More than 100,000 Israelis attended the peace demonstration on November 4, 1995, that ended with the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It was one of the biggest rallies ever held in Tel Aviv’s main plaza – then known as Kings of Israel Square but since renamed Rabin Square.
The official slogan of the rally was “Yes to Peace, No to Violence.” Those who believed themselves to be the silent majority in Israel back then swarmed to the square that night, convinced it was time to make their voices heard. They were there to show the prime minister that they wanted him to pursue further territorial concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. They were also there to show the premier that they would no longer put up with the threats and intimidation directed at him by forces on the right.
It was a night that no Israeli old enough to remember it will ever forget. And that’s especially true for those who were there in person.
Many of them would later recall the electricity in the air, the sense of hope, the feeling that Israel was headed to better times. All that ended abruptly when Yigal Amir, a 25-year-old right-wing extremist, fired three shots at Rabin’s back as he descended the stairs of the parking lot near the square and was about to step into his car.
In conversation with Haaretz, six Israelis who attended that rally 25 years ago share their recollections of the night, and reflect on how it would impact their lives.
Until that night, Veronica Reuveni tended to avoid big demonstrations. “I definitely had very strong views but I wasn’t politically engaged,” the 62-year-old Tel Aviv lawyer says. “That night, though, I felt this very strong need to be there. It was as though we could finally see a light on the horizon, an end to all these years of living by the sword.” She attended the event with her husband and two children, who were in elementary school at the time.
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“It was a really joyous event,” she recalls. “You could just feel the adrenaline in the crowd.” When the rally concluded, she and her husband wanted to head home, but Reuveni says their children insisted they head to the parking lot area so they could get a glimpse of their idol, singer Aviv Geffen, who had performed at the rally.
“So instead of making our way to the car, we headed down the stairs where a big crowd had already gathered,” Reuveni recalls. “While we were standing on Ibn Gabirol Street [one of the main streets surrounding the square], we heard three shots. I wasn’t used to the sound of gunfire, so I didn’t immediately know it was. But because everyone around me was shouting, I understood that something bad had happened.”
Reuveni and her husband grabbed the kids and crossed over to the traffic island in the middle of Ibn Gabirol Street in order to get away from the crowd. “While we were standing there, Rabin’s car passed by with its sirens blaring,” she recounts. “He was on his way to the hospital.”
She and her husband never got to sleep that night. Instead, they stayed up watching the news. “We were crying with everyone else in this country,” she says. “Even now, just thinking about that night makes me cry – because it wasn’t only that one individual had been murdered: It was that all our hope had been murdered.”
One of her first responses to the assassination was to get involved politically. Reuveni immediately joined Labor, which had been Rabin’s party, and she would later work on Ehud Barak’s political campaign when he successfully ran for prime minister in 1999. (She has since left the party, which has all but disappeared.)
Ever since that night, Reuveni says, she regularly attends political protests – including the anti-Netanyahu protests of recent months. Her daughter, now grown, often joins her. But it took her son many years before he would attend a demonstration again. “I’ve always believed that he suffered from trauma after Rabin was killed,” she says. “In recent years, though, he also attends protests regularly.”
Futna Jaber and her husband had spent that Saturday visiting her parents in the central Israeli Arab town of Taibeh. The plan was to head back to Tel Aviv, where they lived and still do, in time to attend the rally.
But things didn’t work out according to plan. “We arrived back in Tel Aviv a bit late and were passing by the square in our car when we saw this huge commotion,” recalls Jaber, an Arab-Israeli food celebrity who was pregnant with her oldest child at the time. “It was just after the shots were fired. We saw people running in the streets, lots of police, and I was sure there had been a terror attack. We turned on the radio and heard what had happened, and I’ll never forget the feeling of that night. To this day, every November 4 I get butterflies in my stomach.”
It was close to midnight, Jaber says, before she and her husband finally arrived back home.
An optometrist by profession, Futna and her husband Akram own and run a popular hummus joint in Tel Aviv. Even though they’re not Jewish, she says, they decided to honor the seven-day Jewish mourning period following the assassination by shuttering their business for the duration.
The 48-year-old says it saddens her that, since then, the left in Israel has effectively disappeared. “Look at what happened to the Labor Party,” she says. “There’s hardly anything left of it. The same holds true for Meretz. And meanwhile, the right just keeps getting stronger and stronger.”
Jaber tries not to let herself get discouraged, though. Since the assassination, she has become actively engaged in Jewish-Arab shared society initiatives that center on food. “Anything to make our world a bit rosier,” she reflects. “I’ve always felt that food is a great way to build connections between people.”
A university student at the time, Amos Spivak attended the demonstration with his mother, Tziona. “I was concerned at the time about all the right-wing violence in the streets,” he recounts, “so it seemed like an opportunity to do something. There was all this talk that Rabin was too soft on the Palestinians, and I felt that he wasn’t naïve at all, that this wasn’t about making love with the Palestinians but about being rational about the future here.”
