Images from the shocked days after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who died 18 years ago today according to the Jewish calendar, show teenagers standing or sitting on the ground, cross-legged or knees protectively raised to the chest, as they add memorial candles (nerot zikaron) to glowing collections numbering in the dozens.
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Mostly the candles are the short, fat ones traditionally used in Jewish homes to commemorate the death of a loved one, but look closely and you'll find a few Shabbat candles (nerot Shabbat) towering over the others.
As for the teens gathered in circles around these many small flames, these are the no’ar hanerot (no-AR ha-nay-ROHT), the "candle children" (literally “the candle youth”), so named because of their public mourning of an Israeli leader whose death colored, and perhaps defined, their coming of age in Israeli society.
“The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the fall of 1995, gave rise to a popular social phenomenon,” Maariv wrote in a 2007 retrospective. “No’ar hanerot surprised even the greatest cynics when hundreds of high school students, soldiers and other young people came together every evening in the days after the assassination in Malkhei Yisrael Square, which became Rabin Square. They lit candles, sang songs and lamented the loss they felt.”
These Israelis who were children or teenagers when Rabin was shot to death at a peace rally on November 4, 1995 – also known as yaldei hanerot (“candle children”) or dor hanerot (“candle generation”) – had expectations of greatness thrust upon them. Many looked toward this generation to become politically active, a new voice on the left. It didn't quite work out that way, though.
"The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin marked a watershed, a foundational event in Israeli society,” writes Israeli historian Anita Shapira in “From the Palmach Generation to the Candle Children: Changing Patterns in Israeli Identity,” which appeared in an English-language collection of academic articles called “The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.” Writes Shapira: “At the time it seemed that a new generation had made its debut upon the historical stage, the Candle Children generation: the Israeli youth who had grown to adolescence in the shadow and smoke of the Intifada and blossomed in the glow of the peace process initiated at Oslo.”
The expectation that young people are the ones who shake things up is reflected in the first part of no'ar hanerot: the Hebrew word for youth, no’ar, which shares the same root as lena’er, meaning “to stir,” “to shake” or “to shake up” (though it’s not certain the two words are actually related).
Though we have not really seen the expected outpouring of political leadership, some of these candle children, like Peace Now director Yariv Oppenheimer, are involved in advocating for peace, while others eventually become involved in the social justice protests of the last few years, which aim to bring attention to the high cost of living in Israel. For instance, Stav Shaffir, a leader of the social protests who is on the young side of the candle children spectrum – she was just 10 years old when Rabin was assassinated – is now a Labor Party MK, unlike Oppenheimer, who did not gain a seat in the same race last year. As for what she accomplishes, it remains to be seen whether she will rock the Knesset or end up as no great shakes.
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