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Monday, March 26, 2012

On Terrorism

     The terrorist act on March 19 in Toulouse, France, has been on my mind ever since. That day, 23 year old Muhammad Merah—a French national of Algerian origin arrived on his stolen scooter to Ozar Hatorah Jewish Day School and cold bloodedly murdered Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, aged 30, his two sons Arieh 5, and Gabriel 4. Then he captured Miriam Monsonego, the 7 year old daughter of the school’s director, and brutally killed her. A week earlier Merah had murdered four French paratroopers, reportedly accusing them of killing his Muslim brethren in Afghanistan.

     I know the anguish of losing a husband to the violence of war, and I witness closely the suffering of my bereaved in-laws. My grieving mother-in-law did not look very different from the mother of one of the murdered French paratroopers who was shown by the media at her son’s state funeral. But I am too frightened to imagine the agony of a woman who suddenly lost her husband and her two young children, or the pain of the grandparents who lost their young grandchildren and their son or son-in-law. 

     Muhammad Merah’s senseless terrorist acts brought me back to the conversations I had had over fifteen years ago with women who suffered the consequences of conflict (as part of the same project I mentioned in my last blog), among them four women of different Zionist leanings, each remarkable in her own way, who, too, lost loved-ones to acts of terrorism, and whose stories I would like to briefly retell.

     Bat-Ami was born in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. When she was two-and-a-half years old her parents hid her with a Christian family, hoping to reunite with her at the end of the war, but that was not to happen.

     In 1947, together with other young Holocaust survivors, she had been smuggled to Palestine, the land that would become Israel a year later. There she found her brother, who had survived World War II by escaping to Russia at the war’s onset. They were the only survivors of a large family.

     She was placed in kibbutz Dan in near the Syrian border, where she ultimately met her future husband, Shlomo, who had arrived in the Kibbutz under circumstances that were similar to hers. In time, they left the Kibbutz and moved to a town south-east of Tel-Aviv, raising two sons and a daughter.

     They taught their children the values of equality, fraternity and justice for all, including an unequivocal recognition of the right of two nations--one Jewish, one Arab--to coexist in the same homeland, and rejecting the idea that their country could build a two-class society on the basis of nationalism. 

     In July 1989 Shlomo was killed with fifteen other passengers who were riding on a bus en route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, when an Islamic Jihad terrorist attacked it.

     Bat Ami and Shlomo were preparing to leave the following day for a trip to Poland to rediscover their toots, and continue from there to Canada to visit one of their sons and meet their new daughter-in-law.

     Getting ready for the trip, Bat Ami was at the beauty parlor at the same time that her husband was killed. When she returned home, as a habit, she turned on the radio to listen to the news. Like most Israelis she was shocked to hear about the horrific terrorist attack that unbeknown to her killed her husband.

     Believing that Shlomo spent the day in Tel Aviv, buying gifts for their son’s family, she had no reason to suspect that he was on the bus traveling to Jerusalem. But when he did not arrive for lunch or dinner; when uncharacteristically he did not call to alert her that he would be delayed, she knew that something awful had happened to him.

     She went through the normal stages of grief, including her anger at her husband for traveling to Jerusalem. Perhaps he could not find in Tel Aviv the photo album of Israel’s history that she had asked him to buy as a gift for their daughter-in-law’s parents, and traveled to Jerusalem to get it. That she would never know. What she did know was that Shlomo‘s death was senseless.

     While she had accepted the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, she rejected terrorism as a means. She opposed, too, the idea of sacrificing human life in the name of nationalism, whether Jewish or Arab, and she rejected vengeance, embracing instead forgiveness and reconciliation between both societies. And she believed that women could lead the way.

     Incidentally, the man who had killed her husband was among the 1,027 prisoners who were exchanged for Gilad Shalit in October 2011, after his five years in captivity by Hamas. 
     At the time of our conversation Ilana was a twenty-nine year old mother of four young children and a widow who had lost her husband Mordechai in a 1993 terrorist attack near the West Bank settlement of Tekoa.

     After years of frustrating attempts, in 1988 she and her husband had immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. She was a school counselor, he was an artist.

     When we spoke two years after Mordechai's murder, she was trying to live a relatively ordinary life, not only because she felt she owed a sense of normalcy to her children, but because she refuse to be pitied by others.

     Unlike Bat Ami, Ilana embraced the notion of sacrifice, believing that Mordechai expected to give up his life for the pioneering cause of settling the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, as it is called by Israelis.

     They went through much trouble to immigrate to Israel and to settle where they did because of their firm belief that Jews belonged in the land that was once Biblical Israel, and that they had both the right and duty to settle there in spite of obvious dangers of living among Palestinian Arabs outside of Israel proper. 

     In that sense her husband's death was very meaningful to her. As terrible as losing Mordechai was, she was convinced that they had done the right thing settling where they did, and that Mordechai was not murdered in vain. In fact, the sacrifice of his life was an added reason for her staying in Alon Shevut, where they lived.

     Unlike Bat Ami, she did not believe that forgiveness was possible and that shared memories of past violence could serve as a tool for reconciliation. On the contrary: Such memories could only inhibit peace efforts. The pain and the anger that the conflict had caused were too deep; the disparity too wide.

     But she did believe that women, especially terror victims, had a potential political role, not necessarily that of peace-makers, but that of alerting the public about the direction the country was taking negotiations peace with the Palestinians. But she could not be part of it, for, her main function was assuming her role as a mother.

     The stories of the two other women will be told in my next blog.


  1. Ziva,

    you should weave these thoughts and stories together into a collection of essays for a book. Your point about how the loss of a loved one actually would humanize a person and allow her/him to humanize the other side is a valid one. It takes like personal suffering and loss to know what suffering and loss are. And mothers are best poised to do so.

  2. Yan, thanks for your comment. I tried, perhaps not hard enough. My guess is that I tried too early in history (well before 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan). I think that at that time the stories were too anecdotal to academic presses and too academic to the trade. I did write, however, about my conclusions of my study and spoke about it in conferences and other forums. Perhaps I'll try again after the memoir is published.