Between 30,000 and 35,000 people reportedly showed up to Rabin Square on Saturday night in northern Tel Aviv to memorialize former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in the square by a religious, right-wing zealot 18 years ago for his role in negotiating peace with the Palestinians.
Those numbers are a significant improvement from last year, when the turnout hit a record low of an estimated 20,000 — down from 300,000 right after Rabin's murder, to about 100,000 by 2006. But just like last year, the media is bemoaning the slow and torturous death of Rabin's symbolic legacy — that of true democracy and peace in Israel — under an increasingly conservative Israeli government and society.
I can't say I didn't come away with a similar despair from last night's "rally." Because the event is now organized by a coalition of Israeli youth groups, the majority of the crowd appeared to be under 18: Thousands of baby-faces in scout uniforms spent the night gossiping from clique to clique, elbowing their crushes and texting their friends across the square. And theme-wise, direct calls for peace with the Palestinians were largely replaced with a focus on togetherness and democracy within Israel proper. (The coalition of youth groups even changed the longtime slogan of the rally from "Yes to peace, no to violence" to "Remembering the murder, fighting for democracy.") The most emotional moment of the event, tellingly, came at the tail end, when an angelic choir sang the Israeli national anthem to a swaying crowd.
But if you're looking for hope in modern Israel, the annual memorial rally at Rabin Square is still the largest gathering you can find with the highest concentration of open minds. Yonatan Ben Artzi, Rabin's grandson, stole the night this year when he threw a peace dart directly at current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “My grandfather was murdered over peace, and you owe us all peace," said Ben Artzi in Hebrew. "You have a unique opportunity to take advantage of the world situation for peace. It won’t be easy or popular. But it’s your time to close a circle and bring us peace." Documentary footage of Rabin was projected onto a huge white screen that hung over the crowd; if you closed your eyes, it almost sounded like he was live on stage, shouting: "This is the only battle that is a pleasure to wage — the battle for peace."
And between the swarms of scouts, a diverse spectrum of individuals in attendance did make for some enlightening conversation. Below are eight very different characters I found roaming Rabin Square last night, each one of them memorializing the peacenik prime minister's death according to his or her own hopes for modern Israel.
Nir Nader, 48, pictured here with his daughter, is the coordinator for the Tel Aviv branch of the Workers Advice Center, a nonprofit that helps stand up for migrant and minority workers in Israel. He came to the rally with City Without Borders, a fringe political party that's pushing a couple different candidates in the Tel Aviv municipal election this month.
Nader remembered attending the peace rally in this same square on November 4, 1995 — the night of Rabin's assassination. At the time, he said, he was optimistic. "I thought in those days that the agreement that Rabin brought was for peace," said Nader. However, in the years since, the Tel Aviv activist said he came to realize that Rabin's efforts had been a far cry from a workable peace agreement — and the failure of the Left to fight for Rabin's ideas after the murder, to push them while the topic was still hot, showed that there had never been enough momentum for peace in the first place.
Still, said Nader, "It was an opportunity. History is giving us few opportunities. And if you miss them, they are not coming back."
Yam Lerer, 15, pictured far right, is a high-schooler from Ashdod — one of the southern Israeli cities hit most heavily by terrorist rockets in the conflict with Gaza last November. She came to the Rabin memorial rally through Working and Learning Youth, and wore the organization's blue uniform along with a group of her friends.
Lerer said the rally served to "show the country that after Rabin, we never give up on democracy, because [his murder] stopped democracy." When asked what lessons we could learn from Rabin today, she focused more on his death than his life. "Before he was killed, people said that he needed to die and stuff — things that happen not in democracy," she said. "These are things that happen when one man controls everything."
The young activist was hesitant, however, to push Rabin's message of peace. She said there was "no way to compare" the Rabin Administration to the Netanyahu Administration, adding that a two-state solution "is complicated because I don't know what would happen if we have two states. I mean, if we both will have big armies and fight all the time, that's not [good]."
Shilo Fried, 19, lives in Efrat, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank situated between Bethlehem and Hebron. (He argued, however, that all Israeli cities are technically settlements, and that his is no more radical than, say, Netanya or Herzliya.)
