With Us — Always

The communitywide memorial rally held in Los Angeles just days after the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was heart-wrenching, tearful, agonizing and awful.

But it was also good.

The police cordoned off Wilshire Boulevard between La Cienega and San Vicente boulevards in front of the Israeli Consulate, and an impromptu congregation gathered — one that was almost as diverse as L.A. Jewry itself. Some 10,000 people came together to mark not just one man’s death, but to mourn a loss of promise, of hope, of innocence.

I don’t recall a single word that was spoken, but I do remember standing beside people I had never seen before, singing “Hatikvah,” and feeling like such an event could be, might be, the beginning of the end to the internecine madness and hate that led, inexorably, to Rabin’s murder.

That’s what was so good about it.

A decade later, the entire community marked Rabin’s death with…bupkis.

No organization, no school and no synagogue held a special event to recall and reflect.

Ten years ago, the Wilshire Boulevard rally was just one of several gatherings. Some 3,000 people packed Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, 2,000 more attended a ceremony at the Museum of Tolerance and hundreds more poured into Temple Beth Am.

As the Hebrew date of his murder approaches (Nov. 14), there is still no large-scale event scheduled. The welcome exceptions are a memorial service that day being held by UCLA Hillel at Spiegel Auditorium, which holds 300 people (www.uclahillel.org), and a to-be-announced event organized by the Council of Israel Communities.

In New York, a massive community-wide event was held last week. In Philadelphia, the Jewish Federation held a “Tribute to Yitzhak Rabin” at the National Liberty Museum, with Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendel and the consulate general of Israel. There were also communitywide events in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

The purpose of these events is not emotional as much as educational. The raw emotions of Nov. 4, 1995 have healed, but the meaning and lessons of that day still resonate.

In Israel, a 1997 law requires official commemorations of Rabin’s death. Schools work it into their curriculums and ceremonies.

Across Israel, the murder is marked by days of ceremonies, debate and soul-searching. This year, the 10th anniversary will culminate in a state-sponsored graveside memorial, which former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton will attend.

Here, too, such commemorations can serve a similar purpose.

At a time when a generation of Jewish youth grow up surrounded by negative images of Israel, Rabin’s legacy, even unadorned and unvarnished, is powerful and positive:

It Is a Lesson in the Importance of Words.

As Rabin pursued compromise, fanatics in Israel demonized him as a terrorist, an apostate and a Nazi. His more moderate political opponents often did nothing to suppress or denounce the extremists. Hateful words inexorably led to hateful deeds.

“Yitzhak did not die because of the sole lunacy of a lone madman,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis said at VBS’s 1995 memorial. “The assassin breathes poison air…. Yitzhak died because when people burned his effigy, when people dressed him in a Nazi uniform, when people in high places called him ‘traitor’ and ‘murderer,’ too few raised their voice, too few were moved by moral outrage to cry out to everyone. We are fragile human beings, and we are killed by words.”

It Is a Lesson About the Limits of Power.

Rabin, a general who fought and led Israel through some of its most dire battles, realized that ultimately, a nation cannot survive in constant conflict with its neighbors. As our correspondent Leslie Susser wrote last week, Rabin shared with another Israeli leader an understanding that Israel needed strong diplomatic ties, it needed to address realistic issues of demography and democracy, and it needed to achieve a state of non-belligerency, if not peace, with its neighbors. How ironic is it, Susser wrote, that he shared this strategic outlook with his political opponent, current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

It is a Lesson About the Power of Pragmatism.

The miracle of Israel’s existence is its ability to be practical. Rabin would have preferred to hang on to territory; he would have preferred not to shake Arafat’s blood-soaked hand. But he believed the Oslo peace process gave Israel its best chance for long-term security.

“He wasn’t a visionary or a prophet,” Rabin’s longtime aide Eitan Haber told the Los Angeles Times. “He was the most pragmatic and analytical man I ever met in my life.”

A few months after the assassination, I met Rabin’s granddaughter, Noa Ben Artzi-Pelosoff, in the atrium of a Beverly Hills hotel. She had come to Los Angeles to promote her memoir about her grandfather, written after her simple graveside eulogy had captivated the world.

She was 19, on leave from military service. We spoke for a half-hour. She was removed, on book-tour autopilot.

That’s when I decided to ask her whether she saw him.

She put down her third or fourth cigarette and looked at me for the first time.

I told her that someone I loved had also died recently before his time, and I kept seeing him, over and over, wherever I went.

“Not in your dreams, right?” she said.

“No,” I confided. “At the snack stand by the beach, walking on Melrose….”

“Yes,” she said. “Everywhere.” Her eyes welled up: “I just see him, or feel him, around me.”

“It’s not weird, is it?” I said, knowing the answer.

She said it wasn’t strange or frightening, but in a way very comforting, a sign that she would be OK.

Everything may be OK, or not. But it will certainly be better if we keep the memory and lessons of Yitzhak Rabin’s life and death close to us.

Next year on Wilshire Boulevard….