From her hilltop kibbutz perched in the peaks of the Naphtali mountain range, Rachel Rabin casts a longing look down at the valleys of Lebanon, for a peace that never came to pass.
“In those Lebanese villages, we had many friends. Every day we’d head down to them to bring food and water back to the kibbutz. We were practically neighbors. They even came to our parties.”
Rabin reflects on different episodes from her life story, which are inextricably woven into the history of the nation. She remembers the early days, 78 years ago, where they lived in dusty tents without water access; war times when terrorists infiltrated the kibbutz and stole precious munitions; and the present, peaceful years of retirement overlooking the breathtaking landscape.
Her crisp, slow Hebrew evokes that of her brother, Yitzhak. Her story of pioneering the nation's founding is a coherent narrative, yet her heart still carries an open wound. Ever since that fateful Saturday night 26 years ago.
Family Roots, National Roots
“In the house I grew up in, we didn’t talk about values with erudite language, but the message was clear,” she recalls. “My parents were a living example of generosity and caring for others. The message was that you work to make a living, and all public activity was done afterwards on a volunteer basis. My parents were among the founders of the Haganah [the underground pre-state defense force], activists in the unions of the Histadrut, and indefatigably working toward public interest, but after work hours.”
“Sometimes people think it’s a joke that our parents met in the Haganah, but it’s true,” Rachel says with a smile.
She explains that their mother, Rosa Cohen, came to Israel “with the sole purpose of escaping Russia; she boarded the first ship leaving the port.” In Israel, she quickly fell in with the chalutzim. She joined Kvutzat Kinneret, one of Israel’s earliest experiments in socialistic kibbutz life, and upon falling ill with malaria, moved to Jerusalem to live with her uncle.
When the 1920 Jerusalem riots broke out [in April], “she was appalled. She said to herself: ‘Is it possible that even in our homeland, Jews can be the victims of riots?’ Without asking anyone, she hurried to aid the wounded in the Old City. Without knowing the language, without coordinating with anyone, she just acted from her gut.”
There, at the Jaffa Gate to the Old City, she first met Nehemiah Rabin, a veteran of the Jewish Legion [of the British Army during WW1] who had snuck onto an ambulance to the Old City to help defend the residents. Nehemiah, Rachel and Yitzhak’s father, was also born in Russia, but emigrated to the United States at age 18.
“In Chicago, he worked as a tailor in a clothing factory,” Rachel recalls. “He would tell us that they let him work on an electric sewing machine, work that was considered simple, but everything he sewed came out crooked.”
He made aliyah at the invitation of Pinchas Rutenberg, a Russian Jewish engineer, and worked for him building one of Israel’s first water-powered electrical stations at Naharayim.
“Following the riots in Jerusalem, Nehemiah decided to stay in Israel; he felt that he had something to contribute,” Rachel continues.
Over the course of his whole professional career, he worked for Israel’s national electric company, was a member of the union, and active in the Haganah. During his work as the supervisor of telephone operation in the North, he moved to Haifa, where he met Rosa again, who had helped to found the Haganah in the city. They got married and Rosa became pregnant.
“Before the birth, she was bitten by a dog and needed medical treatment,” Rachel explains. “She moved back to live with her uncle in Jerusalem for a few months, and there Yitzhak was born.”
She pulls an old, highlighted newspaper clipping out of the closet with Yitzhak Rabin’s birth notice. She reads aloud: “The Workers’ Council of Haifa blesses its members Rosa and Nehemiah on the birth of their firstborn, may he grow up to be a fighter in Israel” (underlined in the original text).
“Three years later, in 1925, I was born, and we moved to Tel Aviv,” Rachel recalls. As she remembers their childhood, she emphasizes the atmosphere at home.
“Nothing was lacking, even though there weren’t any luxuries. Our parents always showed us in their behavior that true satisfaction comes from helping others. Nothing major is ever done by a single person; people must work together,” she says.
“Their message was always that if you think you need to do something that needs to be done, just do it, don’t wait for someone else to do it. Our parents’ dream was for us to realize those ideals on a kibbutz, that we would settle the land and establish kibbutzim.”
“My mother was a brave soldier,” Rachel goes on. “She was the first and only woman in the history of the Haganah to be appointed a city commander. People always think I kept my last name because of Yitzhak, but in reality, it was my mother’s influence.”
Their mother passed away at the age of 47.
