From the summer of 1995 until the summer of 1996, I lived in the moshav, Nes Ammim, a cooperative agricultural settlement located in the Asher Valley a few kilometers west of the city of Akko in the State of Israel. Nes Ammim, the name taken from Isaiah 11:10 meaning a “Banner to the Nations,” was established as a center for Jewish and Christian dialogue soon after World War II. Every year young volunteers from Western European countries come to pick avocados in the moshav’s orchards, cut roses in its expansive greenhouses, and manage its guesthouse on the beautifully landscaped grounds. They worked during the day, and they gathered at night to attend lectures and discuss Jewish theology, the history of anti-Semitism, and current affairs.
I lived in Nes Ammim with my wife Judy and son Jeremy, who was eleven at the time. On a sabbatical leave from teaching at Western Theological Seminary, I had come to improve my command of biblical Hebrew by taking intensive language classes in modern Hebrew, to experience the cooperative life in the moshavim and kibbutzim that were so pivotal in the formation of the State of Israel, and to understand better the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. I worked in greenhouse “E” cutting red roses with a crew that included volunteers from France and Germany and immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia.
My year in Nes Ammim was the most intense and formative year of my life. I had always wanted to live in an intentional community where everyone shared resources and worked for the good of the whole, and I got to experience firsthand the strengths and weaknesses of such a community. I came to understand more deeply the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and to see how difficult it would be for them to negotiate, let alone make peace. But the event that would define my year was the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin as he left a peace rally on November 4, 1995. What follows is my account of his assassination based on my personal experience, reporting in the Jerusalem Post, and articles in the Jerusalem Report.
The months leading up to the peace rally at Kirkar Malkhei Israel (Square of Israel’s Kings) in Tel Aviv were difficult ones for Yitzhak Rabin. He had led the Labor party to victory in the June 1992 elections and the nation of Israel toward phased negotiations with the Palestinians. The centerpiece of these negotiations was the principle “land for peace.” In exchange for a Palestinian rejection of violence and recognition of the State of Israel, the government of Rabin agreed to the creation of the “Palestinian Authority,” that is, limited sovereignty in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank.
The resistance to negotiations was intense. Some Israelis feared that Palestinians could not be trusted. Other Israelis believed the land itself was a non-negotiable gift of God, first promised to Abraham and miraculously restored in the 1967 war. In the hearts of many Israelis, fear of the Arab and anxiety over the land hardened into hatred for Rabin. Aharon Domb, spokesman at the time for the Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District, warned Rabin in a letter written on May 13, 1994, that people were despairing of his policies and plotting violence. He wrote:
“To my sorrow, I have been hearing recently that the one solution…is assassination…. We must do all we can to prevent this. We, for our part, are doing all we can, but I see it as proper to warn you, and to say that if you continue with your sharp statements you will bear ‘indirect responsibility’ for such evil action on the part of an individual as an outcome of your policy.”
On September 13, 1995, Moshe Feiglin, leader of Zo Artzeinu (This is our Land) said that his group planned to hold the government responsible “for its crime against security and Judaism.” On October 5, 1995, a huge crowd gathered in Jerusalem to demonstrate against the Oslo II peace accord, and some of them cried out, “Rabin is a traitor.” On October 13, 1995, a man named Itamar Gen-Gvir, a member of the outlawed Kach party, vandalized Rabin’s Cadillac. When Gen-Gvir was arrested, he threatened Rabin, saying, “The same way we got to the hood ornament, we can get to him.”
The months leading up to the peace rally in Tel Aviv were indeed difficult ones for Rabin. When he arrived at the rally, his spirits were lifted. He was impressed by the more than one hundred thousand people in attendance. He was touched by their affection and encouraged by the presence of so many young people. Rabin addressed the gathering with words that would be recalled with pain and bitter irony within a few short hours:
“I have always believed most of the nation wants peace and is prepared to take risks for peace. And you here, who have come to take a stand for peace, as well as many others who are not here, are proof that the nation truly wants peace and rejects violence. Violence is undermining the foundations of Israeli democracy. It must be contained. It is not the way of the State of Israel. Democracy is our way…. This rally must send a message to the Israeli public, to the Jews of the world, to the multitudes in the Arab lands, and in the world at large, that the nation of Israel wants peace, supports peace—and for this, I thank you.”
Miri Aloni, a popular Israeli singer, brought the evening to a close by leading the assembled throng in Shir L’Shalom (Song of Peace). This song, with its confident beat and optimistic lyrics, had become the anthem of the peace movement. One hundred thousand voices united in song achieved a measure of peace and harmony at least for a moment. Rabin folded the lyric sheet, put it in his jacket pocket, and sang quietly from memory. After the singing was over, first Shimon Peres, a longtime leader in the Labor Party and president of the State of Israel, and then Rabin made their way to their waiting limousines.
