Israeli Youth React To Yitzhak Rabin
TEL AVIV--I was six years old when JFK was assassinated. I remember walking past the Catholic church on the corner of my street in Metuchen, New Jersey, quiet and frightened. I wasn't sure what a Catholic or a president was, but I kept glancing sideways at the church, certain that this most important man in America was in his coffin. Minutes after the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot down by a right-wing assassin in Tel Aviv last Saturday night, the world media was already comparing his death to Kennedy's. The assassination marked the end of innocence for Israel, pundits declared. On one level, the comparison seems too facile. Israel has "lost its innocence" before, with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the massacre at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in 1988. The Knesset is no Camelot, and Rabin was an elder statesman, a founding father, not a fair-haired young knight in shining armor. But with Rabin's brutal murder, as with Kennedy's, something fundamental has changed in the psyche of an entire nation. As soon as I heard the news at 11:15 Saturday night (Israeli time), I ran to Malkhei Israel Square in central Tel Aviv, the spot where the prime minister was gunned down at the end of an enormous and unexpectedly buoyant peace rally in support of the government. The tragic irony of the killer's timing hit everyone hard. Huge banners strung across the square for the rally, reading "In peace, not in violence," lay in tatters on the ground. The pavement was littered with Xeroxed copies of "The Song for Peace," a popular Hebrew song from the late '60s that Rabin joined the crowd singing minutes before his death. Hundreds of people were wandering aimlessly around the square, crying, holding each other, shaking their heads in stunned silence. Candles they had been holding for the rally were now stuck onto the hard pavement in dozens of brightly burning memorial circles. Around the blazing, smoking candles, crowds of mourners were singing spontaneously-the old Zionist songs of the '40s and '50s, peace songs from the '60s, popular Hebrew prayers. It was a surrealistic scene, something between Woodstock and the Battle of the Somme. Soldiers in uniform, their guns slung across their chests, wept openly. Three leather-clad teens, their hair streaked in punk shades of purple and lime green, sang the national anthem "Hatikva" at the top of their lungs, tears streaming down their faces. The striking thing about Rabin's mourners is how young they are. One million people-one in five Israelis-streamed past the prime minister's coffin as it lay in state outside the Knesset building in Jerusalem for 24 hours before the funeral. Thousands of people continue to gather at Malkhei Israel Square this week, lighting candles and singing songs. The overwhelming majority of them are youths. Malkhei Israel Square looks like a shrine to a martyred rock star. Kids hold candle-lit vigils throughout the night, strumming guitars and pinning hand-written poems to the cement walls. The notes show a deep sense of personal grief, as if written to a beloved grandfather rather than a political leader. "How could you leave us?" they write. "We miss your sweet smile," and "We can't go on without you." The words to John Lennon's "Imagine" and Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" are scrawled on the walls in black magic marker. Flowers are strewn on the ground in front of photos of Rabin, which kids are pasting on every available surface. Yitzhak Rabin is an unlikely subject for teenage adulation. He was a respected, even a legendary political leader, but never charismatic or particularly beloved in his lifetime. When he was tapped to lead the Labor Party electoral list in the June '92 elections, supporters feared he didn't have the personal appeal to carry his party to victory. He was a dour figure, rarely smiling in public. Just hours after the murder, former Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the Saturday night rally was the first time he'd heard Rabin sing. So what is it exactly these kids are mourning? As with JFK, they are certainly mourning much more than one man. They're mourning the loss of a sense of invincibility, of internal cohesiveness, of-yes-innocence. I've spent the past week interviewing young Israelis, and keep hearing the same sentiments: We no longer feel safe, we've lost our sense of security, we feel the rug has been pulled out suddenly from beneath our feet. One 16-year-old girl holding vigil in Malkhei Israel Square told me that whenever there was a terrorist attack or a political crisis, she'd wait for Rabin's voice on the television telling her that everything would be all right. "He'd calm me down, I knew he was always there to protect me," she said. "Now I'm waiting for his voice to tell me that this, too, will be OK. I feel so vulnerable." Israelis are all too familiar with death and terrorist violence. Half a dozen bus bombings and a slew of politically motivated murders of Israeli citizens by wild-eyed boys from Hamas and Islamic Jihad have jolted the nation at regular intervals over the past 18 months. But this killing was different. After each previous terror attack, Israeli Jews united. Divisions between the left and the right, between government supporters and opponents of the peace process, were forgotten as the nation stood together and mourned its dead. Now, one 27-year-old law student shot three bullets into the prime minister's chest and blew apart a 2,000-year-old taboo: Jews don't kill Jews. Not over political or religious differences. The last time it happened, the Second Temple fell. A rabbinic ban was placed on fraternal strife in the first centuries of this millenium, and it's basically held ever since. That's what hit Israelis hardest. The belief that we would always close ranks in a crisis has burst open into an ugly, violent chancre, and it's shaken the nation to its core. Everywhere I go, people are whispering in disbelief, "How could a Jew do this?" True, verbal opposition to the peace process had risen to new levels of vitriol in the past few months. Rabin was regularly heckled wherever he appeared, by right-wing protesters. They called him a traitor, they demanded his resignation, they brandished lurid posters: Rabin wearing the red-checkered Arab "keffiyeh" headdress, Rabin with soldiers' blood on his hands, even Rabin in a Nazi uniform. The opposition parties, led by the Likud, did nothing to stifle these outbursts. But murder? Unthinkable. At his arraignment Monday, Rabin's murderer said he was only taking the next logical step suggested by this verbal violence. "Israelis should be happy," he told the court, feigning surprise at his enormous miscalculation. The Israeli right toned down its opposition immediately after the assassination. Likud leader Bibi Netanyahu immediately announced his party's support for an interim government led by his long-time political rival, Shimon Peres, thus outflanking calls for early elections which would certainly result in a landslide sympathy victory for Labor. Labor leaders, meanwhile, are calling upon Israelis to support the current pace of the peace process in Rabin's honor. Rabin's widow Leah-whose resemblance to the late Jackie O was noted by foreign and Israeli TV commentators covering Monday's funeral-has made emotional appeals to the nation to continue in her late husband's path. The mood on the street is definitely left-leaning. Fence-sitters and even moderate rightists who thought the peace process was moving forward too quickly are moving into the government camp, and the entire right wing has publicly disassociated itself from the religious extremists it used to tolerate. Things have changed in Israel. National unity under fire can no longer be taken for granted. There's no danger of civil war, despite the dire threats of religious extremists in Hebron and Kiryat Arba. But divisions run deeper in our society than most people realized. An early 20th-century Zionist leader once said that when the Jewish state has Jewish policemen and Jewish prostitutes, we'll know we're a nation like all others. Israel has plenty of policemen. And prostitutes. Now we have political assassins. Do we have to be that normal?