clapping: 

“Yitzchak Rabin wanted peace, and I had the honour to be his partner in the efforts to achieve it. He wanted peace, not as an abstraction but as a simple daily reality. He wanted to wipe away the bereaved mother’s tears. He wanted to end forever these terrible moments at the doorstep, where the parents look at the army’s emissaries and know that they lost forever what was most precious to them. Rabin wanted a situation where nobody will ever again  feel threatened by a suicide bomber or a falling missile. Rabin wanted peace, and for that he was murdered.

Rabin was murdered, but you are here. You, all of you here, are his inheritors, his torch-bearers. You have come here, not only to commemorate a person who was so tragically cut down. You have come here to carry on his task, the achievement of peace.  To go on undaunted, not to panic, not to despair, to stand fast like a rock against all who seek to derail you – to hold on to the struggle for peace. You are Rabin’s inheritors, you are the Rabin heritage. You are the torchbearers!” (enormous applause).

Several minor speakers, to whose words nobody pays much attention. Aharon Barn’ea, the moderator, announces: “The entire square is full, as are the streets all around. It is estimated that some 150,000 people are here tonight!” (cheers). Some more singing. The dirigible with its security cameras crisscrosses the sky above the square; tomorrow, Gideon Levy would remark in Ha’aretz that dirigibles of the same kind are patrolling above Gaza, pin-pointing Palestinian targets for the Air Force.

The two approaching the Gush Shalom table are in their early twenties. One, otherwise in civilian clothing, has a faded khaki t-shirt with the caption “Armoured Corps, Tank Commanders’ Training Course – April 2005”. The other’s shirt has “Mañana Hotel, Managua, Nicaragua”. Without a word they pick up the round stickers with the joined Israeli and Palestinian flags, put them on their shirts and depart smiling. And then the amplified voice from the loudpeakers: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Defence Minister of Israel, Mr. Ehud Barak”.

A thin spatter of applause. As Barak mounts the podium on the Tel Aviv Town Hall balcony, high above the crowd, two groups of Meretz youths directly in front of him unfurl the great banners prepared for this moment, with “Barak, you have abandoned Rabin’s Way!” (they did get, for one moment, into the direct TV broadcast shown all over the country). Several others have smaller, hand-made signs: “Barak, where are our POWs?” and “Three soldiers in the hands of Hamas and Hizbullah – the Defence Minister does nothing".

“This is a most important occasion, and this crowd gathered here is a most important crowd, gathered to do honour to a great man who has fallen, and I feel it as an honour to be here tonight to address you” says the great amplified voice of Barak. He pauses for effect and meets complete silence. He then goes on to praise Rabin to the heavens. Yitzchak Rabin was a great man, a great leader, a man of exemplary honesty and probity, not like the leaders the country has nowadays. He regarded being a Prime Minister as a mission and trust, not just a workplace. (Olmert had said, less than two months ago, that he regards the PM’s bureau as “the place where I work"). Rabin, Barak goes on to say, did an enormous lot for Israel. He renovated the educational system, he built up a lot of infrastructure, and yes, among other things he was also involved in peace-making. Yigal Amir who murdered him is a real nasty bastard. “I pledge to you tonight, yes I pledge: this foul murderer will never be set free, he will be behind bars to his last day, he will never see the light of day!”. That was the only moment when Barak did get a cheer out of this crowd. 

Then he goes on to other things: Israel is threatened on all sides, by Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas – but all these enemies should beware, for the Israeli armed forces are strong and ready. And finally, Barak notes that a conference is about to take place in Annapolis, and that he definitely does not not regard it as a threat, but on the contrary as a chance, a good chance – though one should not expect too much. (This is about the most positive thing which Barak has uttered on the subject, since the conference idea started to be mooted). After a few more cliches he concludes his speech – again to the sound of silence. Icy, eloquent silence throughout the square.

Throughout Barak’s long and rather disjointed speech we circulate in the crowd, furiously giving out copy after copy of Gush Shalom’s Gaza leaflet. No way of flinging it in the face of the arrogant speaker – a face seen on the giant screens set up all over the square. But at least it could be given out to quite a few interested people in the crowd:

Electricity, the Red Herring

By forbidding the cutting off of electricity, Attorney General Mazuz prevented Israel from arousing the anger of the entire world. But the collective punishment he didn’t stop, the ever tightening siege of the Gaza Strip.

