Bay Area memories of Yitzhak Rabin, warrior of peace, 20 years later

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It was Israel’s JFK moment.

On Nov. 4, 1995, moments after leaving a massive peace rally in Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist. All Israelis who are old enough to remember that day know where they when they heard the news that stunned the world.

 

on the cover: photo/jcc manhattan

Now, 20 years later and with the peace process in tatters, everyone still wonders, “What if?”

A certified war hero who fought in all of Israel’s early conflicts, Rabin became a politician who was short on charisma and long on policy wonkiness. It wasn’t until his second term as prime minister, when he signed the Oslo accords in 1993, that his political courage propelled him to a Nobel Peace Prize and into the pantheon of world leaders.

His murder by Yigal Amir, a religious fanatic, shocked Israel as nothing had before. Many Israelis could not imagine one of their own would commit such an act. Others were less surprised, given the increasingly hateful rhetoric directed at Rabin by far-right extremists opposed to any accommodation with the PLO. At some protest rallies, signs depicted Rabin as a Nazi SS officer.

That their leader could die at the hands of a fellow Jew was unthinkable to Israelis, and it triggered a wave of soul-searching that has yet to fade.

Rabin will be remembered in a series of Bay Area events, including a Nov. 1 memorial at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and symposia on Rabin’s legacy on Nov. 8 at the Magnes in Berkeley and Nov. 9 at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto.

In addition, local congregations, including Emanu-El in San Francisco and Kol Shofar in Tiburon, will host study sessions on the state of Judaism and democracy two decades after Rabin’s death.

Rabin was a well-traveled man, and his career occasionally brought him to the Bay Area. Similarly, local Jewish community leaders often traveled to Israel to meet with him throughout his careers as prime minister, defense minister, Labor Party leader and ambassador.

Here are their memories of Yitzhak Rabin, along with those of some Israelis who will never forget that fateful day in November.

Mark Schickman

In the midst of co-leading state legislators on a 1995 mission to Israel with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, Mark Schickman attended a Nov. 4 peace rally in Tel Aviv with 100,000 others, celebrating what seemed to be a rising tide of goodwill between Israel and the Palestinians.

Onstage was a who’s-who of Israeli entertainers and politicians. The San Francisco attorney watched Rabin give a stirring speech, in which he said, “I believe there is now a chance for peace, a great chance, and we must take advantage of it for those standing here, and for those who are not here.”

Teenagers light candles in Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square on Nov. 4, 1995. photo/israeli tsvika via wikimedia commons

Schickman, standing a ways back on the square, remembers the mood as uplifting and spectacular.

“All of us thought peace was right around the corner,” he said. “The rally was part of a whole attitude that we were moving toward peace. I remember thinking Rabin gave a great speech.”

After the rally, Schickman stopped by a nearby café for a cup of coffee. As he was leaving, a motorcyclist drove by and frantically told him Rabin had been shot.

It couldn’t possibly be true.

But soon, word had spread. The 73-year-old prime minister had been shot twice in the back as he left the stage of the square. Some 40 minutes later, he died at the hospital. The shooter had been arrested.

“I went back to the hotel and stayed up half the night watching TV in shock over this,” Schickman recounted. “The next morning our group was supposed to go to Petra [in Jordan]. We said, ‘How can we go on a day like this?’ Our guide said, ‘We in Israel do not stop at a moment like this. If we stopped, we’d be stopping all the time.”

Schickman and the JCRC mission participants went ahead with their visit to Jordan.

“We’re so used to seeing the tragedy of the Palestinians destroying a moment and not closing the deal,” he added. “To have a Jew do this was one of the most heartbreaking things in the world. You wonder what is God thinking.”

Schickman had met Rabin years earlier in San Francisco. Then between government jobs, he came to the Bay Area to raise money for Tel Aviv University.

The two met again in 1990, shortly before Rabin’s second go-round as prime minister, at a gathering sponsored by the American Jewish Congress. Schickman remembers Rabin as sober, low-key and honest.

“There was very little charisma,” Schickman admitted. “Shimon Peres, who has a similar, slow guttural tone, has fives times as much charisma. If you didn’t know [Rabin], walked in the room and were told the prime minister of Israel was there, you’d have to look around. But he seemed very trustworthy.”

After Rabin’s death, the Oslo agreement slowly but steadily fell apart. Today, with the spate of knife attacks and terror in Israel, the heady days of Rabin may seem like a half-remembered dream. Schickman, however, takes the long view.

“We’re closer today to achieving peace than we have been for most of the last 3,000 years,” he said, “though we’re further away than we were 20 years ago. I’m not happy about the trend. It’s hard to find points of optimism. But give me 15 years of teaching [Palestinian] kids that coexisting with Jews is the thing to do, and we’re in a different world.”

