Bay Area-connected Jews bare souls in wake of assassination

The morning after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, Natan Golan, who directs the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Jerusalem office, went to work.

Walking downtown to the Amutah office on Ibn Givrol Street, he noticed the normally packed thoroughfare had few pedestrians.

"People were dragging themselves. People would pick up their heads, look into each other's eyes…and you'd think, `I'd never seen that person before'" the killing, he said.

The death of Yitzhak Rabin has changed the way Israelis are relating to one another, said Jews with Bay Area ties who were in Israel during the assassination. And politically, the Jewish state "will never be the same again," Golan predicted.

In the days after Rabin was slain by a fellow son of the Jewish state, Israel has searched its own soul, performing what Golan called a national cheshbon nefesh, or self-accounting.

Brian Lurie, executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal, labeled the process "a reckoning" with Rabin and the nation's direction. Lurie, former executive director of the S.F.-based JCF, attended Monday's funeral.

What has emerged is both a kinder, gentler Israel, and a nation largely united around Rabin's peace policies, he said.

"Almost by a twist of fate, [Rabin] has been able to bring this country together," noted Golan.

In one sense, Golan has seen real changes already. "Drivers are courteous to one another, stopping at crosswalks," he said. "We're far from getting back to normal."

On a deeper level, Lurie, a resident of Ross in Marin County, said the Jewish state is only now coming to grips with the forces set in motion by Rabin's death.

The slain prime minister's funeral, he said, was "surrealistic, in the sense that what you saw happening was not only a funeral but the making of a legend."

Lurie sensed that transformation when he noticed the nearby gravestone of modern Zionism's founder, Theodor Herzl, which formed a "backdrop" for such world leaders as Jordan's King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

By bringing those Arab figures to Jerusalem, Rabin will be remembered as "one of the last of the just," Lurie said. "He was a tzaddik [righteous one]. The legend is, you never know who one is until they're gone."

And with Rabin's death, Israel's "silent majority has woken up," he added. Rabin "is larger than life in Israel today."

As for the country's extremist right-wing groups, whom Golan believes represent a few thousand people at most, the government has already launched a crackdown to curtail their efforts.

"We have to get them and get them fast," he said. "The mood of the nation demands it."

When Rabin was shot, "My immediate reaction [was], `That's it — civil war,'" he said. "But I have seen the results in one day. Israelis can be very cut-and-dried in these moments. They don't waste time."

Golan saw further signs of unity: settler leader Yisrael Harel questioning the wisdom of stopping the peace process; right-wingers mourning at Rabin's funeral.

What Golan called a "national therapy session" arising from Rabin's murder will shape the country's political scene for the foreseeable future as well, he said.

"I cannot see the Likud picking themselves up with political statements and actions strong enough to convince the Israeli people that Rabin was wrong and Likud was right," he said.

Also at Rabin's funeral were California's Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Boxer said she was especially moved by the tearful speech of Rabin's 17-year-old granddaughter, Noa Ben-Artzi Filosof.

"The escalation of violence has given [the shooting] an almost bizarre coldness, and yet behind each tragedy is a human story — it's someone's daughter, mother, grandfather, spouse or friend. From the most famous to the least…the hurt and pain and the mindlessness travel with each bullet," Boxer said.

Though many members of Congress attended the funeral, it was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his son Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) to whom Israelis turned, Boxer said.

"I believe the Israelis know what the Kennedy family lived through with two assassinations, and they wanted to talk to Sen. Kennedy and his son in order to reassure themselves that a legacy can live on even after a tragic loss."

Bridging the tragedies of both countries, Ted Kennedy brought a bag of earth from the graves of his dead brothers and placed it on Rabin's grave.

As the world's leaders left Israel, political debate was warming back up. Golan said some political observers were already tapping former Chief of Staff Ehud Barak as Peres' defense minister in a new Labor-led government.

While many were pondering the political scene, others searched for meaning in the jarring family violence of the past week.

Jeffrey Santis, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council's Middle East affairs director, was in Jerusalem when Rabin was shot, leading a mission of California lawmakers. Grieving, he joined throngs to view Rabin's coffin at the Knesset.

Struggling to describe the mood, Santis said, "People still just can't believe what's going on."

Among the California legislators on the JCRC mission who were in downtown Jerusalem when they heard about the shooting was state Assemblyman Bruce McPherson, (R-Santa Cruz). He, too, felt forever changed by Rabin's killing.

"I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated, and I'll never forget where I was when Rabin was assassinated," he said.

By midweek, the national therapy session was peeling back another layer of emotions and exposing painful political questions, Santis said.

Tuesday, Santis watched an Israeli TV political roundtable debate on whether Rabin's security forces could have prevented his murder. Ex-army generals, police and Shin Bet officials argued about the events of Saturday night, Santis said.

Already, he said, "The finger-pointing is starting."

Others such as Lurie, however, saw more unity in the wake of Rabin's death. The assassination struck deeply at young people, who lit candles outside Rabin's Jerusalem residence and sang the song whose lyrics were written on a slip of paper he had with him when he died, "Shir La'Shalom."

"By offering the possibility of peace, Rabin was giving hope to the next generation," he said.

Furthermore, Lurie believed, Rabin's legacy will reach beyond Israel.

When he first joined UJA, Lurie felt the organization's slogan, "We are one," ignored differences between Israel and diaspora Jews. After standing silently with all Israelis and weeping during the two-minute tribute siren that wailed throughout Israel for Rabin, he realized "I was wrong," he said.

"In truth, we are one."