The State of Israel prevents the entry of vital goods – from fuel to baby food and everything in between. No one is allowed in or out – neither students on their way to study nor terminal patients in urgent need of medical care.

Today, eighty percent of the Gazans are under the poverty line – without money to buy what the shops still have.

And the result? The Army’s experts expect that the collective punishment will only increase the shooting of missiles.

Meanwhile, up on the stage Aviv Gefen is singing, like every year:  “I am going to sing for you, my brother/my longing is like doors opening in the night…” He then leaves off, and thousands of young throats continue the song on their own: “Forever, my brother, forever I will remember you/and we will meet again in the end, you know”. It was originally composed as a dirge for a young man killed in a motorcycle accident, half a year before Rabin was assassinated – but hardly anybody remembers this now, it has become a central part of the Rabin Canon.

And then – the most intriguing speaker: Yuval Rabin, the son. He had not really been involved in politics until his father’s death. In the immediate aftermath of the murder he was a central figure in the Dor Shalom (Peace Generation) movement, which rose meteorically – only to disappear just as swiftly and leave no trace. He then went on a decade of self-imposed comfortable exile in the US, and was hardly heard of – until suddenly coming back a few weeks ago, claiming his right as son (and heir?) to deliver the keynote speech in his father’s memorial.

Yuval Rabin starts by giving the crowd a massive dose of Amir-bashing: “Judge Gurfinkel allowed my father’s murderer, and the murderer’s friends and relatives who support him and applaud his crime, to hold this circumcision ceremony and celebration inside the prison on the very anniversary of his murderous crime. Judge Gurfinkel said that he could not deny it because this is a major rite of Judaism and Yigal Amir is a Jew. A Jew? Is he a Jew? Funny, I always thought that the very heart and core of Judaism was the Ten Commandments, which the whole world identifies with us, and that the most important and fundamental of the Ten Commandments was ‘Thou Shalt not kill’. But it seems that Judge Gurfinkel has other criteria and definitions.

But enough of this contemptible killer. The important thing to remember is that he did not act alone. No, he did not act alone. One finger pulled the trigger, but many hands pushed the killer to this square, to commit his deed. The hands of those who incited and shouted ‘traitor!’ and marked out my father for death.

I look at you here, filling this square, and I am deeply moved. I remember that this was nearly the very last sight which my father ever saw, and I am even more deeply moved. The blood which flowed from his body and was irretrievably lost had stained the page which was in his pocket, the words of the Peace Song. You all know it very well, and still I want to repeat it  to you here: “Don’t say ‘a day will come’/ bring the day!/and in every square/cry out for peace!.”

The story is not ended. It is starting again. A Prime Minister makes a first cautious step, and already he is attacked and vilified, already the incitement begins. We know how it is when a prime minister who tries to make peace is abandoned, left alone in the face of inciting mobs, as my father was for many months. It must not happen again! Ehud Olmert, if he fulfils the dream and hope of peace, fully deserves your support".

So, Yuval Rabin did not after all claim the mantle of Yitzchak Rabin for himself, but rather threw it over the shoulders of Ehud Olmert . And this conclusion was greeted with an enormous applause. 

Prime Minister Olmert, who did not attend the memorial in the Rabin Square, made within twenty-four hours an impeccable dovish televised address in which he took up the theme and greedily posed as Rabin heir. It was too good to be true – to be offered such a role and a constituency willing to support him in it, after a full year in which he led Israel with no more than single digit popularity ratings.

There is no doubt that Olmert would like to prolong this situation of being seen as the one charged with "finishing the work of Rabin". Being seen – definitely. But as yet, we don’t see signs of what we did sometimes feel to be the case with Rabin – in spite of all what was wrong at that time, and without forgetting the numerous occasions that we demonstrated against him – but still, there seemed to be in Rabin a genuine determination to move forward on the road towards peace. And that is not exactly what Olmert conveys.

-The writer is affiliated with the Gush Shalom peace bloc in Israel.

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