World War II has given Jews more than the usual share of anniversaries to mourn. Other sad days have accumulated since then. To paraphrase a son of mine, if we’re not careful there may not be any days in the calendar year that don’t involve grieving. To prove his point, and difficult as it is to believe, it is the 10th anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination – on 11 Cheshvan in the Hebrew calendar and Nov. 4 in the general calendar.
It was July of 1992 when my family moved from a small village outside of Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and we first encountered the former prime minister.
I had been to look at a rental apartment in the posh suburb of Ramat Aviv in the middle of a bright Middle Eastern day. But apartments were hard to come by and the family’s sleepy teenager was not very obliging. He grudgingly allowed me to inspect the flat with all the shutters closed. It would do, I thought, since it was only going to be for a year or so. I went back home to start packing.
A month later, my family pulled up to the front door, with the moving truck hard on our heels. We hurried to open all the shutters and windows and the kids spread out to choose bedrooms.
“Mom, come see, it’s Rabin and he’s in his underwear – he’s waving at me!” my younger son yelled excitedly. Tramping into the bedroom in question, there, I did in fact see Rabin and he was smiling at all of us. The room that quickly became Jonathan’s was straight across the narrow street from the prime minister’s and so began a three-year relationship that ended with Rabin’s assassination.
We soon discovered that it is impossible to live across the street from the prime minister of Israel without it affecting your life in a multiplicity of ways. My first unpleasant shock occurred when I went downstairs the next morning and had a look at my car – a dusty, bottle-green, ancient thing. Between the kids and the dog, it was generally pretty messy and dirty, but this morning it looked more than usually distressed. The glove compartment was empty and open, its contents strewn on the floor and on top of a heap of detritus haphazardly strewn on the front seat was a small handwritten sign on some sort of official paper that said, “Police security, sorry.” This started happening fairly regularly, and after consulting with the neighbours about such matters, we soon got used to it.
I learned to park my car well out of range of the house for another reason, though. At least once a week there was a bomb threat, a demonstration, an official party at the prime minister’s house or some other reason why my car and those of my neighbours would be stuck behind barricades. “Nope,” we’d be told, “can’t get your car out for another few hours.” OK, kids, I’d sigh resignedly, we’re taking the bus again today.
But to get back to my “relationship” with the Rabins. I could not help but be aware of the movements of my famous neighbours. I watched them and their guests move about the rooms that faced our apartment and tracked them during the times they spent outdoors on their patio. You can imagine how surprised I was to find, soon after we moved in, that they were watching us as well.
I am a tapestry weaver, and after unpacking most of the boxes, I eventually set up my upright loom on the balcony of the apartment. I would fling open the shutters, slide them aside and start warping, then weaving some landscape or other. I soon discovered that both Rabins, either together or separately, would be watching my landscape’s snail-paced progress and that they would even punctuate their approval by a thumb’s up, a nod or even a wave of the hand, to which I would delightedly reply. It didn’t seem strange at the time to be grinning like an idiot across the way at the prime minister or Leah. I would point to the weaving and make a rocking movement of my hand, indicating that I wasn’t totally happy with the progress of the opus. They would indicate approval by nodding their heads quite vigorously and then the parties on both sides of the street would go back to their business.
It was about a year after we moved in that the protesters began to camp out in the park outside my bedroom window. I was startled one evening to hear, loud and clear, the much-amplified voice of Rabin screaming, “We will never come down from Ramat Hagolan…” I rushed over to the window but saw no sign of the man. The noise was coming from loudspeakers parked outside my other window, which overlooked a small park. There I saw a large number of protesters, who appeared to be camped out in the park.
Those protesters stayed in the park with few breaks for nearly two years. The demonstration went from small and friendly to loud, large and increasingly ominous. As the peace talks progressed, the political situation became increasingly tense and the mood outside my window became more and more threatening. “Rabin’s a terrorist,” some shouted. Then, “Rabin’s a traitor,” became the mantra. One heard on the news that certain rabbis had even suggested that Rabin might die before evacuations could take place.
Through all this, the loudspeakers continued to play over and over that one sentence of Rabin’s about never leaving the Golan Heights. Sightings of the couple on their balcony or through the windows became more and more rare. Gone was the informal camaraderie of non-verbal communications across the street, which was by now constantly barricaded and policed. My car was no longer being inspected, at least, but by then I was rarely parking it anywhere near the house.
One day during that period I was sitting in my living room when I watched my front-door handle being turned and in a flash my dog was leaping at the door. I opened it and then the dog chased someone down eight flights of stairs in record time. Following the incident, I duly reported to Rabin’s security team what had happened. It was more than likely a burglary attempt, I thought, but just in case. There had been a few attempts in the last months to break the lock leading to the rooftop in our building and I thought it might be protesters trying to hang a sign.
The guards were polite but not terribly interested. It occurred to me for the first time that all those threats against Rabin might have implications for my family since we were so strategically placed opposite their apartment. Most people told me I was exaggerating, and when on my next walk I talked to the security guards again and was not given much encouragement, I simply went on with my life and ignored the protesters and the loudspeakers as best I could.
Days later, Rabin was assassinated and the street was full of mourners, candles and exalted visitors. Even Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat came to call on Leah. He waved to the mourners as he exited his vehicle, but I was not cheered. Rabin was dead and it seemed quite clear, the peace was dead as well.
A news broadcast in the days following the assassination reported that there had been a plan to shoot Rabin from a neighbouring apartment. That caused a ripple of uneasiness in our family but after all, we reasoned, the worst had already happened and not in our building, but in the centre of Tel Aviv.
Mourners streamed to the house across from ours, the protesters disappeared and you could barely get to the sidewalk as you picked your way among the people, candles, flowers and hand-made signs. The air was cloudy from the smoke of mourning candles and there was a hush over the neighbourhood. The deep voice of Rabin vowing never to leave the Golan Heights was silenced, not by an electrical short but by an assassin’s bullet. The park was cleaned up eventually, and it was then possible to get one’s car out of the parking area with absolutely no interference. The windows opposite mine were no longer filled with friendly neighbours and quirky, non-verbal conversations.
Ten years on, peace proposals are still tabled. And once again, calls of “traitor” and worse have been heard, often, surprisingly, from some of Israel’s most exalted rabbis. And again, these epithets are being focused at our prime minister, whose schedule, we are told, is not so much event-driven as decided by security concerns.
Many things have changed since that autumn leading up to Rabin’s death. Some things have not. Familiar echoes from that time strike a fearful chord in the family that lived across the way. One thing we are hoping, that we have learned from the past and that, above all, Israel’s future will not hold another political assassination, not another anniversary to mourn.
Judie Oron is a freelance writer who recently moved to Toronto.