A People Dwelling Alone

By Leonard Fein

Published November 07, 2003, issue of November 07, 2003.
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To the 100,000 or more people who gathered November 1 in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to mark the eighth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, there was perhaps some sense of urgency to the occasion. Just the day before, vandals had painted swastikas on the monument that marks the spot where Yigal Amir fired the shots that changed history. At the last rally in Rabin Square I attended, the sea of people stretched as far as the eye could see — and I later learned that there were some 40,000 people there. A hundred thousand? For the few hours of speeches and music, the sense of solidarity and of possibility must have been a thrilling, if very ephemeral, antidote to the three hellish years of the intifada.

Here in the United States, the Rabin years — and specifically, of course, the two years between the signing of the Oslo accords and the assassination — seem almost like a mirage. It is difficult, exceedingly difficult, to recall the hope that was kindled on the South Lawn of the White House on September 13, 1993. But it was not a mirage, not at all.

Perhaps the most memorable words — and there were many — Rabin ever spoke were part of his address to the Knesset when he became prime minister. The gist of them was that Israel is not “a people that dwells alone.” The sense of isolation, of having been abandoned by the world, which is so characteristic of the Jewish people, was, Rabin insisted, neither accurate nor appropriate.

It is not easy, in these days of rising antisemitism, to grab hold of the truth of those words, repeated still more persuasively post-Oslo, in an address to the Knesset in 1994: “We are witnessing a new wind blowing throughout the world regarding its relationship with the State of Israel: the claim that the ‘whole world is against us’ has dissipated in the spirit of peace. The world is not against us. The world is with us.”

But it was no mirage. Forgive me, please, for presenting one piece of evidence for the accuracy of Rabin’s assertion: the list of those who came to his funeral.

The United States was represented by President and Mrs. Clinton, by former presidents Ford and Carter, by five member of the Clinton Cabinet, by the speaker of the House and its minority leader, the majority leader of the Senate, 16 other senators and diverse other dignitaries. From Jordan, King Hussein and Queen Noor and Crown Prince Hassan, as well as the prime minister and the foreign minister; from Egypt, President Mubarak and the foreign minister; the prime minister of Morocco and senior officials of Mauritania, Oman, Qatar and Tunisia; the presidents of Albania, Armenia, Azerbadjan, Bulgaria, Estonia, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Italy, Moldova, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Switzerland and Ukraine; the prime ministers of Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey; twenty foreign ministers (Armenia, Belarus, Britain, Costa Rica, Cote D’Ivoire, Eritria, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Guatemala, Italy, Japan, Khazakhstan, Lithuania, Mexico, Norway, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Ukraine); senior representatives of Argentina, Austria, Brazil, China, Colombia, Congo, Croatia, Cyprus, Ecuador, Fiji, Greece, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Mongolia, Papua, Singapore, South Africa, Swaziland, Thailand and Yugoslavia; Prince Charles of Britain, Queen Beatrix of Netherlands and the secretary general of the United Nations.

(A friend who attended the funeral tells me that when it ended and most of the crowd had left, she approached the freshly covered grave and saw there, on his knees, Senator Ted Kennedy, taking some earth from a Safeway Stores bag and placing it on the grave. She learned later that he’d brought the earth from his brothers’ graves at Arlington National Cemetery.)

Yitzhak Rabin was very far from being a convivial man. Those who came to his funeral — with the powerful exception of President Clinton — came not because they were his friends, but because they respected what he’d set out to do. At that sad and special moment, just eight years ago this week, the slog toward peace seemed truly irreversible. Now, alas, we know better: There is no end to the folly of which people are capable.

In his acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Rabin spoke of “the terrifying silence of the moment before,” the moment just after taking the decision to conduct a military operation, “the moment you grasp that as a result of the decision just made, people might go to their deaths. People from my nation, people from other nations. And they still don’t know it. At that hour, they are still laughing and weeping, still weaving plans and dreaming about love, still musing about planting a garden or building a house — and they have no idea these are their last hours on earth.… In that moment of great tension, just before the finger pulls the trigger, just before the fuse begins to burn, in the terrible quiet of that moment, there is still time to wonder, to wonder alone: Is it really impossible to act? Is there no other choice? No other way?”

There is another choice, another way. But the time to imagine that choice, to choose life, is terrifyingly short. Rabin spoke often of the “window of opportunity” that had suddenly opened and of how it would not last forever. The window is now perceptibly closing. That which so recently seemed imminent now seems appallingly remote. But it is not yet impossible, not quite yet, to act.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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