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.