The first time I met Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his wife Leah, was at a November 12, 1993 reception held at the Jewish Museum, hosted by Israel’s Consul General at New York, Colette Avital which was attended by the then Who’s Who of the Jewish community. Among the guests Yitzhak Perlman and his wife Toby, Simcha Dinitz, and Shoshana Cardin.
Inscribed indelibly in memory is my last encounter with the Prime Minister at the extraordinary October 24, 1995 black tie and military dress award gala honoring Rabin aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid — his then only New York event except for an appearance at the United Nations.
At the Intrepid’s red-carpet Secret Service checkpoint, a gauntlet of saluting Coast Guard officers greeted arrivals as the US Coast Guard Idlers sang a capella “Hava Nagila” and “Shalom Chaverim.” Helicopters were landing on the carrier discharging celebrities and “The Commandant’s Own” [United States Marine Drum & Bugle Corps] played an adrenalin-pumping “Hatikvah”. Entering the hangar-transformed into-ballroom, the Rabins — filing past a bayonet-topped rifle-bearing Marine Corps honor guard—had the 800 guests gaping at what turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime historical moment.
During my pre-dinner private reception chat with the Rabins, I mentioned that my father (Matvey Bernsztein) had shared a prison cell in 1940 in Lukishki Prison in Vilno with Menachem Begin…and that post-war, Begin and my father, both survivors of Stalin’s gulag, resumed their friendship in 1955 in Buenos Aires. Rabin nodded, paused and smiled, then continued shaking hands with the awestruck receiving line guests including then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York State Governor George Pataki and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman.
As he presented the 1995 Intrepid Freedom Award to P.M. Rabin, Governor Pataki said: ”We are behind Israel in protecting its people” adding: “I taught my children about the Holocaust.” Accepting the award Rabin stated: “We will continue to work together to fight tyranny, racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance wherever it exists… A nation that knows how to preserve its past has a great future.”
In his address Rabin reflected on his state of mind during the time he had been a military commander. “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…. Which of them will die first?” Reflecting on “the silence of the moment after the terrifying silence of the moment before” [when issuing orders] “for hundreds of military operations,” he almost whispered: “ I shall always remember the moment …just after making the decision to mount an action… The hush as senior officers slowly rise from their seats… the sight of their receding backs… the sound of the closing door and then — the silence in which I remain alone. That is the moment you grasp that as a result the decision [you] just made, people will be going to their deaths… and they still don’t know it.”
“This is the greatest evening the Intrepid ever had,” declared Intrepid rescuer Zachary Fisher, the “angel” (who saved the ship from the scrapheap) and founder of the Intrepid Sea & Air Museum. “Once you leave, Prime Minister,” said Fisher [a Forward fan with whom I often spoke in Yiddish) “ there will be no other night like this… this is it!”
Eleven days later, on November 4th. Rabin was assassinated.