He and his mother traveled by bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and, when the rally ended, decided to pay a visit to an elderly relative who happened to live in an apartment right above the square.
“I went out to the porch of her apartment, which overlooked the square, and that’s when I heard the shots,” the 51-year-old psychologist says. “At first I thought it was fireworks, and I actually remember looking up at the sky searching for the light display.”
It was only after they left the apartment and headed back to the bus that Spivak and his mother heard Rabin had been shot. “We were in total shock,” he says. On the bus ride back to Jerusalem, the driver had the radio turned on full volume and nobody spoke. “When the announcement came on that Rabin was dead, people around me just started bursting into tears,” he recalls.
It took a few days until the news had the same effect on him, though. “I didn’t cry like everyone else on the bus,” Spivak says. “It was only when I watched the funeral on television and heard his granddaughter, Noa Rabin [now Rothman], eulogize him that I broke down. It suddenly hit me – as if my own father had been killed.”
Spivak was shocked to discover that not all Israelis shared his sense of devastation. “On reserve duty in the army, I would often get into conversations with right-wing and religious Israelis who served with me – and there seemed to be growing numbers of them over the years. I learned through these conversations that not everyone in the country was grieving Rabin’s death, as I had assumed.”
When the second intifada broke out in the early 2000s, Spivak says he often wondered if the Palestinians would have behaved differently had Rabin still been alive. “It got me thinking that maybe Yigal Amir really did succeed in the end, and that made me feel extremely bummed out,” he says.
Aliza and Maya Savir
Aliza and her husband Uri Savir, then director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, attended the rally together their daughter Maya, a student at the time. As a family, they regularly attended peace demonstrations, she says, and there was no question in their minds that they wouldn’t be at this one as well.
They were standing a few dozen meters away from Rabin when the shots were fired. “I was sure it was just firecrackers,” Aliza recalls. “Maya immediately sensed that something awful had happened, and Uri grabbed the two of us and rushed us home.”
As they made their way back to their apartment, says the 73-year-old psychologist, it was as if they were witnessing the aftermath of a huge storm in the streets. “It felt like a huge fog had descended on us,” she says.
After the assassination, Aliza became part of a group of Israelis that would visit with Leah Rabin, the prime minister’s widow, every Friday afternoon to express their solidarity. “After Yitzhak was murdered, I got to know Leah quite well and gained a lot of respect and appreciation for her,” she says.
Maya, her daughter, recalls the huge sense of relief she felt upon arriving at the city square that night. “It seemed that the right wing in Israel had absolute control of the streets at the time,” recalls the 47-year-old writer, “and I was concerned there might not be a big turnout at the rally. So it was really encouraging to see the huge crowd.”
A mother of four, Maya regrets that her children have never experienced the hope she felt back then. “Nobody talks about peace anymore. All they talk about is managing the conflict,” she says. “You know, in school these days, children don’t even learn about the Oslo Accords. It’s just not part of the curriculum.”
Her father was among the chief architects of those agreements, which were meant to pave the way for a two-state solution.
The Shamirs were on their way back from a weekend outing with their kids when Michal suddenly felt a burning desire to attend that night’s rally. “My husband said to me, ‘You go. I’ll watch the kids,’” she recounts. “So I went by myself. I felt that I had to be there.”
When she arrived at the square, by coincidence, she bumped into one of her best friends. “It was such an awesome night,” says Shamir, 62, a plant scientist from Rehovot, central Israel. “I remember the two of us dancing there in the square.”
She also remembers her concerns when Rabin and then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres stood on the stage in front of the huge crowd. “I kept wondering where their bodyguards were, because they looked like such easy targets. At the time, though, it didn’t even enter my mind that it could be a Jew who might attack them.”
On her way home, Shamir started hearing lots of sirens and noticing the police cars and ambulances. “I pulled over to the side and called my husband from a payphone,” she relays. “I told him something was going on, I didn’t know what it was, but I was OK. And then I turned on the radio and heard that Rabin was shot.”
By the time she got home to Rehovot, the prime minister had been pronounced dead. “When I think about it now, I just want to cry,” she says. “Our whole world was destroyed that night.”
Shamir had a personal connection to Rabin. Her father had been a friend of his, and during the time Rabin served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington, before his first stint as prime minister in the mid-1970s, her family happened to be on sabbatical in the United States. “He would come to our home to visit my father,” she recounts.
“I remember once that my sister and I begged to be allowed to come downstairs and sing him ‘Nasser is Waiting for Rabin’” – a song that became popular in the lead-up to the Six-Day War, when Rabin served as army chief of staff.
“My dad wouldn’t allow it,” she says.
She didn’t want to believe it at the time, but looking back now, Shamir says Rabin’s assassin may have achieved his goals. “In many ways, Yigal Amir won big-time,” she says.