Rabbi Doug Kahn

Doug Kahn, executive director of the JCRC, watched in real time the famous signing of the Oslo accords on the White House lawn and the even more famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, as President Bill Clinton beamed.

Kahn watched the proceedings that bright morning in September 1993 at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel on a large TV. Beside him were gathered other leaders of the Bay Area Jewish community as well as members of the Arab American community, who clutched olive branches.

“It was a moment of great optimism,” Kahn recalled. “The sense of somebody who had been a giant among the defenders of the State of Israel coming to this moment was extraordinarily powerful. A lot was made of the handshake, but the visual of the three leaders is etched in the mind of anyone who saw it.”

Lt.-Gen. Rabin in 1964 photo/wikimedia commons

Like Schickman, Kahn had met Rabin a few times, the first in the early 1980s after the launch of the first Lebanon War. He was part of a San Francisco Friends of Israel delegation that met with Rabin, then serving as defense minister.

He remembers Rabin as an iconic figure.

“He was brilliant,” Kahn said. “Social settings did not seem to be his favorite way to spend time, but he was very willing to meet with the group and share his perspective on Israeli military matters. It certainly left a profound impression.”

His second encounter came shortly before Rabin’s second term as prime minister, which began in 1992. This time the meeting took place in San Rafael when Rabin came to the Bay Area for a discussion about the state of Israeli-American relations.

The Israeli leader by then seemed to some like a fading figure whose political life had come to an end. That didn’t factor into Kahn’s impression of the man.

“I remember thinking we were in the presence of somebody whose life was totally wrapped up in the history of the State of Israel,” he said, “a giant militarily and politically. I was very impressed with his remarkably keen mind and his passion for peace.”

That passion pushed Rabin to take a chance on the Oslo accords, the secretly negotiated peace deal that would open the door to the PLO and Arafat, returning to the region after years of exile.

Kahn was in Israel co-leading a JCRC delegation the day Arafat returned to Gaza in July 1994. Later that night, while walking around Jerusalem, Kahn stumbled on a protest rally in Zion Square. Tens of thousands of Israelis showed up to denounce the changes, with Rabin taking the brunt of it. People were chanting, “Traitor, traitor!”

Two days later, in a meeting with Ariel Sharon, Kahn asked the Likud Party leader about the hate speech he heard at the rally.

“I asked about the possibility that it would spin out of control,” Kahn recalled. “I was not thinking of assassination at the time. [Sharon] found it distasteful but said this was a group of hotheads and not representative of mainstream sentiment. Not to worry. Reading accounts of how that rally was a pivotal moment in planting the seeds of the assassination, it was clear it was something way beyond the usual foment.”

On that fateful day in 1995, Kahn shared the shock and grief of the world. Even today, he says he cannot accept the notion that one man with a gun could extinguish a dream of peace. He prefers to think of it as a dream deferred.

“It was a loss of innocence for Israeli society,” he said. “The notion that the perpetrator could come from the Jewish community is so repulsive that one almost wants to think it’s inconceivable. One could speculate about what would have happened [had Rabin lived], but there were still many hurdles to climb. The important thing is to retain a belief in achieving a just and lasting peace.”

John Rothmann

Yitzhak Rabin had a little nickname for Rothmann: Nixon.

Rothmann, a San Francisco native who has spent much of his life working for Jewish and political causes, first met Rabin in September 1972 at a private home in Los Angeles. Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, was a close friend of Nixon’s and made no secret of his support for the Republican president in his upcoming re-election bid.

As President Bill Clinton looks on, Rabin shakes Yasser Arafat’s hand at the signing of the Oslo accord in September 1993. photo/creative commons

Rothmann, a Democrat, supported candidate George McGovern. “He would say, ‘Nixon!’ ” Rothmann recalled with a laugh, “and I would say, ‘McGovern!’ ”

“[Rabin] reminded me of Nixon in a way,” said Rothmann, who had done a turn as field director for the 37th president. “They were both taciturn, inwardly directed, and though politics was their profession, they were not the garrulous, backslapping people you would expect in politicians.”

Rothmann met Rabin several more times. He shmoozed with him at David’s Deli in San Francisco, and he attended a small San Francisco gathering in support of Israel Bonds. Rabin, at the time between government jobs, was the guest speaker. Rothmann remembers him opposing recognition of the PLO and the creation of a Palestinian state.

“I saw a man who loved Israel,” Rothmann said. “That was the key. He loved his country, he loved Jews, and he wanted Israel to be secure. His flexibility was the key to his success. This was a man who bitterly opposed Yasser Arafat. He called him a murder. Yet when he saw a gleam of hope, he seized it.”

