Yitzhak Rabin's Last Song

The crowds—some 100,000 strong—gathered on that November day in the Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv to provide a public show of support for the agreements that were known as the Oslo Accords. They were a series of agreements aimed at coming to some kind of consensus between Israelis and Palestinians in the hope of breaking up the ceaseless and unrelenting enmity between the two peoples. The primary clause was the creation of a Palestinian Authority, a political entity that would give Palestinians the opportunity to experience something they have never engaged in before: practicing the arts of self-governance. Critical, too, was the requirement that both sides recognize the existence of each other, a duty that was as controversial as the other one, if not more so. It took years to come to this moment and many people did so, and not without some reluctance. And among them was the old soldier-turned-politician who stood before them, ready to speak, and sing.

It was not without irony that Yitzhak Rabin appeared at such a rally; he had spent a lifetime in the uniform of his country, ready to defend it—and defending it—at every turn. Now, here he was, the Prime Minister of his country, trying to defend it through other means, now necessary: through the art of diplomacy. It was not certain that this new approach would work; many times has this avenue been tried, only to end up ditched onto a side street. The ultimate goal—peace—was the long-cherished dream and aspiration and it was longed sought after. Only now, he sought it and was willing to offer it to a people not just his own, if that’s what it took to get it. The goal he was once willing to sacrifice for militarily, he was now willing to risk for politically. All of his efforts were in the hopes of grasping that great prize and never letting it go. So there he was, an old man amongst the young people—his society’s future—seeking them out and reaching out to his compatriots, pleading with them to make that journey with him.

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He was a taciturn man; but it did not mean he was unfeeling. He loved his country, his family, his heritage and his faith—all were things he cherished. He was not a great speaker; but when he spoke, he spoke with authority and with conviction. (His singing was likewise; he put as much sincerity into his singing as to his speaking.) The words he spoke were buttressed by his devotion to his duty and his work. For him that was enough. He knew, too, that the work of peace can be even more difficult than war—he knew that on that day when, on the vast White House lawn and in the presence of the president of the United States and assorted dignitaries, he had to offer his hand to the man who had been his sworn enemy. (The prime minister grudgingly did so, and he knew he had to do it; but he drew the line if it meant he had to embrace him, especially in front of all those television cameras there were the eyes of the entire world. For he had said: “All right. All right. But no kissing.”) That was difficult to do and he knew he would be criticized for it, and severely so, as it turned out. Yet, as the soldier as he had been, he went ahead and did it. And now, here he was, in this square, ready to sing the words of "Shir LaShalom: A Song for Peace."

It was a song that had its origins in the peace movements of the 1960’s; it was an Israeli anthem infused with Anglo-American rock-and-roll, anti-war peace sentiments. It was to be another of the ironies of that day, in that the song of peace that everyone sang was originally composed for the Israeli armed forces, an entity formed to defend the country in war. A song about the dreams of peace written for soldiers, trained for the realities of combat: another irony. It was a song on behalf of the fallen, who plead for the peace they fought for and would not get to live to see. In this song, people are urged to “…lift up your eyes with hope, not through the rifles’ sights; sing a song for love and not for wars…”

At the rally, the activists and the entertainers had their time on the stage, as well as the politicians. When it was his turn to speak, as the leader of his people, he spoke simply, and from the depths of his heart. Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel, warned about the growing threat of right-wing extremism, especially with regard to Israeli society. He said: “I was a military man for twenty-seven years. I fought as long as there was no chance for peace. I believe there is a chance now, a great chance, and we must take advantage of it.”  He had said his last words, the words of a lifetime.

As he descended the steps of the stage and headed toward his governmental car, he offered handshakes and embraces to the people around him. Within moments, what he had just warned against had come to pass. As he reached the car door, the unthinkable happened: shots rang out and before long, the old soldier-turned-politician lay mortally wounded. He was attacked from close range by an extremist who happened to be Jewish. The assailant/assassin shot him in the back. The assailant/assassin was an extremist who did not approve of the man or of his message. More importantly, he did not approve of the purpose of the rally itself. He had fired his shots not only at the man himself but at the very idea of peace. The assailant/assassin wanted to kill the very idea of peace. It was through those shots, that he aimed not only to obliterate the deeds of peace, but the song as well.

When it was all over, and Yitzhak Rabin’s body was prepared for burial on Mount Herzl (Israel’s version of Arlington National Cemetery), there was found in the prime minister’s inside jacket pocket a single piece of paper, stained with his blood. On that paper were the words to "Shir LaShalom: A Song for Peace."  The last verse reads: “Don’t say the day will come, bring on that day—because it is not a dream—and in all the city squares cheer only for peace!”

The Kings of Israel Square is now known as Rabin Square and the spot where he was assassinated on November 4, 1995—20 years ago now—is now the site of a memorial to him and to what happened.

The words of the song he tried to sing are still being sung and it is the anthem of peace in the land where he had shed his blood that very night. Peace is still a long way away and, alas, it seems almost unobtainable for both peoples.

Yitzhak Rabin, soldier and politician, spent his life fighting for peace and working for peace. In the end, on his last day of life, he sang for it. He would not have wanted to leave as his legacy a blood-stained piece of paper that had covered his heart with the words of the song he tried to sing.

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