Twenty-three years ago, I had the honor of meeting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on an official State visit to Israel with New York State Governor Mario M. Cuomo, with whom I worked at the time.
Prime Minister Rabin, joined by his wife Leah, welcomed us into his office—a simple, straightforward office without ostentation, like the man himself. It was an office that looked like it belonged to a high school principal, rather than the leader of a powerful nation.
Mr. Rabin’s manner was as forthright and unassuming as his office. I sat next to the Prime Minister, by his left side. Governor Cuomo sat across from him and Mrs. Matilda Cuomo and Mrs. Rabin sat next to one another, to the right of the Prime Minister. The conversation was warm and cordial. Cuomo was well-liked and highly respected by Israeli Labor Party leaders Rabin and Shimon Peres.
We talked of Cuomo’s first—and only—trip to Israel: a pilgrimage made after the death two months earlier of Rabbi Israel Mowshowitz, the Governor’s long-time confidant and my friend, in whose memory we planted a tree on a hillside overlooking Jerusalem. Rabbi Mowshowitz urged Cuomo to visit Israel for years. President Rabin, with the world to worry about, expressed fond remembrances of this simple, yet remarkable, Rabbi from Queens, N.Y.
In office just a few short months, Rabin talked of his plans for pursuing peace in Israel and throughout the Middle East. He looked at each of us squarely, as he spoke in his deep, monotone, mournful voice. I studied Rabin’s face carefully: a face chiseled with sadness, with eyes that had seen too much death and suffering. Later, I would learn that this good man, haunted by the thought that he was leading young Israeli soldiers to their slaughter, suffered a nervous breakdown during the 1967 War—the War which secured the Golan Heights and the West Bank for Israel, and represented Rabin’s greatest military victory.
I watched his face in September, 1992, and saw the sadness slip away each time he spoke of his hopes for bringing peace to the land of his birth. I can still hear his voice, that somber voice, warning us of the grave threats to peace posed by political extremists among both his own people and the Palestinians. Just the day before in a public park in Jerusalem, I witnessed some of the Right Wing Jewish extremists Rabin referenced. They tried to shout down Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, speaking at a public event, because Teddy believed that all faiths should be able to worship freely at their holy sites in that Holy City.
I can still feel Yitzak Rabin’s gaze into my eyes, the firm yet gentle look of a man who had known love and loss, weakness and strength, sorrow and joy, victory and defeat. I can still feel the sweet contradiction in the strength of his handshake and the softness of his voice when he wished each of us “Shalom.” It was the last word he spoke to us.
Three years later, at a public rally, he sang the words to the “Song of Peace.” He folded the paper on which the words to the song were written, and gently placed it in his jacket pocket. Minutes after that, an assassin’s bullet ended his life. The folded paper containing the lyrics to the “Song of Peace,” were found covered with blood.
At Rabin’s funeral, his former speechwriter, Eitan Haber, read the “Song of Peace” from the blood-stained prayer page, found in Yitzak Rabin’s jacket pocket:
“ Let the sun rise, the morning shine,
The most righteous prayer will not bring us back.
Who is the one whose light has been extinguished,
And buried in the earth;
Bitter tears will not wake him; will not bring him back.
No song of praise or victory will avail us.
Therefore, sing only a prayer of peace.
Don’t whisper a prayer—
Sing aloud a Song of Peace.”