Rabin's assassination: A night that changed Israel's history -- and my life

Thousands mark Yitzhak Rabin's assassination
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Story highlights

  • On November 4, 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist
  • That moment changed history and shaped lives, including the life of CNN's Jessica Ravitz
  • Ravitz finds people she knew 20 years ago to revisit their pasts and explore their life journeys

(CNN)Some people recall, in vivid detail, the day JFK -- or MLK -- was assassinated. Others reflect with precision on where they were when the twin towers came down.

The moment in history that most often haunts my imagination happened on November 4, 1995 -- 20 years ago and more than 6,000 miles away from the place I now call home.
I was 26 and living and studying in Israel at a time that felt magical. More than two years earlier, President Bill Clinton presided over the historic White House lawn handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. The promise of the signed Oslo peace accords still hung in the air.
    Perhaps I was naïve, but two states, living side-by-side and in recognition of one another, felt inevitable to me.
    Most Israelis and Palestinians, who clearly had far more at stake than I did, seemed to share this hope. Two-thirds of Palestinians supported the Oslo Accords when they were signed in 1993, and two weeks before the White House lawn handshake, more than 64% of Israeli Jews believed their government should negotiate with the PLO to reach an agreement for Palestinian autonomy. (Those statistics are according to Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and Chanan Cohen, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute's Guttman Center for Surveys.)
    U.S. President Bill Clinton stands between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat as they shake hands on September 13, 1993.
    It was this vision of long-awaited peace that I smiled about whenever I shared tea and an occasional cigarette with my favorite Palestinian shopkeepers. And it was the sort of belief that moved me comfortably across borders. I didn't hesitate to travel through Palestinian cities like Ramallah, and can still taste the hot pita and fresh labneh I discovered and devoured in Jericho.
    Not that there wasn't opposition to the peace process, of course. There were Jewish settlers who didn't want to give up an inch of land, believing it was biblically theirs. They called Rabin a traitor; some went so far as to liken him to a Nazi SS officer.
    More extreme were those who resorted to violence against the other side. Palestinian suicide bombers began to rattle the nation. The year before, a Jewish extremist went on a shooting rampage at a Muslim holy site in Hebron. But in spite of those who seemed hell-bent on derailing the process, the pulse of change beat on -- defiant and determined.
    On the night of November 4, 1995, possibility gave way to uncertainty and horror. While leaving the nation's largest peace rally, Rabin was shot by a Jewish extremist and, not long after, died. It was a moment that many say changed the course of history; I sometimes think it also changed the course of my life.
    And I wasn't alone.

    In search of place

    I was living in a sleepy desert town called Arad, enrolled in the WUJS Institute, which once stood for the World Union of Jewish Students. The program, which no longer exists in Arad, offered an immersion program in the Hebrew language, Israeli history and politics, and Jewish studies. The idea was to study there for six months and then commit to staying and working in Israel for at least another six months. WUJS welcomed new classes of students every three months and was designed for English-speaking college graduates -- a fair number who were contemplating "aliyah," or immigration to Israel. It was a way to build a network and try the country on for size.
    I can't say I arrived with plans to settle down there, but my relationship and fascination with Israel had been all-consuming. The country had captured my heart and mind the first time I traveled there, as a clueless Jew with no ties to the land or, really, Judaism. I'd been back and forth since that initial trip in 1993, and l couldn't shake my obsession. I craved Israel like a drug. The passions, the history, the stories everyone had to share: Israel left me intoxicated -- and often confused. Whenever I thought I'd settled on an opinion, I'd meet someone else whose perspective threw me. Israel introduced me to a part of myself I'd never explored and made me feel like I belonged to something bigger.
    Around me in Arad, living in an unsightly concrete building, were dozens of peers. We were a motley crew of mostly 20-somethings from countries that spanned the globe. We came from North America, the United Kingdom and South Africa. And from places as diverse as Zimbabwe, Australia and the Netherlands. Some had taken a break from budding careers or before heading off to graduate school. Others, like me, were floundering.
    We were religious and secular. Some had been raised to love Israel and had visited many times. Others were first-timers or, like me, born to parents who'd never been and felt no connection, and -- in the case of my lefty dad -- actually had some disdain for the place.
    Among us, there were serious students and equally serious stoners. One guy, I will forever believe, had fled the law in Florida for reasons we debated. (My money was on embezzlement.) Some came to escape relationships; others arrived hoping to find new ones. We had flings and some of us even managed to fall in love and marry. What we all had in common is that we were searchers -- united in our exploration of a place and the understanding of where we fit in.
    With Rabin's assassination, that place was dramatically altered. Few of us ended up staying in Israel long term -- that much I knew. But how did that historic moment and chapter shape our life journeys?
    I knew my answer to that question. But as the anniversary of the assassination approached, I wanted to know about the others. I reached out through social media to find out.

