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Israelis, World Leaders Remember Rabin, As Battle Rages over Legacy

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Religious and secular high school students struggle against the wind to tie black balloons together in the form of a giant No. 10 on the city square where Yitzhak Rabin was felled by a Jewish assassin’s bullets 10 years ago. Some of the fragile black balloons pop, prompting nervous laughter. Every pop is an eerie reminder of the shots that rang out just a few feet away, and the fear that Israel one day could see another political assassination.

“You see that 10 years have passed and not much has changed,” said Oded Moriah, 16, who attends a nearby religious high school. He had come to the square as part of a dialogue event sponsored by Gesher, an organization that promotes tolerance in Israeli society.

“There are the same conflicts between secular and religious and right and left and the same threat against the life of the prime minister,” he said. “The faces have changed, but not the problems.”

Like Israelis across the country, the students struggle against the winds of time and the fragility of memory to mark Rabin’s assassination and commemorate his life. But a decade after Rabin’s death, the country still searches for a way — or even an agreed-upon date — to mark the day that changed the Israeli landscape forever.

Rabin was slain Nov. 4, 1995, but the government and schools formally marked the day on Monday, the 12th of Cheshvan, the anniversary of his death according to the Hebrew calendar.

“Israel is still searching how to commemorate. We have not found it yet and probably never will. There is something in this event that defies any conventional type of commemoration,” said Michael Feige, a sociologist at Ben Gurion University who is an expert on collective memory. “I think that deep down, this is really a great trauma and watershed in Israeli history, and I’m not sure we know exactly what it means.”

At the state ceremony at Rabin’s grave Monday, his granddaughter Noa Ben-Artzi put a personal face to the grief her very public family is experiencing.

“Around the national table of mourning there was no seat for us because, simply, nothing like this ever happened before,” she said.

Meanwhile, many in Israel’s national religious camp also feel alienated, claiming the Rabin commemorations and legacy have been politicized by the left.

In the assassination’s aftermath, many on the left accused the entire national religious camp — as well as secular right-wing politicians — of creating an atmosphere of incitement that emboldened the assassin, a law student and Orthodox Jew named Yigal Amir.

Though a law was passed mandating that all Israeli public schools would commemorate Rabin on Monday, some yeshivas and religious schools refused to do so.

“Why, 10 years later, is there still such a rift in our nation?” President Moshe Katsav asked at the graveside ceremony Monday. “Why doesn’t the entire nation mourn and remember Rabin, and yes, also his legacy? No one is allowed to take himself out of the mourners’ camp. No reason can harm this national need to remember Rabin.”

In a special parliamentary session held in Rabin’s memory, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a Likud member, voiced the frustrations of the right when he charged that some politicians were using Rabin’s memory for political purposes.

“Ten years after Rabin’s assassination, some politicians are trying to create a bargain deal of remembrance and ideology. Is Rabin’s commemoration winning hearts as a myth in the service of a certain ideology?” Rivlin asked.

On Saturday night, some 200,000 people filled the area around Rabin Square in Tel Aviv at a rally in the slain prime minister’s memory. Large screens replayed scenes from the peace rally just before his assassination, including Rabin’s final speech, when he told the jubilant crowd, “Peace entails difficulties, even pain. Israel knows no path devoid of pain. But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war.”

This Saturday, there again were flags and blue-and-white balloons and slogans promoting peace. The same bittersweet songs were played and the speakers — including former President Clinton — called on the younger generation to follow what they described as Rabin’s legacy to “wage peace.”

Clinton, who ended his speech Monday with the “Shalom chaver” send-off that became a slogan for remembrance in Israel, spoke of his personal pain at the loss of Rabin, whom he portrayed as something of a father figure and teacher.

“If he were here, he would say, ‘There is enough of all this missing. If you really think I lived a good life, if you think I made a noble sacrifice in death, then for goodness sake take up my work and see it through to the end,’ ” Clinton said.

Listening to the speeches was Lior Estline, 38, who was at the square 10 years ago and has come back for every anniversary commemoration since then.

“We must never forget what happened,” he said. “You see other people out here remembering, and it is a response to those who want to forget.”

Among those on the right who felt they had no place at the mass gathering was Shlomo Engle, a member of Israel’s national religious camp.

“The organizers were insistent: We were only welcome if we agreed to shout, ‘Yes to peace’ — despite the fact that this ‘peace’ has led directly to the violent deaths of thousands,” Engle wrote in Yediot Achronot. “This type of ‘peace’ pushed, and will continue to push, me — and many other Israelis — away from Rabin Square.”

Indeed, many Israelis on the right regard the Oslo peace process that Rabin launched as an act of monumental naivete by someone who until that time had been regarded as a keen strategist. Others say the portrayal of Rabin’s legacy as a quest to “wage peace” regardless of the obstacles is a misreading of the security–minded general — who, they say, would have stopped the peace process in its tracks when he saw that the Palestinians were not abandoning terrorism.

As Israelis continue to debate how Rabin should be remembered, the Yitzhak Rabin Center officially opened its doors Monday night, hoping to a give a concrete response to commemoration.

The $33 million structure overlooking Tel Aviv will house an archive of Rabin’s papers and a museum of the history of Israeli society and democracy. It already houses an educational center that conducts sensitivity — training workshops for Israeli security forces — despite Rabin’s famous order to Israeli security forces, when he was defense minister during the first intifada, to break the Palestinians’ bones.

The center was dedicated Monday before a list of international luminaries that included President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana and numerous world leaders.

“It is important to capture the spirit of Yitzhak Rabin through architecture,” said architect Moshe Safdie, who designed the limestone building with white, wing-like structures on its sprawling roof. “The stone is Yitzhak Rabin the fighter, and the white structures are Yitzhak Rabin the peace maker.”

Beyond buildings and ceremonies, the question remains of how current and future generations of Israelis grapple with the legacy of Rabin’s life and death.

“For them it’s just a line in the history book,” Gesher founder and president Daniel Tropper said of today’s Israeli youth. “Everyone who lived through that night knows where they heard the news. It’s like a picture frozen in our minds.

But, he added, “this is always the problem: How do you transfer the deep experience of a people from generation to generation?”

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