On Nov. 4, 1995, Yitzhak Rabin, a great leader, a fierce advocate of peace, the prime minister of Israel, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was assassinated. Israel lost a courageous man who possessed great values, and the world lost a man who had fought vigorously for peace. Twenty years later, we yearn for leaders around the world who have his vision, his understanding, his honesty and his willingness to transform himself into a champion of peace.
This spring, when I stood at Rabin Square, the place where he was assassinated, I thought a lot about his life and his last night on earth. He had just addressed a major peace rally in the square. The rally concluded with the singing of “Shir LaShalom” (“Song for Peace”), a most beautiful and compelling song about the yearning for peace. After Rabin was assassinated they found in his shirt pocket a blood-stained sheet of paper with the lyrics to the song, which included the words: “Lift your eyes with hope, not through the rifles’ sights, sing a song for love and not for war. Don’t say the day will come, bring on that day — because it is not a dream — and in all the cities’ squares, cheer only for Peace!”
Rabin was born in 1922 in Jerusalem. In 1948, he fought for Israeli’s independence. He devoted nearly three decades of his life to the military, to protecting Israel’s right to exist. In 1967, when Israel was attacked by all its neighbors, he oversaw the dramatic victory that few expected due to Israel being so outnumbered and having to fight on so many fronts. As his life progressed, he transformed himself from being a military leader into being a diplomat and political leader. Like any leader or any mortal human being, he had shortcomings and he made mistakes. However, he knew that the real meaning in life is in transcending our own challenges and needs and keeping sight of a larger vision, which for him was an Israel at peace with her neighbors.
He knew that Israel needed safe and secure borders, and that Israel, like any sovereign nation, has the right to exist. As he evolved as prime minister, he realized that the only way for that security was for a lasting peace agreement. He realized that making peace was more difficult than fighting a war. He truly understood the peace process as reflected in his words, “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.”
Standing at Rabin Square, I thought back to that unimaginable moment when Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman of the PLO Yasser Arafat stood with President Clinton at the White House and shook hands. No one could have ever dreamed that these two enemies could ever bring themselves to that moment. However, their willingness to agree to the Oslo Accords and to make peace is what led them to win together the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.
After the historic handshake with Yasser Arafat, Rabin said, on behalf of the Israeli people: “We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today, in a loud and a clear voice, enough of blood and tears … enough!”
Now 20 years later, it is so profoundly sad to see all that has happened since the early 1990s when peace flourished in the Mideast. It is agonizing to think of all the innocent Israeli and Palestinian lives that have been lost in this nightmare that continues. How heartbreaking it is to see the recent killings of Israelis on their way to work, school or home.
Peace, right now, seems impossible. However, it seemed impossible when President Sadat of Egypt came to Israel in 1977 or when Rabin and Arafat started to work together or when Prime Minister Peres offered great concessions to try to make peace.
Rabin’s legacy is one that reminds us that one must have the courage to find a way to live in peace. It may be an agonizing and painful process, but it is the only way. That day will come when the Palestinians and all of Israel’s neighbors recognize Israel’s right to exist and all talk of destroying Israel is ended. No other sovereign nation in the world would settle for less than the right of recognition and security. It is my hope that day will then lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian State that will live peacefully side by side with Israel.
Do I believe in the impossible? Yes. Am I an idealist and a pragmatist? Yes. Do we need more courageous and visionary leaders, all around this world, who are willing to be champions of peace? Yes.
In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Rabin challenges us all: “We will pursue the course of peace with determination and fortitude. We will not let up. We will not give in. Peace will triumph over all our enemies, because the alternative is grim for us all. And we will prevail.”
Rabin left us an incredible legacy of pursuing peace, of never giving up the journey to find a way for peace to prevail. I pray that the Palestinians and Israelis can find that peace as well as everyone else around the world in deadly conflict. Perhaps our legacy can be one of peace. That is for us to determine.
Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa and an adjunct professor of Religious Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco. Congregation Beth Shalom will host a public commemoration of Rabin’s Life and Legacy on Tuesday, Nov. 3, from 7 to 8:45 p.m. He wrote this for the weekly Thursday Pulpit series in the St. Helena Star and Weekly Calistogan.