“They wanted to bury her in Trumpledor, the cemetery for people of stature,” Rachel says. “My father didn’t agree to it. He reminded the dignitaries that she once said that people are discriminated against not only in life, but also in death. So she was buried at the Nahalat Yitzhak [municipal cemetery].”
When their mother died, Rachel was 12 years old and Yitzhak was 15.
“He rushed back from Kaduri [agricultural boarding school],” she says. “It was the first and only time in my life that I saw him weeping bitterly. There was a very special bond between them. The grief of losing our mother accompanied us for many years.”
Yitzhak, the Protector
“I loved him a lot,” she says simply. “I remember when we were kids, I would kiss him nonstop, and it would bother him, so he would tell our parents: ‘tell her to stop, otherwise I’ll have to hit her.’
“From a young age we were left at home alone, and Yitzhak would take care of me. He really looked after me well. While other kids would say, ‘I’m telling Dad’, I would say instead: ‘I’m telling Yitzhak’. He always protected me and cared for me; I can barely remember myself without him.
“I would tag along with him and his friends, and he never kicked me out. It gave me security, knowing he was with me, looking out for me – it was something powerful, seared onto me in childhood, and it stayed with me all these years.
Rachel tells a story of how once Yitzhak was interviewed on the radio, and said that he felt a deep feeling of loneliness at home, even before he went away to school and before his mother died.
“I told him it was strange, that he emphasized the sense of loneliness, but I never felt lonely,” she says. “We tried to understand why, and quickly put it together. I had him, and it seems I couldn’t offer him what he provided me. Suddenly I understood how much security he gave me over the years.”
Rachel says that she felt this sense of protection even thousands of kilometers away.
“Anyone who lives in a place like Menara viscerally experiences the decisions made at the top levels,” she explains. “Political and defense decisions translate directly into daily life. And as long as Yitzhak was among the decision-makers, I was at peace. I knew he was well-reasoned, I trusted him.”
Yitzhak, a quiet introvert , also shared secrets with his sister.
“One day he came to visit me at school. He had red shoes, different from the black ones he usually wore. I asked him: ‘What are those shoes you have on?’ He answered: ‘I snuck into Lebanon.’ I said ‘What?!’ and he replied, ‘you can’t tell anyone.’”
Rabin was one of the first members of the Palmach, an elite fighting unit of the Haganah. In 1941, the Palmach operated under British rule, against the Vichy regime in Lebanon. Rabin was sent into Lebanon to disconnect telephone lines between Bint Jbeil, Tyre, and Marjayoun.
“Because he was the youngest in the group,” Rachel explains, “he was the one to climb the telephone poles and cut the lines.”
Yitzhak went on to fight in the 1948 War of Independence as commander of the elite Harel brigade, which fought to open supply lines to Jerusalem.
“Yitzhak and I got married three days apart from each other. It was during the first ceasefire of the Independence War; we took advantage of the break in fighting to hold weddings,” Rachel recounts. “First was my wedding with Rafi, attended by Rafi’s parents and my father; Yitzhak couldn’t make it. Three days later was Yitzhak and Leah’s wedding and party.”
Yitzhak, Nobel Prize winner
Over the years and his ensuing career in the army and in politics, Yitzhak always updated his sister as much as he could. After serving as Commander in Chief during the Six Day War, Rabin was asked to be Israeli ambassador to the United States in 1968.
“I told him, ‘what will you do at all those cocktail parties? It’s not for you.’ He replied: ‘If you think that all an ambassador does is attend cocktail parties, then you don’t know anything.’ I really didn’t know; how should I have known?”
He invited Rachel to visit him in Washington, D.C.
“He really pushed us to come,” she remembers. “I tried to explain to him that it was complicated and expensive, but he insisted. He said, ‘Come, I’ll handle the costs.’ When we got to Washington, he showed us everything. I told him,‘Yitzhak, if you don’t find work, you could always be a tour guide. You’re a wonderful guide.’”
Rachel explains how excited she was when he invited her to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. Rabin won the prize in 1994 along with Shimon Peres and head of the Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat, for their shared work on the Oslo Accords.
“I looked at him – embarrassed, proud, and blushing – and thought to myself how proud our parents would be if they knew their son would reach this stage. I approached him and thanked him earnestly for inviting me. I told him it wasn’t something to be taken for granted, and he responded: ‘You’re my sister, Rachel. For me it is obvious.’”