    Hearing the news

    That night, we were scattered. I was sprawled out on a dingy couch in our student lounge, watching a video of the movie "Dead Again" with friends when the WUJS director rushed through the door and shouted, "Turn to the news!"
    For a while we didn't know if the shooter had killed or injured Rabin. When we learned he was dead, the lounge turned to mayhem. I landed in the lap and locked embrace of a friend and, together, we fell apart. One of the gentlest souls in our group screamed before smashing a chair against the wall.
    Upstairs, Robert Haas, who was at WUJS before going to rabbinical school, was napping. When his roommate woke him to share the news, Haas' first question was this: "Was it a Muslim?" He, like so many of us, feared what a Palestinian assassin would mean for the peace process. But the realization that the killer was a Jew set off a new sort of alarm. It's one thing to focus on making peace with an outside perceived enemy. It's another to face division within.
    Naomi Rabbie had just checked into an Amman, Jordan, hotel room. The border to Jordan had recently opened to Israel, and she was on a tour with her father. She turned to Israeli TV news while he took a shower. She'd been born in Israel, to European parents who met there while studying, but grew up in California -- and her Hebrew was still shaky. So when she yelled through the bathroom door that she thought Rabin had been shot, her dad was sure she'd misunderstood. The next morning, after their tour guide learned of nearby celebrations in the streets, their group was whisked out of the country.
    Andrew, who didn't want his last name used in this story, had spent the entire day in bed with his new Israeli girlfriend. They were in the ancient port city of Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv. He'd wanted to go to the rally, but he never made it out of the sheets. "Ah, to be young and in lust," he says. But they had the radio on, and when the reports came in, he watched her face dissolve. He was more confused than anything. He was among those who'd grown up with next to no exposure to Judaism, let alone Israel, and was still struggling to get his mind around it all.
    Robin Flamm had just moved into her Jerusalem apartment. Her parents and older siblings had immigrated to Israel, and this was her latest step in an effort to see if Israel could be her home, too. She'd thought about attending the rally that night, but there was so much unpacking to do. Out her bedroom window she could see the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. That view felt extra special given her belief that peace, monumental change for this country, was on the horizon. She gave herself a break to take a walk around her new neighborhood. When she got home, she flipped on the television. First came shock. Then, upon news that Rabin had died, overwhelming grief.
    Sherri Jacobs was still shaken from her car ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv earlier in the evening. An Israeli friend had driven down a road lined with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who pelted the car with rocks, in protest of their driving on Shabbat, or the Sabbath. As she ranted -- "What the hell are these people doing?!" -- her friend reminded her that Israel wasn't for the faint of heart. If she couldn't handle it, he told her, she should leave.
    She'd promised a Chilean guy she met in college that she'd stay away from demonstrations while traveling abroad. So, once in Tel Aviv, she went out to pick up Chinese takeout with another friend rather than attend the peace rally. As they cut through the crowd with their boxes, they wondered aloud why security wasn't stopping them. Later, Sherri would learn they'd walked by the very area where the gunman stood and fired.
    More than 100,000 Israelis crowded Tel Aviv's municipal square on November 4, 1995, in a show of support for the government's peacemaking policies.
    Brian Feldman was proudly there. For years he'd been a right-winger when it came to Israel. He remembers, as a 10th grader, being locked in a safe room on a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee when a Palestinian, armed with an automatic assault rifle and grenades, flew into Israel from Lebanon on a hang glider and launched a surprise attack on a nearby Israeli army base. Six soldiers were killed that night and even more were injured before the Palestinian was shot dead.
    College began to change him, though, and Rabin changed him even more. Brian had read everything there was to read about Israel's fight for independence and its wars. Rabin was a military giant.
    "He was essentially born, raised, to fight Palestinians, fight for Israel," Brian remembers. "Who was I, some Jewish kid from cushy West Bloomfield, Michigan, to say that I knew more? If Yitzhak Rabin was ready to make peace, then so was I."
    The massive rally, which local journalists said included Israeli Jews and Arabs alike, felt euphoric -- "pure happiness and hope," Brian recalls. Even after it ended, people stayed to dance and sing. He wanted to stick around and mingle, but the friend he was with coaxed him to move on for a beer. He got home to his Tel Aviv apartment just as his girlfriend called, sobbing.

