I remember exactly where I was on the evening of Saturday November 4, 1995, when I heard that Yitzhak Rabin had been shot.
My family had spent a lovely Shabbat away with a group of friends at a field school in northern Israel. My children were then aged 12, 9 and 7. As soon as we arrived home after the long drive back on Saturday night, they went to their rooms to get things ready for school the next day. My husband popped into our neighbor’s house to return a guidebook we’d borrowed for the trip.
A few minutes later he came rushing back through the front door and shouted out: “Yitzhak Rabin’s been shot. Quickly, turn on the TV.”
It was announced soon after that Rabin was dead. We spent the rest of the night watching the breaking news, numb with disbelief.
When we came on aliyah in August 1994 it seemed a really hopeful time in Israel. A spate of terror attacks soon burst that optimistic bubble. Now our own Prime Minister had been assassinated – not by a Palestinian terrorist, but by a young Israeli man.
In fact, the signs of a looming catastrophe were there just a few weeks earlier, when we’d gone to a large social gathering of English-speaking immigrants called “The Event”. The guest of honour was Yitzhak Rabin.
By mid-1995, it had already become commonplace to hear about heckling and protesting when Rabin appeared in public. Before he came out to speak at “The Event”, there was the usual Israeli-style singing and dancing. Sure enough, as soon as he appeared the atmosphere changed completely. There was shouting and jeering. He was called a murderer and traitor and told to go home.
I was standing right at the front of the crowd with my children. They began to cry, frightened by the hatred so openly on display. I caught Rabin’s eye and gave him a thumbs-up sign and clapped. He hesitated a moment, then he waved at me.
He didn’t manage to speak to the crowd properly. After he left, a group of Americans confronted me, admonishing me because I had clapped and not jeered.
“He has blood on his hands!” they shouted.
“This is a family event, not a political rally, and he’s the Prime Minister. I was just showing him some respect,” I said.
I was shocked by their aggression and for a moment I thought they might actually attack me physically.
“Will someone try to kill Mr. Rabin?” my 12-year-old daughter asked when things had calmed down a little. I tried to reassure her that while his life might be in danger, the threat was not from here in Israel.
The public curses, and the posters of Yitzhak Rabin in Nazi uniform – in short, the blatant incitement – did not escape even my own young children. After the assassination, my seven-year-old son asked whether all the people who had jeered at “The Event” would be pleased. It was a shocking yet understandable question, given the sheer venom he had witnessed just a few weeks earlier.
To be honest, at the time I preferred not to discuss with certain people their thoughts about the assassination, in case they expressed their ambivalence – or worse. But the main reaction was one of total horror. An unusual quietness seemed to descend over the whole country. People even seemed to be driving with less hooting and more courtesy, as though the shock of the murder had made them think about how to behave less aggressively in every area of life
It didn’t last, of course. The problem is that public discourse in Israel is always characterized by aggression and shouting. Politicians are among the worst offenders, as evidenced by what passes for debates in the Knesset and in panel discussions on TV.
We can’t know for certain how history would have panned out if Rabin had not been murdered, but he probably would have lost the next election because of the terrorism that followed the Oslo Accords. Indeed, his fellow Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres was defeated – by Binyamin Netanyahu - in the election that was held a few months later, amidst a horrific wave of terror attacks..
The threat the country faces today is an existential one, Prime Minister Netanyahu has informed us. With the stakes so high, who knows how low the level of rhetoric may descend in the current election campaign, and what the result may be?
While it is right to warn the world about genocidal incitement against Israel, we need to remember and learn from the incitement right here at home, that.led to that dark day in November, seventeen years ago.