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Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin

Rabin1 Illustration by Liora Blum

November 4 was the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995, and his life and contribution to the State of Israel were once again remembered. He was a military leader, ambassador, prime minister, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, to mention just a few. There were successes, failures and controversies, but for me, he will always be Yitzhak Rabin, the man, the prime minister who took the time to read – and relate to – one new immigrant's letter of concern.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I had always been active in politics and political campaigns. I even remember canvassing our Beverlywood neighborhood with my mother for Adlai Stevenson's second presidential campaign when I was seven years old. I grew up knowing that elected officials were there to serve their public. If you had a problem, you could turn to your representative. In Israel, however, I had no elected congressperson or senator. I had only a prime minister. And I had a direct line to him. I can't imagine the resulting scenario happening anywhere but in Israel, where I had been living for five years then.

I was a pioneer on a new moshav, established by Rabin's Labor party in 1970. We lived in temporary housing for over four years while the moshav was being built. With the completion of our permanent site in the Jordan Rift Valley, the late Prime Minister honored us, we were about forty families, by visiting the moshav. Joining him were representatives of the housing ministry and the contractor who built the settlement.

The sun was bright in the cloudless sky above the Rift valley. There were no green lawns yet and the young date trees were not much taller than the toddlers who ran around the brick paths between the homes. Several rows of chairs had been set up on the basketball court for families and other residents of the kibbutzim and moshavim in the area. PM Rabin and his entourage stood around a wooden table that was covered with a plain white tablecloth and set with packaged cookies, fruit and pitchers of water. After discussing the expected subjects: security, water sources, our crops for export, the topic changed to the building of the moshav. Several members raised the point that the quality of construction of our homes was rather sub-standard.

I took a deep breath and raised my hand. An aide pointed at me. Now I was standing and speaking directly to the Prime Minister of Israel – about a slanted floor! The PM was listening intently, much to the dismay of the contractor and the housing ministry officials. In mid-sentence, developing my deeper point, I was put down when his press secretary broke in and announced,

"The Prime Minister isn't interested in listening to these complaints."

Flustered and trying to figure out what to do or say, I heard that famous Yitzhak Rabin drawl.

"The Prime Minister is interested in what they have to say!"

I can see him now, looking at me with compassion, his words bringing me back to life. His aide retreated but deftly moved the conversation in a different direction to prevent unpleasant confrontations.

But I hadn't made my point yet and I knew they'd think I was wasting our prime minister's time with silly problems. "Spoiled American." I knew what I had to do: write a letter straight to the top. I had no congressman or senator who represented me. Only a prime minister. When the event was over, I immediately wrote the letter. "It's the reasons behind the poor quality of work," I explained. "It's the lack of work ethic. It's the 'it will be fine' attitude that I'm worried about more than a slanted floor." I put the sealed envelope in our office where the infrequent mobile post would pick it up.

Two weeks later I received a reply from the prime minister's office.

"Your letter has been received and your complaint will be looked into."

A form letter, I was sure, sent to placate a disgruntled citizen and to fulfill their obligation to acknowledge all letters sent to the PM. Was I ever wrong! A few weeks later my husband came home waving a message he had received from the moshav secretary:

"Senior representatives of the housing ministry are coming here on Thursday. They're not coming to see the whole moshav, just our house."

"What?"

"It's because of your letter."

Through my shock I still had the power of observation to realize that I had better start cleaning my house.

We were the envy of the moshav. All those powerful officials were coming to examine our house because of my letter to the prime minister. I confidently showed them all the building flaws in our house, including slanted walls and a very slanted bathroom floor. This floor had been the main catalyst in my demand for repairs when we first moved in. The contractor had offered to fix this "inconvenience" of water cascading out the bathroom, across the hallway and into our bedroom by building a cement barrier on the floor at the edge of the shower stall. "That will be good enough," he said, laughing at me when I demanded a new floor.

As the experts checked and measured and whispered among themselves, the contractor put his arm around my shoulders and guided me away.

"You know, when you have a complaint, there's a chain of command that you have to follow. You don't jump right to the top."

I pulled myself loose, looked him in the eye and said, "Yes, you do, when you get no response from the lower levels."

The following week his workers tore up my bathroom floor, replacing it with expertly leveled tiles.

Over the next several years, as spokesperson for the moshav, I saw Yitzhak Rabin at meetings of the Labor party both in Tel Aviv and in the Rift Valley. Although he might have nodded at me in some sort of recognition at times, I doubt he remembered the complaint encounter and its aftermath. But for me, it remains a highlight of my fifty-one years in Israel.

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Tuesday, 18 January 2022

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