Israel Struggles to Understand Loss of a Hero

After centuries of battling against the enemy without, Jews see the enemy within

THE grief of a nation was captured in the red eyes of a teenager in blue jeans and a baggy sweater sitting cross-legged in front of a shrine of flickering candles and flowers outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

She stared in silence.

Her expression, a poignant mix of hurt, anger, and incomprehension, would normally be reserved for a parent struck down unexpectedly.

The same sense of grief was reflected in the faces of the estimated 1 million people who filed past the coffin of Israel's slain prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, during the 24 hours it lay in state at the Knesset. The funeral yesterday at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl Cemetery was attended by more than 50 past and present heads of state from around the world.

But for the one-fifth of Israelis who paid respects to Rabin in person, the experience was both communal and intensely personal. Each was struggling with the shattering reality that a Jewish leader was assassinated by a seemingly normal, serious Jewish student.

Jews have been defined for millennia by the enemy without: It is far harder to deal with the enemy within.

Young Israelis are also trying to explain their unconsolable sense of loss for a leader they didn't really know or feel particularly close to. Rabin was an inaccessible man - shy, sometimes gruff and abrasive. But he was their hero and protector. And he was trying to end the violence that they have had to live with since the State of Israel was founded in 1948.

The Israeli youths sat around reverently made shrines of candles and flowers. In between the candles were layers of personal messages to their fallen leader. In the center of the circle was his photograph on a poster.

They read the messages of others, wrote their own, and lit more candles as they stared disbelievingly at the posters.

Some softly sang Israel's ''Song of Peace'' - the last song that was sung at the massive peace rally in Tel Aviv where Rabin was gunned down by a Jewish assassin as he prepared to leave in his official automobile.

Sound of silence

But mostly there was silence - a thick, deafening silence from these usually loud and vibrant Israeli youths.

The scene outside the Knesset was repeated outside Rabin's official residence and at the site of the huge peace rally where he experienced his most joyous moments and urged Israelis to take risks for peace, just before he paid the highest price for the risks he had taken.

It was repeated on sidewalks and in schoolyards where classes ground to a halt and students discussed their grief with teachers.

The sense of loss was overwhelming. The youths, like the whole of Israel, were battling to come to terms with the realization that they are just the same as in other countries.

''What I have learned is that we are just like all the other people. We stink just like everyone else,'' says Erez Rosen, sporting faded blue denims, a Guns-and-Roses T-shirt, and a punk hair style.

''We have heard a lot about the Jewish people. I thought that we had a mission, that we were better or different ... or at least that we tried to be ... that this country was supposed to be better,'' he says.

''We were told that the Arabs were murderers, and if you tried to make peace you took a chance.

''But now Rabin is like [assassinated former Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, and we are [expletive] just like everyone else. They have their murderers and so do we. Being religious doesn't mean you're a good person.''

Some youths say they are sad. ''I feel sad, so sad,'' says high school student Keren Tal, keeping a vigil outside Rabin's official residence.

''I don't know how something like this could happen. What has happened to our country? Why do we hate so much? We have to try to come together to unite as a people. I'm so disappointed.''

But some say they are angry over the killing of the leader of the peace process.

''I don't feel disappointed. I'm angry that people called Rabin a traitor. Now I understand that when they called him a traitor they called me a traitor, too, because I believe in the peace process,'' says high school student Noa Dror.

''I am angry, and I want revenge because the man [the assassin] and all who think like him have done a terrible thing to me.

''They have destroyed our dreams of living in peace. But the best revenge will be to continue the peace process ... more and more....''

'I feel that it's all so big'

Tali Sheh, another high school student, says that she had been meeting Palestinians for years, but had never thought so philosophically before.

''These are such big thoughts, and I am only 16. I feel that it's all so big, and I know that things are not going to be the same.

''I know that we'll stop crying but things will be different.... I feel very young and, somehow, I feel older. Isn't that strange?''

Since Rabin's assassination, only the extreme right-wing fringe has not been expressing remorse over Saturday's assassination.

''I didn't support Rabin. I really hated all this leftist stuff about giving back the territories to the Arabs. But that doesn't mean that anyone should assassinate him,'' says Shmuel Azran, an engineer from the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim while he was visiting a trendy quarter of Jerusalem yesterday.

''You won't believe this but I, a right-winger, sat up all night in front of the television, and I cried like a little baby ... my wife and neighbors too. The tears just rolled down because it's so terrible that this could happen.''

''Anyway, it [the assassination] will just help the left. Now more people will vote for the [ruling] Labor Party and for peace. So, it's not just that it was awful and horrible. It was stupid, too.''

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