The renovation being done around Rabin Square took me completely by surprise. Through the taxi window, I could see deep ditches on either side of the road and dozens of construction workers dashing around. “Isn’t it great, what they’re doing here?” asked the driver with the Marty Feldman eyes. “On that side,” he said, pointing to the square, “there’s going to be a safari. On the sidewalk in front of it they’re going to have barbecue grills, and in the middle, where the traffic island is now, there’ll be a long counter with rifles on it. A person can go to the counter, rent a rifle, and shoot whatever animal he wants in the square. The minute he hits it, bam! The people in City Hall bring the carcass straight to his grill. Is that mayor a genius or what? Instead of some dingy, depressing square, you’ll have nature, outdoor sport, and even food hot off the barbecue. I’ll eat my hat if that start-up doesn’t bring in a million tourists a year.”
I don’t know where my wall-eyed taxi driver got that plan about a safari in Rabin Square. The city, in any case, issued a sweeping denial. What it didn’t deny, however, was that at the end of that tsunami of renovation, Rabin Square, which has known some of the brightest and darkest moments in the history of Israeli democracy, will be wiped off the face of the earth, replaced by a huge, high-rise parking lot.
Almost 25 years ago, when I was a teenager and that “dingy, depressing square” was still called Malchei Israel Square, 400,000 people, about 10 percent of the population of the country at the time, gathered there to demand the dismissal of the then-Minister of Defense, Ariel Sharon, architect of the bloody Lebanese war. That demonstration reminded anyone who had managed to forget in those difficult days that the government of a democratic country represents the will of its citizens, and when those citizens have had their fill of war and killing, they can gather in the city square, protest, and affect the fate of their country.
In the 25 years that have passed since those 400,000 people protested, the Square has known many other demonstrations. Tens of thousands of people have gathered there to support or attack every historical decision made in our country, from the Oslo Accords, to the Gaza Strip disengagement, to the recent Lebanese War. The demonstrations have remained large, but anyone keeping track of the numbers can see that they have been diminishing. The growing hopelessness, the heart-hardening cynicism, and the absence of an alternate leadership to guide us through these dismal times has kept people at home.
Anyone looking for the turning point, the moment when the Square began to lose its power, will find it on that dark November night 11 years ago when, during one of the largest demonstrations ever held there, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing activist who showed us all how one man, armed with malicious intentions and a gun, could affect history more than hundreds of thousands of peace seekers with paper placards and naïve slogans. Since that assassination, the Peace Guard, a group that sings songs and has vowed to take up Rabin’s legacy, meets at the Square every Friday. The last time I visited the Square, almost a week after I found out about the plan to demolish it, I was surprised to see how few people had come to the weekly event that had drawn thousands in the past. The ones who did come, most of them elderly, crowded around the monument to Rabin’s memory and sang peace songs. The iron barricades the police and the building contractors had set up encircled them, making them look like endangered animals in a cage. Thousands of young people walked past them on the dusty sidewalk, talking into their shiny new cell phones and carrying shopping bags from the leading fashion shops. Not a single one slowed down or even glanced at the Peace Guards.
The city said that tearing down Rabin Square was an attempt “to solve the unbearable parking problem and would be of great benefit to the area’s residents.” When the project is finished, those residents who want to gather for protest rallies will no longer have a place to do it in. Parking, on the other hand, will be abundantly available. That Square, which stirs so much emotion, the site of so many of the ideological conflicts Israel has known throughout its history, will soon be a site for SUVs and luxury cars. And the Peace Guard, whose numbers are diminishing anyway, will be forced to sing their songs of hope for a better future deep inside the bowels of a dark, concrete parking lot. But their resonating song might still find its way through the lot’s ventilation ducts to the ears of our incompetent leaders who, now that they’ve finally managed to solve the country’s worst problem—parking—will have the time to deal with such marginal issues as achieving real peace in the area, helping the needy, and fighting public corruption. And if these gloomy issues don’t catch their interest, they can always reconsider the safari option.