On the Saturday of the assassination, Rothmann and his toddler son were in the park across the street from their Laurel Heights home. When they returned home, the phone started ringing. It was still Shabbat in California, so Rothmann did not answer.

It would not stop ringing.

Eventually he felt compelled to pick up the phone, and that’s how he learned Rabin had been assassinated. Rothmann cried, he said, “not just for Rabin, but for Israel, for all of us who had hope.”

A few days layer, organizers went ahead with a scheduled Kristallnacht memorial in San Francisco. Rothmann attended, and instead of the 50 or so expected, a throng of more than 1,000 showed up, turning the event into a Rabin memorial as well. The community, Rothmann said, needed a place to go and remember.

In the years since his death, Rabin has been lionized, something Rothmann fully understands. But he also takes a historian’s view when assessing the Israeli leader’s career.

“When he died he was already disillusioned with Arafat and the peace process,” Rothmann said. “How he would have coped with it is the great unanswered question.”

Amos Giora

Ever since Rabin’s assassination, scholars and pundits have pondered its impact on history. Many focus on the crushing blow it dealt to the Oslo accords and the prospects for peace.

For Amos Giora, an Israeli-born professor of law, the most important lesson is the context of extremism and incitement, and Israeli society’s willingness to tolerate them.

Amos Giora

“The events leading up to the assassination are tragically classic examples of the limits of free speech,” said Giora, who divides his time between classrooms in Israel and the University of Utah. “What is acceptable speech and unacceptable speech?”

Giora will appear in Berkeley and Palo Alto as part of the Nov. 8-9 symposia, sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica and the JCRC. He will discuss the climate of extremism that precipitated the assassination.

Like Kahn, he well remembers that Jerusalem rally where protesters carried signs with Rabin’s likeness as a Palestinian terrorist. He also remembers who was on the stage: leaders of the right-leaning Likud Party, including future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“They saw the crowd with the placards and signs and people screaming Rabin is a traitor,” he said. “The only one who left the balcony was [former Foreign Minister] David Levy. The rest, including [Netanyahu], stayed. That for me is the epitome of the danger of unlimited speech, and as much as I understand the principles, there are limits.”

For months, Yigal Amir had plotted to kill Rabin, often conferring with his brother on the best time and place. His goal was to kill the Oslo accords along with Rabin, and Giora believes the case could be made that he succeeded.

Twenty years on, he noted, the peace process is not in the best of shape. But he does think Rabin’s legacy is secure.

“What makes him an extraordinary figure is that he makes the transition from being a great war hero to someone for peace,” Giora said.

That transition was indeed striking. During an outbreak of terror, Rabin was famously quoted as urging Israeli soldiers to “break their bones.” In less than five years, he was breaking bread with Arafat.

“Rabin going into the peace process probably kicking and screaming is a reflection of his understanding that occupying another people was untenable. His antipathy toward Arafat was well known, but he realized that for the sake of Israel the only way was to sign the agreement.”

On the night of Nov. 4, 1995, Giora, then serving in the Israeli army, was home watching a soccer game. His wife had planned to attend the big peace rally but stayed home instead. He remembers her shouting at one point, “Oh my God, what’s happening?”

“I remember like it happened yesterday,” he said. “It was an event, for any of us who lived in Israel at the time, beyond traumatic.”

Andy David

Every time he watches a replay of the 1993 handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn sealing the Oslo accords, Andy David can clearly sense the Israeli prime minister’s discomfort.

“That split second of a hesitation when he had to shake Arafat’s hand,” David observed. “You could see he hated that moment. I think his bones were hurting! But [signing] was the greatness of a leader.”

As consul general of the S.F.-based Israeli Consulate, David oversees his nation’s interests for much of the Western United States. He says he would not have gone into the foreign service had it not been for Rabin.

Andy David

Only days before the 1995 assassination, David received his license to practice dentistry. On the night of Nov. 4, he was home in Jerusalem watching television when the news broke.

“It was a shock that Rabin, who was so present in our lives, was suddenly gone,” he remembered. “He was the father figure. He was present on our TV screens almost every evening. There was this void, a feeling that nobody can fill.”

Besides his horror over a fellow Jew committing the crime, David was amazed to see the reaction among Israeli youth. Almost immediately, teens and young adults filled the streets and squares across Israel, lighting candles, singing songs and holding vigils for peace.

The life and death of Rabin, as well as that heartfelt grassroots response, eventually inspired David to change careers.

“As a dentist you help one person at a time,” he said. “I needed to take another path, one that might be more difficult, less clear, more risky, but one that had the potential to scale up the way one helps his country.”

