2016-06-30
My fiancé and I each had our reasons for wanting to visit the grave of Yitzhak Rabin. Stephanie, an architecture student, was eager to see the monument by famed Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie marking the gravesite of Israel's slain leader. And I, a writer on religious issues, wanted to pay my respects to a fallen hero. So despite a tight schedule during our recent stay in Jerusalem, one brutally hot morning we wandered through Israel's Mt. Herzl military cemetery.

The cemetery sits, fittingly, atop a hill overlooking Jerusalem's suburbs and surrounding communities. We found Rabin's grave, in the "national leaders" section; Golda Meir is buried two graves down. While all the other graves have identical black-stone monuments, Rabin's stands out, a point of controversy among some, but deeply appropriate, it seems to me, for a man whose martyrdom touched a nation so deeply.

His graveside monument sits atop a foot-high platform. On each of the front two corners of the platform sits a basket filled with stones; according to Jewish tradition, visitors to a grave leave a stone on the monument because the stones' substance is reminiscent of each human's fate and their circular form is reminiscent of the circle of life.

The monument itself is beautifully moving in its simplicity: a stone semi-circle consisting of two distinct halves identical except for color--one is black and the other is white. Rabin's name is etched on the black stone, with the dates of his life etched on the rear. The white stone will mark the grave of Rabin's widow, Leah, when she passes away. In the middle of the semi-circle lies a wreath with a ribbon saying it was a gift from Croatia.

We stood silently for a minute before discussing what we thought of the symbolism of the elegant monument. The two halves could signal the coming together of two peoples, a cause to which Rabin dedicated his later years and for which he was ultimately assassinated. The two halves likewise, we theorized, could symbolize the two divergent halves of Rabin's own self--the fearless military warrior and the equally bold man of peace. After our return home to the U.S., we'd learn another explanation: The white half, made of Jerusalem stone, represents the religious elements of Israeli society, while the black half, of basalt native to Tel Aviv, represents Israel's secular side; together, they symbolize Rabin's bridging of this major divide in Israeli culture.

As Stephanie explored other parts of the cemetery, I remained transfixed by the gravesite, unable to shake the thought that, considering the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David, the man whose grave lay before me might have been the only leader able to truly broker an agreement to end the decades of hostility between Israel and its neighbors. The years since Rabin's death have not been kind to Israel, making his assassination all the more heart- wrenching. Since Rabin and Yasser Arafat inaugurated the Oslo peace process, for which Rabin paid with his life, "we have been tearing ourselves apart over this peace process," wrote Jerusalem Report editor David Horovitz. "With every twist and turn, every interim agreement, every bus-bombing and shooting, we have dug deeper into our own mindsets, rejected other viewpoints with ever greater force, justified our own intolerance by observing that the stakes are so high and the consequence of failure, of the wrong decisions, so grave."

And there at Mt. Herzl lay the only person whose credibility and respect could have convinced Jews and Arabs to make the necessary compromises and take the necessary risks to end the perpetual state of war. Instead, Israel's prime minister, from Rabin's own party, was denounced in the Arab world for refusing to surrender to all the Palestinian demands and called a traitor in his own country for offering to give in on many of those same demands.

Days before visiting Mt. Herzl, Stephanie and I had walked on the stone walls surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem. Tourists are allowed to roam nearly the entire stretch, gaining a bird's-eye glimpse of that magical and fascinating city. From atop the walls, we peered down at what has become Ground Zero in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the potential division of which doomed Camp David.

From our vantage point, it was obvious why splitting this space is so difficult, so emotional; stone upon stone, house upon house, neighborhood upon neighborhood, the Old City seems stiflingly cramped. In maps, the four quarters of the Old City--Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Armenian--are conveniently coded in different colors. But from atop the ramparts of old Jerusalem, we saw only Jerusalem stone, with but oblique clues--the language of signs, the most prominent houses of worship--hinting at which neighborhood lay below. I wondered whether even Rabin could have navigated the Camp David negotiation, though I would like to think he could have--and that some successor to his legacy will do likewise.

Five years after Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak came home from Camp David empty-handed. And I stood at Rabin's grave feeling helpless and hopeless that the process he started may never end successfully. I wished for a prayer book or book of Psalms, something to read or do at Rabin's grave other than think and stare. I quietly recited a short prayer for peace that is part of daily Jewish liturgy. I took a rock from a basket, leaned over as far as I could, and placed it on the edge of the monument.

Stephanie suggested we sing, and after a quick negotiation, we broke into a quiet Hebrew melody: "Lo yisa goy el goy kherev..."--"Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war anymore."

Yards away, Stephanie had found a new addition to the military cemetery--a memorial to Israel's victims of terrorism. A wall of white Jerusalem stone, the monument is much like the Vietnam War memorial in Washington: Black plaques attached to the stone wall list the names of those who have died in terrorist attacks since 1860. After contemplating the monument for a moment, I found the name of my friend Matthew, who was killed in a bus bombing in 1996.

The juxtaposition of this new memorial with Rabin's grave is powerful. Both Rabin and Matt, I realized, died because of the peace process. One was at the hand of an Israeli and the others by Palestinians, but all the murderers had the same purpose: subverting the negotiations that could end the enmity.

For that reason, I believe, the reaction in Israel to the collapse of Camp David was surprisingly muted. Regardless of where Israelis stand politically, pro- or anti-territorial concessions, they also know that "peace" is something of a sad misnomer at this point. An agreement at Camp David could have ended official hatreds, and would have been, I believe, the right thing to do morally, politically, even perhaps militarily--but it also would have meant more violence, more Yigal Amirs, more bus bombers.

Israel needs a leader who could engage all sides, respect all sides, and convince everyone to take a risk, however terrifying, for the real peace that might follow any shaky short-term "peace."

The region needs another Yitzhak Rabin. And its residents need to feel confident that more names will never have to be added to the wall of names on Mt. Herzl.


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