Menara, Mountain of Rocks
Rachel told of how she ended up on Kibbutz Menara on Israel’s border with Lebanon. The story begins with her involvement in the socialist Zionist youth movement HaNoar HaOved v’HaLomed.
“I’ve been here since day one, January 1943. It was a mountain of ice and rocks, with chill that penetrated to the bone. We lived in tents,” she describes.
“My original kvutzah in Hanoar HaOved went to found Kibbutz Revivim [in the Negev]. I switched to another kvutzah, and we went to the training farm on Kfar Giladi in the north,” she continues. “One day, they told us that the Jewish National Fund had acquired lands on Mount Menara and they were looking for people to settle it. We said: ‘Us! We’re already here and already expecting to be sent to settle somewhere.’
At that time, Rachel was trained in radio communication and Morse code along with one other member of her kvutzah. It had to be a secret from the rest of the kvutzah so not to endanger them.
“The other person [trained] was sent to an Aliyah Bet ship, so I was the only one left. I lived in a cabin that also functioned as the clothing warehouse for the kibbutz. In one of the cabin walls, I would hide the radio transmission suitcase, so the British wouldn’t find it.
“It kept me at Menara. I had to be here at all times. At that time, there wasn’t enough space for the whole kvutzah to settle here, so people would take turns coming up, staying for a couple weeks, and living at Kfar Giladi the rest of the time. I had to stay the whole time and it really bothered people. They envied me, asking why she never rotates. I could never tell them the reason.”
In these early stages, another kvutzah joined them from another youth movement, and one of the newcomers was Rafi Ya’akov, Rachel’s eventual husband. He managed to escape Germany in 1939 and made aliyah to Kfar Giladi. They got married during the ceasefire of the war of Independence, while both were enlisted in the Haganah and living on the kibbutz, which also functioned as a border outpost.
Life in isolated Menara was difficult. There was no road, only a narrow shepherd’s trail descending to the Arab village Al-Khalisa, on whose ruins the city Kiryat Shmona was eventually built.
“We would bring water in barrels from the neighboring Lebanese villages. Just enough for cooking. Once a week, we would go shower at Kfar Giladi. Returning took two hours on foot, it was dusty and sweaty. We would return from showering dirtier than when we’d left. It took ten years for the water pipes to reach us, and only once it arrived were we able to plant proper orchards.
“But what I found hard wasn’t the physical conditions – I struggled with people leaving,” Rachel says. “People were always leaving the kibbutz and it made me sad. I remember a friend telling me she had decided to leave. I told her: ‘You’re abandoning me here?’ And she said: ‘I’m not abandoning you, come with me.’ But I chose to remain.
“Rafi wanted to leave, he suggested moving to another kibbutz a few times. I refused. I liked this place, and I believe in Zionism. I said ‘If I believe the Jews should live on this rocky mountain, why shouldn’t I live here myself?’”
Education, Her Life’s Work
She took on leadership roles in the kibbutz from the very beginning and served as Secretary General five times. But her life’s work was education. At first, she worked as a kindergarten teacher for the first generation born on the kibbutz. Later, she was the teacher of the kibbutz’ first class of students. When they reached 10th grade, her students moved over to the school at nearby Kfar Szold. When her second class reached high school age, she founded the regional school Har v’Guy, or “Hill and Valley.”
“The students chose the school’s name,” she explains.
Much like her mother, who established the regional school for children of working families at Givat Hashlosha after Yitzhak finished elementary school, Rachel also sensed a need to establish a regional school.
“Menara was always a small kibbutz. Because of the distance, we never managed to become a large kibbutz. We didn’t have many students in a class,” she explains. “I felt that we had to open a regional school, even if it contradicted the educational platform of the Kibbutz Movement, who believed each kibbutz should have its own school.”
She also took on leadership roles in the Kibbutz Movement, and leaders of the movement wanted her to run for Knesset.
“I told them, ‘Leave me alone, that I’ll leave to my brother,’” she laughs.
Later, in 1981, she was appointed as director of oversight in the settlement division of the Education Ministry, tasked with overseeing all the secondary schools of the kibbutzim and moshavim. In 1994, she was appointed chairperson of the Organization of Academic Colleges for Kibbutz Movement Education – Oranim College and the Kibbutz Seminar.