With time and perspective, David has come to see Rabin’s strategic thinking as one of his greatest talents.

For most of Israel’s existence, the Soviet Union, as the chief arms dealer to the neighboring Arab countries, provided counterweight to Israel’s military deterrence. David noted that the collapse of the Soviet Union, along with its military aid to Egypt and Syria, opened the door for peace.

“Before, we had wars with our neighbors and destroyed the armies, but the Soviet Union could replenish them in a month or two. He understood the collapse as a different ballgame. The Russians backing the Arabs was over. So [Israel] could take bigger strategic risks in the form of land for peace. He also said we have a window of about 20 years before the Russians are back.”

Rabin’s prediction proved to be on target. Twenty years later, Russia is in Syria, backing the dictator Bashar Assad and dropping bombs on the rebels.

Visionary that he was, Rabin did not fully appreciate the grave danger far-right extremists posed to him. David draws the analogy of Rabin as a ship’s captain, staring out at the horizon but failing to see the waves crashing against the hull.

A decade later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon learned a lesson from the assassination, according to David, laying the groundwork so the Israeli public would be ready for the wrenching disengagement from Gaza. By the time the action took place in 2005, most Israelis supported it.

Many people rank the Oslo accords as Rabin’s greatest achievement, but given their collapse, David likes to remind people of Rabin’s other triumph: the signing of a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. “People tend to forget that,” he said. “It proved that at the end of the day things can turn around overnight if you have right leadership.”

Added David, “[Rabin] is someone I think of often. Not about ‘what if?’ but simply because I liked him. I appreciated him.”

Rabbi Brian Lurie

Brian Lurie met with Rabin so often, it became a running joke.

When the Israeli leader entered a room and saw Lurie, who headed United Jewish Appeal in the early 1990s, he’d tease, “Brian, what are you doing here again?”

The two had known each other since the 1980s, when Rabin served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. But once Lurie, a former CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, became head of UJA (now part of Jewish Federations of North America) and Rabin was sworn in for his second term as prime minister, the frequency of their meetings increased.

Rabbi Brian Lurie with Yitzhak Rabin in 1992

“He absolutely adored UJA,” recalled Lurie, now president of the New Israel Fund. “When we asked him to speak, he would give us time and energy. We had missions where he sat through meetings, listening to people announce their gifts, and he never left. He was impressed with the generosity of the American Jewish community.”

Though the two had a good relationship, Lurie readily admits Rabin was not a “warm fuzzy” guy. He could talk endlessly about policy; Lurie remembers a convention in Denver when Rabin’s wife, Leah, gave her husband the finger-across-the-throat sign to get him to stop talking.

But Lurie considered the Israeli leader a practical visionary. Rabin championed bringing young Jews to Israel as the best way to cement ties. When Lurie floated an advocacy program that would bring young adults to the Jewish state on a free trip — a precursor to Birthright Israel — Rabin approved, though at first he did not want Israel to kick in any money.

As for peace, the Oslo accords were not Rabin’s idea. Knesset member Yossi Beilin and Peres, then the foreign minister, worked that out in secret, and at first Rabin was not enthused.

“Rabin could easily have stopped it,” Lurie said. “This is where his greatness came forward. He saw the need, he was totally committed to it, and he paid for it with his life.”

Upon hearing the news of the assassination, Lurie immediately flew to Israel to attend Rabin’s funeral. He joined President Clinton, Jordan’s King Hussein, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and many other world leaders who came to say “Shalom, chaver” (Goodbye, friend).

Lurie was crushed by Rabin’s death and said he still hasn’t fully gotten over that terrible day 20 years ago. Lurie is one who asks, “What if?”

“Here’s a case where a man makes history and history doesn’t make the man,” he said. “If he had lived, there’s a good chance we would have had some kind of two-state solution. Not that everything would have been wonderful. It’s too contentious an area.”

“But,” he added, “once he bought into it, the man was a warrior for peace.”

Local events to remember Rabin

The Bay Area will host several events honoring the memory and legacy of Yitzhak Rabin. Details and more information can be found in the calendar on page 25.

• Oct. 31: Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Project, 11:15 a.m. at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto

• Oct. 31: Q&A with Israeli social-justice organization Bina, 10:30 a.m. at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon

• Nov. 1: “Judaism and Democracy,” 10:30 a.m. at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco

• Nov. 1: “Remembering Rabin,” 10 a.m.-6 p.m. at OFJCC in Palo Alto

• Nov. 8: “Life, Death and Legacy,” 1-5 p.m. at the Magnes in Berkeley

• Nov. 9: “Life, Death and Legacy,” 7-9 p.m. at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.