    'The enormity of what had happened'

    Most of us who lived in Arad hopped a bus for Jerusalem the next afternoon so we could pay our respects and mourn with the nation. Rabin's closed casket, draped in the Israeli flag, was lain in state outside the Knesset. A million people -- 20% of the Israeli population at the time -- showed up to file past it.
    We stood in line throughout the night. I remember marveling at the diversity of mourners -- young and old, outwardly religious and not, soldiers and civilians, Jews and, presumably, Arabs.
    Naomi, who was there after returning from Jordan, says it wasn't until then that she "grasped the enormity of what had happened, how much it affected every citizen regardless of age, background or political belief."
    Rabin's flag-draped coffin lies in state outside the Knesset on November 5, 1995.
    Memorial candles burned on the pavement along the route to Rabin. Interspersed were notes and symbols, like cutouts of white doves. Circles of teenagers sat on the ground, singing songs and strumming guitars. People hugged, cried, supported one another. As the hours passed, some mourners collapsed -- unable to stand anymore. I watched as several women were carried from the mob around me.
    Claustrophobia took over before I could reach Rabin. Not far from the outer gates of the Knesset, amid the crush of mourners, I had to escape. I remember peering through bars of the iron fence. Candles, mounted across horizontal rungs, dripped like falling tears. I could spot the casket in the distance, but I knew I'd never get there. I was an outsider looking in. I was grieving, but my grief couldn't touch the grief of those who really lived here. It was the first time I felt the inkling that maybe I didn't belong.
    Brian, who'd been at the peace rally, didn't join the crowd at the Knesset. He gathered newspapers and wept in a Tel Aviv coffee shop. In the weeks that followed, he says, everyone around him moved in a daze. At night, he often visited the square -- now named for Rabin -- where the rally had taken place. "Other than losing my father," he says, "it was the saddest period of my life."
    Andrew, who'd been in bed with his girlfriend when Rabin was shot, remembers the helicopters looming above and the sea of soldiers and security officers flowing toward Mount Herzl, across the street from his Jerusalem apartment. Rabin's burial at Israel's national cemetery drew heads of state from across the globe.
    A couple of months before, Andrew had said to his father, "I don't know who the next prime minister will be, but I know it won't be Rabin." He says he could see the hatred brewing. When he spotted a headline on an American newspaper that said Rabin had been shot by a Jew, he felt embarrassed to be one.
    Family members, including widow Leah Rabin, second from left, grieve during the funeral on November 6, 1995, at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl.
    Robin stood in line outside the Knesset the night before the funeral and was amid the masses that lined the street for the funeral procession. She watched as cars drove by carrying dignitaries, including President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Clinton, and King Hussein of Jordan. Unable to enter Mount Herzl, she sat outside the cemetery with other mourners, listening to the service through a loudspeaker.
    I was back in Arad in time for the funeral and joined others in crowding around the small television in our student lounge. We stood still and in silence as a two-minute siren blared throughout the nation to mark the beginning of the graveside ceremony. It was the same sound that had stopped us months earlier and can be heard every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day.
    We hung onto the words of every speaker and cried. Near the very end of the service, a longtime aide to the Prime Minister held up a sheet of paper that had been found in Rabin's shirt pocket. It was the blood-stained song sheet from which he had sung with the masses minutes before he was shot.
    The name of the song: "Shir LaShalom" -- or "A Song for Peace."

