Around 100,000 people gathered for a memorial ceremony in central Tel Aviv Saturday night in the very place that Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister who fought to usher in an era of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, was assassinated 20 years ago. At 8 p.m., about two hours after Shabbat had ended, waves of Israelis—secular, religious, and Arab—flowed into Rabin Square once again to pay their respects to the fallen leader. But at a time of escalated tension between Israelis and Palestinians, memorializing the Israeli peace icon, such as his vision, seemed partially impossible yet wholly appropriate, even necessary.
From a large platform stage, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who said that the day Rabin was murdered was the worst day in his 8 years in office, averred: “Yitzhak Rabin defended this country, but more importantly, he advanced the values that are fundamental to Israel. He stood for freedom, for peace, acceptance of those different from of us, and the preservation of democracy.”
Rabin, a member of Israel’s Labor Party, was the champion of the Israeli left. In the early 1990s, when Rabin was elected prime minister a second time, he led the first liberal coalition in fifteen years, supported by Meretz, a dovish left-wing party, which was widely represented at the rally by people in their lime green t-shirts and by the party’s current leader, Zehava Galon. In 1994, Rabin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for their work on the Oslo Accords, an in-process, multi-stage deal that Clinton helped broker. The architects of the Oslo Accords hoped it would bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians by recognizing the PLO and ceding partial control of cities in Gaza and the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, effectively recognizing the PA as an official governmental body. But, on November 4, 1995, Rabin was shot following a peace rally by Yigal Amir, an ultranationalist Israeli Jew who disapproved of the Accords.
At the 20th anniversary ceremony, Clinton urged Israelis not to forget Rabin’s dream of peace, even amid current violence, before a pre-recorded message from U.S. President Barack Obama was broadcast, followed by a speech from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Noticeably absent were right wing Israeli politicians, such as current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But there were right wing citizens, though not many ultra-Orthodox Jews, at the memorial. Matanya Yedid, a member of the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist movement with which Amir, Rabin’s killer, was aligned, said that he attended the memorial because “it is important to be here.” In Yedid’s mind, Rabin was not without his flaws. “Rabin did a lot for the nation,” he said. “But he also did a lot of bad, he wasn’t a perfect leader.”
Even Rabin’s admirers don’t unequivocally believe he could’ve achieved peace. “If Rabin had been alive, there’s still no certainty there would have been peace even then,” said On Shtein, 69, of Gedera. “We would’ve been closer, but there is no guarantee.”
Given the current political climate and culture of Violence in Israel and the West Bank, many Israelis are tired, doubting that peace will ever happen. With near daily stabbings, and constant clashes between the IDF and Palestinians, it seems like peace, or any semblance of it, is now a lofty, unattainable goal.
Shtein and his wife Bracha, who was born in Israel in 1948, were in Kings of Israel Square (now Rabin Square) on the fateful eve Rabin was shot on November 4, 1995. They hope there will, one day, be another leader in Israel like Rabin who can bring peace. But, with a sigh On said, “I just don’t know.”
Liat Helbetz, 26, in her jeans and plaid shirt, sounded more hopeful. “I think there are possible leaders to continue [Rabin’s] legacy,” the Tel Aviv native said. “Maybe not from this generation, but in our generation, the younger generation, there is real potential. We need new blood.”
But others, like Oleg Nagreev, who immigrated to Israel from Tajikistan in 1992, are less hopeful. “There will be no peace here,” he said over the rumble of patrol helicopters flying above the memorial. “No one has ever loved the Jews, and it is from the Torah that Ishmael will always hate Isaac,” he said, referencing a Biblical commentary on Genesis. “We can try for peace, but it will never work here. It is predestined.”
Amjel Zubidat, 28, an Israeli Arab who traveled an hour with a group of friends to be at the memorial, disagrees. “I hope there can be peace and democracy,” he said as speakers around the square blasted the song “Halevai,” meaning “If only,” by celebrated Israeli artist Boaz Sharabi. “Even when things are hopeless,” said Zubidat, “We have to try.”
Of the thousands of people who flocked to Tel Aviv, many of them were students—teenagers who weren’t alive in the Rabin era. Many of them were only in attendance because their schools and youth groups dragged them out, but even the ones who seemed less interested, who were standing at the outskirts of the crowd munching on shawarma or frozen yogurt, believed that participating in Rabin’s memorial was important.
“We came from Kiryat Gat,” a faraway town in the south, explained Tamar Shaul, 15. “It’s something that is important to me, to be here.” Though Tamar Shaul and her friend Maayan Fried, 16, weren’t alive when Rabin was shot rather near to the exact corner on the outskirt of the square where she and Shaul stood, “If we want to continue this country, like the United States president [Clinton] said, we need to stand up for our ideals, stand up for peace. We have to slowly save our nation or it will be too late.”
Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance religion reporter. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Diplomat, among others. Follow her on Twitter @rdbenaim.