Lurking in the parking lot was someone not caught up in the words of Shir L’Shalom but in the words of those calling for Rabin’s assassination. Yigal Amir was a twenty-seven-year-old law student at Bar-Ilan University and former soldier in the Golani, a brigade defending the Golan Heights. He was connected to a small, virulently anti-Arab group called Eyal and had tried twice before to get close enough to Rabin to murder him. In part encouraged by the words of his rabbis, he had come to Tel Aviv this night with a kippah on his head and a 9-mm Baretta beneath his coat. He chatted easily with the security guards who assumed that any threat to Rabin would come from an Arab and not a Jew. Amir melted into the crowd and waited for the rally to end. He let Shimon Peres pass, calculating that Rabin would be equally vulnerable. With his wife, Leah, by his side, Rabin made his way past Amir and toward a waiting limousine. Unchallenged, Amir approached and fired at point blank range. Two bullets struck Rabin in the back, and he slumped to the pavement. His bodyguards first shielded him and then lifted him into the automobile, which rushed to the nearby Ichilov Hospital. Rabin mumbled to his driver, “It hurts, but don’t worry.” They were to be his last words, and they offered a summary of his life. He had felt the hurt of war and the hurt of political life. Yet he had always tried to calm his soldiers and citizens with an abiding hope in peace. Suffering was not in vain. “It hurts, but don’t worry.”
Rabin’s automobile arrived in minutes at the hospital, but doctors could not revive him. In stripping off his clothes, they discovered the copy of Shir L’Shalom folded in his jacket pocket, now bullet-pierced and blood-soaked. They handed it to Eitan Haber, Rabin’s close aid and speechwriter, on whom the responsibility fell to announce Rabin’s death to the world. He quieted the unruly throng that had assembled at the entrance of the hospital and at 11:14pm, November 4, 1995, made this statement: “With horror, grave sorrow, and deep grief, the government of Israel announces the death of Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, murdered by an assassin.”
The Voice of Rabin’s Blood
Rabin’s funeral was held the next day on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. The whole world watched, because the hope of peace for the Middle East is intimately connected to the hope of peace for the world. These hopes had been embodied in this courageous man, and they now quite possibly had died with him. The nations of the world seemed less secure without him, and they mourned his passing. Rabin achieved briefly in death what he was not able to achieve in life: Arab and Jew united in grief over the senseless shedding of blood—although Yassar Arafat, leader of the Palestinians, paid his respects to Leah Rabin and family privately realizing his attendance at the funeral in Jerusalem would have been too volatile.
One after another, the leaders of the world paid their last respects, as did friends and family. Some eulogies were perfunctory, some heartfelt. Then Eitan Haber came to the lectern. He produced the blood soaked text of Shir L’Shalom, now carefully unfolded and sealed in plastic, and waved it in front of the mourners. He said:
“Your blood, your blood Yitzhak, covers the printed words. This is the blood which ran out of your body in the final moment of your life and onto the paper between the lines and the words. From this red page, from the blood which cries out to all of you, I would now like to read these words.”
He proceeded to read the lyrics of the Shir L’Shalom, whose stanzas call on everyone to turn from violence and pursue peace with all their strength, even when it seems hopeless. The chorus begins with the imperative: “Sing a song of peace.” After the funeral, the blood-soaked text of Shir L’Shalom became an object of reverence and was displayed on Mount Herzl until the family requested that it be removed.
The Voice of Abel’s Blood
I will never forget sitting with my fellow rose cutters and watching Eitan Haber on the television waving the blood-soaked text of Shir L’Shalom in front of the mourners in Jerusalem. The image is seared in my memory, and the words still ring in my ears. Rabin’s blood was crying out to us. In his life he had called for the end of violence, the seemingly endless, bloody wars that he knew so well as a general, and now in his death his blood was doing the same. His life was in his blood, and his blood was speaking his final words and telling us all to “Shiru Shir L’Shalom” (sing a song of peace).
Watching and listening to Eitan Haber, I felt the past and the present collapsing into each other. We were reliving the drama of Cain and Abel. Yigal Amir had murdered Yitshak Rabin, his brother in the faith, and Rabin’s blood was crying out to us from the text of Shir L’Shalom. One drama was interpreting the other. Rabin’s blood was crying out for peace and reconciliation, and I began wondering what the blood of Abel might have been crying. What did the blood of Abel want? What was it calling on the Lord to do?
I had always assumed that the blood of Abel was calling for vengeance: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, blood for blood, but now I was not so sure. The Lord punished Cain, driving him from his home and from his presence. But the Lord was also gracious. He put a mark on Cain to protect him in his drifting, a mark that identified him as belonging to the Lord in spite of his banishment. I now wonder whether the blood of Abel was calling on the Lord to be gracious to his brother; I now wonder whether Abel bore the fruit of the Spirit in his blood: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5: 22-23). I now contemplate the possibility that in the end Abel was what his brother surely was not. In the end Abel was his brother’s keeper.