Professor praises legacy of slain Israeli leader WMC instructor is Israeli of Palestinian descent who backed peace plan

November 12, 1995|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin brought back a distant memory for Western Maryland College Professor Mohamed Esa.

Dr. Esa, an Israeli citizen of Palestinian heritage who teaches German, was 13 when he met Mr. Rabin at a political event he attended with his uncle. At the time, Mr. Rabin was just beginning his political career after commanding the Israeli army.

"When he was shaking hands with my uncle, he asked, 'Who is that little guy?' in Hebrew," recalled Dr. Esa, 36. "People have the feeling that Rabin was very tough because he was a military person, but inside he is very, very soft."

In Dr. Esa's view, that combination of tough and tender made it possible for Mr. Rabin to transform himself from commander in chief of the Israeli army to world peacemaker. "Rabin changed a lot," Dr. Esa said. "As a person, as a general, as a prime minister, as a Jew, as an Israeli."

After learning of Mr. Rabin's death last week at the hands of a law student associated with a Jewish right-wing group, Dr. Esa said, he immediately wanted to go home to Israel to pay his respects to the fallen leader.

The trip wasn't possible because of his teaching schedule at Western Maryland, so Dr. Esa decided to invite the college community to express its sorrow at Mr. Rabin's death.

Wednesday, Dr. Esa collected the signatures of about 650 students and faculty members and faxed them, along with a letter of sympathy to the state of Israel and the Rabin family, to the Israeli Embassy in Washington and to the interim prime minister, Shimon Peres.

Although Dr. Esa grew to have great respect for Mr. Rabin, it is difficult for the professor to forget how Palestinians were treated.

"I never had any bad feelings toward him as a person," he said. "But I hated the general in him and how he behaved toward the Palestinians."

Dr. Esa was born in Kafr Qasim, a village east of Tel Aviv, and spent his early years living under severe restrictions enforced by the Israeli army. Palestinians couldn't carry passports, and travel was limited.

In 1964, he became a naturalized Israeli when the government granted citizenship to Arabs living outside the occupied territories.

At 18, Dr. Esa left for Germany, where he earned his doctorate in German. "That's when I really started to become interested in politics," he said. "It was the first time I was free, without any restrictions to say whatever I wanted."

When the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began in 1987, Dr. Esa was angered by Mr. Rabin's orders to "break the bones" of rock-throwing Palestinian youths.

Dr. Esa also was troubled by the arrest and jailing of his brother-in-law, who was accused of planning acts of terror during the uprising. Dr. Esa said that his brother-in-law denied the charges and that the Israeli military had no evidence against him.

Although he was upset, Dr. Esa said he could understand why those incidents occurred.

Mr. Rabin "had to play tough as a defense minister and protect his own people," he said.

Despite his opposition to many of Mr. Rabin's policies over the years, Dr. Esa developed a great admiration for him after the Israeli leader signed a historic peace agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in September 1993.

"He really showed the world that he changed," Dr. Esa said. "If somebody like that can change, why can't we all change?"

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