Words: Yaakov “Yankele” Rotblit
Music: Yair Rosenblum
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I am not a person who cries easily, or often. I would not have expected to be writing this literally through tears. But this is not the first time that this song, Shir LaShalom, has caught me unawares. And caused me to shudder.
I never really knew what this song meant until it was too late. I never knew how dangerous it was, how ineffably dark. Of course, I should have known. Though it was the anthem of a peace movement, the words spoke of irrevocable loss. But I’d paid no attention. It was, after all, just an anthem – in a sense, a flag made out of music. A symbol, little more than an effective device for a tribe to rally around, I thought. Until it was too late.
On the Saturday afternoon of November 4, 1995, we’d set off for a peace rally in Tel Aviv, a young family, with hope. We had no idea what to expect. We quietly worried that no one would come, or that the punks who had bullied and attacked supporters of the peace process in recent months would show up again.
But as we walked toward Kings of Israel Square, the air held a thoroughly startling current of joy. It was a young country still, with hope.
The crowd in the square was immense. Far beyond all expectations. Our 12-year-old daughter steered the stroller of our toddler, not yet two, toward a quiet area on a lawn toward the back. There were successive waves of hopefulness and actual joy. There was a vision of a just country, living at peace with Palestinian neighbors freed of occupation. In his ragged voice, the painfully bashful Rabin, buoyed by the crowd, stunned by its size and the tide of its optimism, even joined in the singing of Shir LaShalom at the close of the rally.
A few weeks ago, walking to a bus stop from a pro-democracy demonstration, my wife and I passed that patch of lawn at the back of what is now called Rabin Square. My eyes stung and brimmed over. I could see the outlines of a young family, and what had stilled their hopes. I could almost hear the line that Rabin sang solo, the horribly prophetic few words, as if giving voice to thousands killed in war, the line warning that thoughts and prayers alone, no matter how purely and ardently delivered, will do nothing to bring back the dead.
“HaZaka Sheh’BaTfilot, Otanu Lo Tachzir.”
More than 100,000 people sang their hearts out, sang their souls into that song. Written a quarter century before by a young man who had lost a leg as a soldier in the 1967 war, the song was still a revolution in seven verses. An antiwar song commissioned by the army, first sung by soldiers, for soldiers.
S’u eina’yim betikvah, Lo derech kavanot, Shiru shir la’ahavah, velo lamilchamot.
“Lift up your eyes in hope, not through gunsights. Sing a song not to war, but to love.”
We were a young country still, with hope. And then, in the space of three gunshots, we immediately knew – every one of us – that from that moment on, we were living somewhere else. Somewhere abruptly old and hopeless and oppressive. It felt as though everything we knew and believed in was gone. We could never go back. It was only later that I realized, that this was what Shir LaShalom had been warning about, all along.
No one slept that night. An entire country had been erased. One Jewish person had been enough to put an end to all of it, to the chance for a just future in a Jewish state.
Ish otanu lo yashiv mibor tachtit a’fel, kan lo yailu lo simchat hanizachon velo shirei hallel.
“Nobody will bring us back from this abyss, dark as death – here, neither victory celebrations nor hymns of praise or glory will do any good.”
We had been a young people, with dreams. Not dreams of conquest or suppression. Dreams of a secure home for Jews and Arabs alike. Dreams of genuine democracy.
It feels like a million years ago. My eyes are stinging again. And yet, when I stop for a moment to look inward, I realize that these tears have to do with a long-lost sweetness that I’m just now beginning to feel again.
I would never in a million years have imagined this future, in which my family, now three generations strong, would merit the chance, every single Saturday night, to join hundreds of thousands of young families and young singles, of possies of teens and drumlines of radicals, and older veterans at their first protest ever, to declare in amazed unison that our dreams are not dead.
Al tagidu yom yavo, Haviyu et hayom – ki lo chalom hu. Uvechol hakikarot, ha’iru rak shalom. L’chen rak shiru shir la shalom, al tilchashu t’fila. L’chen rak shiru shir lashalom, B’tze’akah gdolah.
“Don’t just say ‘A day will come’ – make that day happen. Because it’s not a dream. And in every central square of every city, scream out and cheer only for peace. That’s why – just sing, a song for peace, don’t whisper out some prayer. Just sing, a song for peace, in one enormous roar.”
This essay is part of ‘That Song,’ a collection of writings about that one Israeli song that rocked someone’s world. Click here to find more ‘That Song’ essays.
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