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The world reacts to Israel's tragedy // In bay area, disappointed and hopeful

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was doubly shocking to members of Tampa Bay's Jewish community. Stunned first by his death, many were stunned again by news that the suspect was Jewish.

Most expressed confidence that Rabin's death would not derail the tenuous peace he helped craft between Israel and the Palestinians.

"I'm not sure why I didn't expect it," said Rabbi Richard Birnholz of Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa. "I guess I always hoped that Israel would be one step higher up the moral ladder than the other countries."

Still, Birnholz said, he should have known.

"(Rabin) and (Yasser) Arafat each had a 50-50 chance of being assassinated . . . either by the opposition or one of their own," he said.

In Clearwater, Lawrence Silver was watching football on television when a bulletin crossed his screen.

"My first reaction was absolute heartbreak," said Silver, a member of the conservative Congregation Aliyah. "It reminded me of the day Kennedy was shot."

But despite the assassination, Silver remains encouraged about the prospects for lasting peace and predicts Rabin's death will hasten its arrival.

He compared the situation to the effect President John Kennedy's death had in speeding the passage of civil rights legislation 30 years ago in the U.S.

"I think there is a window of opportunity now," Silver said. "I think it will pull Israelis together, and while there will still be opposition, it will make people aware of how critical it is to get the process completed."

Jacob Neusner, a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida, thinks the killing will strengthen support for Rabin's party. "The impact since the murderer was a Jew was completely to discredit the extremist party that he represents. I think Rabin's party will sweep the election, and it will happen soon," Neusner said, making an analogy to the landslide election of Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy was killed.

First, though, there must be time for healing, said Howard Borer, executive vice president of the Tampa Jewish Federation.

"The Israeli society is going to be so torn apart . . . the Israelis are going to have to look inward to see how they reached the stage at which this could happen," he said.

Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman witnessed the September 1993 signing of the peace agreement between Israel and the PLO. "Obviously there will be a slowdown . . . so the country can mourn, but I think the Israeli government will be even more determined to see the peace process continue," Freedman said.

Even those who did not fully support Rabin's policies in Israel equated his murder with the loss of a hero.

"I was uncomfortable with many of his policies and viewpoints on the peace process . . . but what this (assassin) did violates any of the laws of Judaism," said Mike Eisenstadt, the host of Sunday Simcha, a local Jewish show on WMNF radio.

"It is an affront to the Jewish people. This is not the way you do things," Eisenstadt said.

In the bay area as in Israel, many agree that Rabin's courage and determination will be missed.

"There are few people in the world who hold leadership positions who are willing to take on their own people because of a principle," said Mark Silverberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Pinellas County.

"(Martin Luther) King was one," he said. "Rabin, I think, was another."