Although Fried said that he did not agree with many of Rabin's opinions, he decided to attend the rally last night because the killing of any Israeli prime minister is an "unacceptable" threat to democracy. He said he believes that Israelis must continue to fight through their differences through dialogue, not violence. "We must come here every year and make sure that doesn't happen again," he said in Hebrew.
But that's where his devotion to Rabin's legacy ends. "Rabin was trying to give back areas that are part of Israel by our birthright from the Bible," Fried said in Hebrew, adding that Rabin's efforts made Israel look weak and would have caused more terrorist attacks, had they succeeded. And the young settler said he's equally unhappy about the current negotiations between Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority, because the Palestinians are "no partner" for peace.
"Those areas belong to us, and God doesn't give us the right to give them to someone else," he said.
Iman Abu Kean, 23, pictured left, is an Arab-Israeli who lives on a moshav, or farming community, near Beersheba in southern Israel. She said she started attending the annual Rabin rallies in Tel Aviv when she was part of the Working and Studying Youth group while in school, and has continued to come on her own, as she wants to "make good relations between Jews and Arabs."
Although she was too young when Rabin died to remember him, Kean said she admires the iconic Israeli politician because "he loved the peace, and he wanted to make peace between Jews and Arabs, and equality," she said in broken Hebrew. Under Rabin, she said, peace was a real possibility.
When asked if she thought peace was possible again under Netanyahu, Kean giggled, and her friends joined in. "I want it," she said, "but it's too hard by now."
Ari Egar, 19, pictured right, and Sara Sharpe, 18, pictured left, are North Americans currently working on a kibbutz through a program run by the youth group Dror Israel.
"Rabin is a lead figure for the fight for peace," said Egar, who's from Burbank in L.A. County. And although he believes Netanyahu is a long way from the negotiating point that Rabin had reached when he was murdered —"I feel like the government could be trying a lot harder than it is right now," he said — Egar still has hope that Israel can move toward an era of peace.
"I've met a lot of people in Israel who don't have the same opinion on peace as I do," he said. "But I try to surround myself with people who want to make that change."
Sharpe, a Canadian from British Columbia, said she admired Rabin's "dedication to peace even when there was a lot of opposition against him." And unfortunately, after he was murdered, "I think there was kind of an abandonment of his cause," she said.
Mutasim Ali, 26, is an asylum seeker from Darfur who lives in South Tel Aviv, along with 10s of thousands of other Africans who have migrated to Israel to escape the oppressive regimes in Sudan and Eritrea. He came to the rally under the banner of left-wing political party City Without Borders (just like Nir Nader, above). He's also on the board of directors for the African Refugee Development Center, located inside the notorious Tel Aviv Central Bus Station.
"The reason Rabin was killed was because he was fighting for justice in this country," said Ali. "He wanted a democratic state — where Arabs, Jewish, Ethiopians and all are equal, regardless of their origin."
Ali went on to explain that today, these same principles should apply to the African migrants in South Tel Aviv. "Rabin believed in dignity; he wanted everybody that goes to work to feel respected in this world," said the Darfurian activist. "And in terms of asylum seekers, there is something that needs to be very clear: They came looking for protection. They want to give back to their country. ... There is an opportunity to make some changes here, if we believe in the vision of Rabin."
Yehuda Shein, pictured third from left in the dark tie and top hat, is an ultra-Orthodox activist who founded the Equality Now movement to fight against the discrimination of Haredis by secular Israel. (Shein preferred not to give his age.) He and three fellow Haredis held up a banner that read, "Peace starts within: Haredis and non-religious refuse to be enemies." At one point, a group of energetic young boy scouts ran up behind the Haredi activists and posed for photos with them, grinning and holding up peace signs.
Shein said in Hebrew that he came to the Rabin rally to "try to make sure a situation like that against an Israeli prime minister never happens again."
And one step toward non-violence, he said, is patching up the ever-deepening divide between the religious and non-religious in Israel. "The more tears, and the more anger, between different minorities and groups in Israel," including the Palestinians, Shein said, will only lead to more anti-democratic uses of force like the one against Rabin in 1995. He explained that his organization seeks to "create dialogue and conversation between the people — human-to-human, not through politicians — to make more of a community in Israel."