Everyone has defining moments from their youth that helped form their political consciousness: for some it was the assassination of JFK, for others it was 9/11. For me, one of the most important events in this process was the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. A freshman in high school, I’d just started learning about the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict, and I had vivid memories of Rabin and Arafat shaking hands two years before.
I remember the knot in my stomach when I read the newspaper headline screaming out news of Rabin’s death. I remember how upset my parents were, and the sinking feeling I had when I heard people talking about what Rabin’s assassination at the hands of an Israeli meant for the peace process. I didn’t know much about the Middle East or the peace process then, but I knew that the region was never going to be the same.
So, knowing how deeply I was affected by Rabin’s death, you can imagine my reaction when I realized that I’d be in Israel for the 10th anniversary of his assassination. I found out that a peace rally was scheduled to take place in Tel Aviv on November 12th (the day of his death as marked on the lunar calendar), and figured that, come hell, high water or hordes of angry West Bank settlers, I was going to attend.
Plenty of people from school were planning to attend, so, despite the fact that we all had Hebrew class at oh-dark-thirty the next morning, we all piled onto a bus bound for Tel Aviv. Once we got there, we started walking to Rabin Square–the site of his assassination–where the rally was being held, with the requisite shwarma stops along the way. The square was packed; apparently some 200,000 people turned out for the rally, which was twice the number that showed up for the 1 year anniversary memorial. Most of my friends and I got separated in the swarming mass of people, but I managed to stick with one of my friends, who just happens to be a Marine. And lemme tell ya, when you’re stuck between eight people and are packed in so tightly that you can’t turn your head without giving someone a mouthful of hair, having a 6’2″ Marine there to blaze a trail through the whole mess is awfully helpful. (Mental note to self: find more friends who are Marines.)
Once the rally began, I had a great view; this wound up being even better than expected, since Amir Peretz, the newly elected head of the Labor Party; Peres, his predecessor; and Bill Clinton (!!!!!) all spoke. I was able to get the gist of the speeches in Hebrew, which was a real “oooh! I really am learning this language!” moment, but mainly it was great to see Peretz and Peres live and in person. Of course, the real kicker was Bill. Aaah Bill, how desperately I miss you! He was visibly choked up as he delivered his speech, which of course got me all choked up too. The Israelis love him, and were more thrilled by his speech in English than they were by their own politicians’ speeches in Hebrew. The piece de resistance, though, came at the end of his speech: at Rabin’s funeral, Clinton’s had ended his eulogy with a simple “shalom, khaver” (translation: goodbye, friend). He did the same thing at the rally, and his voice cracked a bit before he informed his Secret Service agents that, despite their protests against it, he was going to stay up on stage and sing Shir HaShalom (Song of Peace): the song that Rabin had sung during the 1995 peace rally, immediately before he was killed. It made the Secret Service guys pretty angry, but it was moving for the rest of us. Clinton, Peres, Peretz, and the 200,000 people in Kikar Rabin all belted out the song at the tops of our lungs, through 2 encores.
When I was on the way home, I got to thinking about how important–and amazing–it was that I got to follow up on an event that was so critical to my political awareness and interest in the Middle East. Knowing that, 10 years after the fact, I was able to stand in Tel Aviv, a few feet from where one of my political role models was killed, and sing Israeli songs in his memory made me feel like I was coming full circle. I realized that this is one of the unintended, but even more valuable, results of my time here. Although I came to learn Arabic and Hebrew and to see the region for what it really is, in many ways I find that there are pieces of the puzzle that are, much to my surprise, filling themselves in. Experiences like that don’t happen often, but I have a feeling that it won’t be the only one I encounter while I’m here.
I know that my nose for adventure makes me, by most standards, completely insane. I know that, when the you-know-what starts to hit the fan, it’s not actually a bright idea to throw myself in the middle of it.
And yet I still do. And I love it.
Last week, my friends and I were planning to go see a movie. My roommate Amanda and I were supposed to meet them up on campus (a 5-10 minute hike up the hill) so we could all go together. The evening started mundanely enough, but about 20 minutes before we were supposed to leave, I started hearing a lot of sirens, and noticed a few Army helicopters overhead. Seeing as Hadassah Hospital is between the dorms and the main campus, I figured that there was some big car accident or something requiring a few flight for life choppers and an armada of ambulances. Not thinking much of it, we left the dorm complex only to see that the whole street leading up to campus was blocked in both directions, with police cars all over the place. The street was absolute chaos, so I started thinking that maybe there’d been a big accident on the road up to campus. Still, having never seen police presence on this scale for any major accident, I wasn’t convinced of my own theory.