    How life unfolded afterward

    In the months that followed, I volunteered with a project interviewing Holocaust survivors and completed a course in Holocaust education. Then I took a job for a nonprofit out of New York that brought at-risk, inner-city teens (none of them Jewish) to Israel and placed them on a kibbutz. I arranged their work assignments in the collective community, where they -- among other things -- milked cows and tended to chickens, and I led seminars, hikes and tours. I also broke up fights, played social worker in the middle of the night and was without a doubt in over my head.
    All the while, as tensions seemed to grow in Israel, I missed living with peers who could relate to what I was feeling. Suicide bombings hit closer to home, on a Jerusalem bus line I'd taken frequently. I'd had little time off in six months, and by the time the kids left Israel and my work contract ended, I was exhausted, emotionally and physically. I didn't have the strength to figure out my next move in Israel, so I left, too.
    I cried for most of the return flight.
    Before I was even over my jet lag, acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres -- who'd won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat -- lost the election to the opposition leader at the time: Benjamin Netanyahu, the current leader of Israel, who some blamed then -- and today -- for inciting fear and division.
    Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, left, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wave to the crowd at the peace rally in Tel Aviv on November 4, 1995.
    I've visited Israel since leaving for good. Most of us have. Only Naomi, of the friends I tracked down, calls Israel home.
    She's a hi-tech marketer, who bought an apartment outside Tel Aviv. Looking back, she says Rabin's assassination was a moment when she became "Israeli-fied."
    "It was a big part of my assimilation into Israeli culture, the very large part of Israeli culture," she says, "that is based on a collective history of national tragedies."
    Naomi, 43, used to attend annual memorial services for Rabin, but that stopped when she became a single mother three years ago. Taking a small child to such gatherings scares her.
    "I hate that I have to think twice about taking my son to the park," she says. "Last summer, I was worried about getting caught outside when a missile was heading in our direction. And this year, I'm worried about some random guy stabbing us. Next year, I'm sure it'll be something else. It's always something."
    She trusts that the majority of people, on both sides of the conflict, want peace and that it can only come through diplomacy. But that optimism she had 20 years ago is gone. Naomi no longer thinks she'll see peace in her lifetime.
    And yet she stays. For all the difficulties -- culturally, financially, politically -- it's where she feels she belongs. She's not ready to give up and leave.
    "I love that we're all in it together," Naomi says. "For better or for worse."
    There were others I found who stayed for a number of years but eventually walked away.
    Brian, also 43 and the one who was at the rally, remained there for nearly seven years. He served in the army as a combat medic. He says he lived 200 feet from where a suicide bomber blew himself up. Brian had an Israeli girlfriend and could picture staying, but he started asking himself if it was all worth it -- especially after his father, who had taught him to love Israel, died.
    Brian arrived back in the United States five days before 9/11.
    He now lives outside Chicago and has spent the past 14 years growing a family and a career in medical sales. He returned to Israel last spring for the first time since leaving and showed his family what he calls "my Israel," a version rich in Rabin stories.
    Robin, 50, also stayed for seven years, but could not declare it her forever-home like the rest of her family. She took off with her husband when they wanted to start their own family and imagined doing so in Portland, Oregon -- a place where they had both lived before and missed. The decision to move on wasn't easy, she says, but the start of the Second Intifada in 2000 certainly helped.
    She's visited a few times since, and the topic of Israel often drives dinner-table conversations. Her hopes remain strong and are inspired by the vision once laid out by Rabin. She and her husband are active with J Street, a lobbying group that bills itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace -- and isn't afraid to condemn Netanyahu's policies.
    For a long time, I read every bit of news I could get out of Israel. When I felt especially melancholy, I'd pop in the CD "Shalom, Chaver" -- or "Goodbye, My Friend" -- a two-disc compilation of music by Israeli artists made in Rabin's memory. [Confession: It was the soundtrack for much of this writing.] The CD takes its name from the final words spoken by President Clinton at Rabin's funeral, when he called his friend a "martyr for peace." The words adorn a wrinkled bumper sticker I still have tucked away -- somewhere with the Hebrew newspapers I held onto and can no longer decipher.
    I worked in the American Jewish community for six years because, frankly, I'd never been a part of it before and it was the only way I knew how to get in. But I never stopped questioning and needed to be part of a wider world full of more diverse stories and opinions, and that's what finally brought me to journalism in 2002.
    I returned to Israel for the first time in 2000, when I attended a three-week seminar in Jerusalem for Jewish community professionals. I was in the halls of the Knesset when the Camp David Summit, an attempt to revitalize the peace process, crumbled. I went to Rabin's grave, and -- as is the custom in Judaism -- left a stone on his tombstone.
    I went again in 2007, and spent a couple of weeks exploring the idea of moving there (not forever) to work as a journalist. But job opportunities were slim. And soon after I returned to my newspaper job in the United States, my father died suddenly -- making a move feel beyond my scope of emotional possibility.
    Next spring, I will marry a man who's never gone to Israel. It's on our short-list of travel destinations. It shaped so much of who I am, and he wants to see it through my eyes.

