“Toda raba, chaver yakar,” President Barack Obama said at the closing of his eulogy at the funeral of President Shimon Peres, choosing the Hebrew words for “Thank you, dear friend” as his final parting message to the Israeli elder statesmen.
Obama’s presidential farewell in Jerusalem Friday managed to echo, without imitating, the signature catchphrase that became a bumper sticker in Israel in 1995, when then-President Bill Clinton, speaking at the funeral of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, ended his speech with “Shalom, chaver” - Goodbye, friend.
Memories of Rabin’s funeral in 1995 hung thick in the air on Friday for those of us who clearly remember that other sorrowful day more than two decades ago, when Rabin was buried.
Once more, the country was a little star-struck as the U.S. president, heads of state and dignitaries flocked to Israel in unprecedented numbers, landing at Ben-Gurion Airport and making their way to Mt. Herzl for the cemetery. Having them all here at once felt rather surreal.
For a few of these leaders, like Great Britain’s Prince Charles, the two leaders’ funerals marked their only trips to the Jewish state. President Bill Clinton, by contrast, has visited Israel between the two ceremonies and remained closely connected to the country, to a great extent, through his continuing ties with Peres. Clinton’s thinner, frailer, more hoarse-voiced and white-haired appearance was perhaps the most tangible sign that 21 years had passed between the two events.
Obviously, the national atmosphere surrounding the two funerals was utterly different. As Rabin was laid to rest, the country was stunned and in shock, reeling from the trauma of having their prime minister killed, assassinated not by a hostile outside enemy, but by an Israeli Jew. The country, already in the midst of a stormy period, had been pitched into a period of uncertainty and political turmoil. The funeral ceremony was full of raw pain, and had to be pulled together quickly.
By contrast, Peres’ passing came as anything but a surprise, an inevitability that may have been dreaded, but was not unexpected, and one that Israelis were fully prepared for.
But the genuine feeling, emotion and real human connection expressed in the remarks of the two U.S. presidents - Clinton and Obama - for the two older Israeli leaders - Rabin and Peres - was very similar.
In his 1995 eulogy, Clinton said that “Yitzhak Rabin lived the history of Israel. Throughout every trial and triumph, the struggle for independence, the wars for survival, the pursuit of peace and he served on the front lines, this son of David and of Solomon, took up arms to defend Israel's freedom and lay down its life - his life to secure Israel's future.”
Obama made the same analogy in his speech: “A free life in a homeland regained. A secure life in a nation that can defend itself by itself. A full life in friendship with nations who can be counted on as allies, always. A bountiful life, driven by simple pleasures of family and by big dreams. This was Shimon Peres' life. This is the State of Israel. This is the story of the Jewish people over the last century and it was made possible by a founding generation that counts Shimon as one of its own.”
With the passing of Rabin and now Peres, that founding generation of larger-than-life heroes is gone forever.
Whether any members of future generations of Israeli leaders will inspire such admiration that leaders from around the world will make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem - or forge such close ties with a U.S. president that they might someday inspire a warm and personal eulogy and farewell message - remains to be seen.
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