The Children and the Wars
Tirzah, her oldest daughter, was born in 1950. Four years later, Rafi and Rachel adopted Binia Jadidi, a six-year-old boy who had made aliyah from Persia with his family, whose father passed away, and whose mother was living with his younger brothers in a refugee absorption camp. The couple later had two more sons: Yiftach and Gadi.
Rachel tells how Binia “was a hero in the Six Day War and then entered a course for commanders.”
After his release, he returned to Menara, was accepted as a kibbutz member, and managed the orchards. During the Yom Kippur War, he commanded a unit fighting in the Golan Heights and was killed by artillery fire.
“An officer with experience and professional knowledge, calm under pressure, a skilled leader, and loved by all,” then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan wrote about Binia. “In all activities in which he took part, he fulfilled his role above and beyond expectations,” his commander Matan Vilnai eulogized.
On the southern front of the Yom Kippur War, Yiftach, Rachel’s second son, was badly wounded during the combat in the Sinai.
“Yiftach was the commander of a tank division, and they barely evacuated him from that hell. He was very badly wounded: broken and burned. He laid in bed for four and a half months in the hospital.
“He was wounded while evacuating the team of another tank. He was in the turret, was hit by direct fire, and thrown from the tank. In that spot, the dead and wounded were scattered about – both Egyptians and ours. [His officer] Berty Ohayon went one by one asking, ‘Are you Jewish?’ When he reached Yiftach, he answered: ‘I am, but it’s hard to be a Jew.’ Berty carried him out. That night, in that very place, 122 of our men were killed.”
Rachel’s father, Nehemiah, joined the Ya’akov-Rabin family in his old age.
“After Yitzhak went to serve as ambassador in Washington, my father came to live here in Menara. He loved the kibbutz and asked to be buried here.”
Rafi Ya’akov passed away nine years ago, and Rachel still lives in her modest kibbutz apartment. Some of her descendants live on the two floors above her. Over the years she has been blessed with 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, with two more on the way.
When asked about her age, she raised four fingers and said, “this is all that’s left until the awaited 100.”
When it comes to current events, she exhibits an optimism tinged with critique.
“The media always exaggerates everything, they present the bad things because it pulls people in, but the situation here is good. We have wonderful youth,” she says, explaining how she often meets with students at schools, youth movements, and soldiers.
However, she is troubled by the state of the left today.
“The left lost its path. The left doesn’t bring the content it is meant to place front and center. It betrayed its socialist values and is therefore not attractive.”
The Fateful Night
“We had a telepathic connection” Rachel says about the relationship with her brother. “Once he was hurt in a motorcycle accident [in December of 1945]. I was already in Menara. Mail would reach Kfar Giladi and someone would head down every day with a mule to bring the mail.
“That morning I told a friend I had a feeling something had happened to Yitzhak. She told me to stop worrying. Around midday, they told me that the person with the mail was looking for me. I approached him and immediately asked: ‘What happened to Yitzhak?’ I knew.”
Rachel also saw the writing on the wall before the assassination, with the escalation of the violent incitement against him. Two weeks before it happened, she saw leaders of the Kibbutz Movement in Tel Aviv during Sukkot.
“I thought they weren’t protecting him enough. I told them that they had abandoned Yitzhak. ‘The street is going crazy,’ I said, ‘and no one is doing anything about it, they’re not protecting him properly.’
“I told them they needed to take some people, strongmen, and wherever he was, they’d be there too. They told me: ‘Yitzhak won’t agree to it.’ I said: ‘Who asked him anyways? Don’t you see what’s happening?’ Two weeks later, he was killed.”
I asked her what she remembers of their last meeting.
“We would speak every Shabbat,” she recalls. “He would come back from tennis and call me. Because I knew it would be a busy Shabbat, I called him on Friday. He was worried demonstrators wouldn’t show up to the [pro-peace] rally and I tried to reassure him.
“On Saturday night ,we sat here at home and watched the rally on television. I told Rafi, ‘Look how lovely, how successful the rally is.’ And then they said: ‘Breaking news.’ We thought it had to do with Lebanon because that same day we’d heard a number of explosions. And then they announced what they announced.
“I immediately tried to call all the phone numbers I had, but no one answered. I couldn’t anymore, so I asked Rafi to try. He got a hold of [journalist] Eitan Haber. Eitan told me: ‘Come to Ichilov Hospital’ immediately. On the way, we heard on the radio that he was gone.”