    What if?

    What would Israel look like if Rabin had lived?
    I count myself among those who still can't help but wonder. It's the question I return to whenever new rounds of violence, like the current one, erupt and people -- on both sides of the conflict -- suffer. It's the question I consider when I approach anniversaries of his death -- and mourn the loss of what could have been. It's the question I hold onto whenever people say peace in that part of the world is impossible.
    I want them to know that it wasn't always this way. That some of us believe that under Rabin change could have come -- and that, under the right circumstances, it still could.
    Andrew, 45, the one who'd skipped the rally for time with his girlfriend, doesn't share this worldview about Rabin and the opportunity lost. Peace, he says, wouldn't have come -- gunshots or not.
    "The hatred of the Jewish people and the desire for our annihilation stretches back throughout history with no parallel -- past or present," he says. "'Peace processes' do not speak to old-fashioned, irrational Jew-hatred."
    He made aliyah, or immigrated to Israel, in 2009. He's never subscribed to any political party -- "I'm fiercely independent," he says -- but twice he has voted for Netanyahu's Likud party.
    "In Israel, it's security first," Andrew says. And in the face of international criticism, "Bibi's doing everything in his power" to protect his people.
    It would take something cataclysmic, "maybe a 10.0 earthquake," to hit the restart button and see a path to peace, he says.
    For the past few years he's split his time between Israel and Boston. Life in Israel, he says, has become more of a struggle for him, what with dried-up work opportunities, language challenges and loneliness. In fact, this Thursday he is scheduled to leave Israel with no set plans to return.
    "That thought is a tough one for me to accept," he says, "but I no longer feel like my direction here is clear."
    What direction will Israelis and Palestinians choose?
    Among Palestinians, support for the peace process is "hardly half of what it was in the mid-1990s," says Shikaki, of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Only about a third of Palestinians today believe in diplomacy; the rest see it as futile.
    While close to 80% believed in a two-state solution in the mid-1990s, Shikaki says now only 48% of Palestinians believe.
    As for the other side of the equation, today 50% of Israeli Jews and 35% of Israeli Arabs believe a two-state solution is still viable. That is according to the September 2015 Peace Index, a project of the Evens Program for Mediation and Conflict Resolution at Tel Aviv University and the Guttman Center for Surveys of the Israel Democracy Institute.
    Those numbers and the ongoing news headlines certainly don't evoke great optimism -- not the kind we once knew.
    Twenty years ago, we were a band of wandering and wide-eyed Jews, testing out life in Israel. We've since scattered the globe. Our perspectives may have changed, but branded in our collective memories is a piece of history we fear others will forget.
    For at least some of us, we hold out hope for the better future Rabin once imagined.