We kept walking up the hill, and as we came up on the hospital, found ourselves in a huge crowd of people. We kept pushing through until we were right outside the hospital entrance, at which point we noticed that we were the only women in a crowd of about 100 young and middle aged Arab men. Many were staring at us with open hostility, and the atmosphere of unabated anger was so strong, it almost felt like the air around us was boiling. So to say the least, we decided to keep walking. Keeping our heads down, we pushed through and made our way up to the university.
As we walked along, we noticed that every car parked on the road had been beaten; most of the windshields were shattered, mirrors were ripped off, and side panels were all kicked in. Almost as soon as we could say the words “mob violence,” a wave of 25 police officers in riot gear ran past us with their M-16’s ready to fire. Screaming at each other, they sprinted up the hill towards campus as more police cars sped up the street with sirens blaring. Realizing that we needed to get inside immediately, Amanda and I started for the coffeeshop adjacent to the university entrance, only to have Israeli police start screaming “do not walk, run, and get inside now” (see, my Hebrew skills are improving–I can now understand orders given by the police). So we sprinted to the coffeeshop, and were the last ones inside before they went on lockdown and didn’t allow anyone out. From the window, we could see wave after wave of police running up towards campus. You could hear shots being fired with only a few seconds between rounds, and stun grenades started going off about 30 feet from the coffeeshop. Amanda and I asked around and tried to find what was going on, but all we could glean was that someone from the neighboring village, Isawiyya, had tried to steal a car, was shot and killed by the Israeli police, and that basically every man in Isawiyya between the ages of 12 and 40 had started rioting in response.
Knowing that we were in the coffeeshop for the duration (motto: never panic, even when being yelled at in Hebrew while stun grenades are detonating…riiiiiiight), I got myself a cup of tea. It was really quite lovely: tea with cookies in the midst of explosions and street riots. I felt awfully refined; I daresay that the Queen would have been proud.
Once things calmed down and we were allowed to leave, we were hit with a wave of tear gas as soon as we walked out of the coffeeshop. And, wouldn’t you know it, “tear gas” is a bit of a misnomer: my eyes were fine, but my entire respiratory system tried to jump out of my body and run away waving a little white flag of surrender. That stuff does a number on the ol’ mucous membranes, so my nose, throat, and lungs felt like they were on fire. It really should be re-named “no, really, this stuff makes you want to hold your breath until you pass out” gas. Perhaps that’ll be my policy recommendation to the Knesset: tear gas is really a misleading term, guys…have you ever considered, in the midst of pulling out of the Gaza strip, battling terrorism, and trying to revive the economy, issuing a policy directive to rename it? Yeah. Didn’t think so.
In any case, as we got closer to the dorms, we ran into some friends who’d been able to monitor the situation on the Web. As it turns out, a young man from Isawiyya had tried to steal a car the previous day. The police, having obtained the warrant for his arrest, had gone into Isawiyya to bring him in, but his family and friends began protesting and causing a scene. The police claimed–and later revealed that they’d lied–that the perpetrator’s uncle had tried to run over a police officer, and that they used lethal force in response. The man who was shot was taken to Hadassah, where he soon died. Upon finding out that he’d died, the men of the village began to move up towards the hospital, and started rioting and looting as they got closer. Not long after, they tried to storm the gate of the hospital, and when that failed, a group broke off and tried to storm the university. Amanda and I had walked right into this about 5 minutes after it had all happened, which explained the angry crowd and the police running towards campus. Needless to say, once we realized how close we’d been to getting caught in the midst of this, we both felt very fortunate that I’d forgotten my chapstick when we first left and had needed to run back in to grab it–which gave us a 3-minute delay that we were lucky to have.
So, in the wake of this experience, I’ve learned that while my love for adventure probably won’t go away anytime soon, I don’t necessarily need to seek it out. It’ll find me at the most random, unexpected times and in ways that I will probably never see coming. However, being the proud owner of a really sick sense of humor, I decided I needed to have a riot momento: somebody’s side view mirror that was lying 50 feet from any car. (I figured that it’d be impossible to tell which car it belonged to, so it’s not like I was running off with anything that would be important for car repairs.) So, with riot memorabilia being proudly displayed on my shelf, I can also say that I got a taste of what I came here to experience: how things really work in the Middle East.