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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.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Military Wives

     War is hell though it is legal and sometime just. And in that hell awful things happen, some of them intended, others that are not.

     Because soldiers are trained to kill their enemies society often pays more attention to the unintended killing of non combatants--though the cynics among us would say that no killing is unintended—than to the death of servicemen. We even produced a name for the unintentional killing of civilian during war time, calling it “collateral damage”, a term whose origin is traceable to the Viet Nam war.

     When collateral damage occurs, we often invoke the principle of proportionality that is codified in a number of international treaties, such as the Hague Conventions of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949, allowing nation-states to defend themselves, provided that the force they use is proportional to the injury they suffered or expect to suffer, though experts agree that the proportionality principle is contextual and open to interpretation.

     What has not been codified and what is rarely discussed, however, is another form of collateral damage, which is the suffering of those who remain in the rear during wartime, mostly the spouses of soldiers who actively participate in war; women in particular.

     This past week we paid much attention to the horrendous act of an American soldier identified as Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who is accused of the cold blooded killing of sixteen civilians, mostly unprotected women and children in a town near his base in Afghanistan. The reasons behind Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’s alleged action will undoubtedly be argued by his opponents and supporters alike, and by his legal team, most likely provoking a national debate about the expectation a professional army should have from its soldiers. 

     But we paid little to no attention to Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’s wife Karilyn, until  this weekend, when the media revealed the content of her blogs about her experiences as an Army wife, left in the rear while her husband was fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

     The subject of women and war has captivated a growing number of feminist theorists and other social scientists since the early 1980. Thus, some scholars surveyed the role of women warriors, the exploitation of women workers in wartime, the changing role of women in the military, or the role of women in resistant and revolutionary movements. Others studied the role of women as peacemakers, often dissociating them from war and bloodshed, connecting instead womanhood with pacifism and motherhood with anti-war activism. And even though war has devastated women for centuries, it was not until the mid-1990s, when the mass rape of women as a war-fighting method in Bosnia and Rwanda became public, did the victimization of women by war gain the public attention the subject deserves. At the same time, the subject of women’s aggrievement and other anguish brought upon them by war and its aftermath has gotten little attention. The wives of active-duty soldiers who stay in the rear while their male companions are busy planning, executing and fighting war, often far away from home, fall under this category.  The neglect of their suffering does not reflect the sacrifice these women have made for their nations; nor their potential leverage in their societies.

     Over fifteen years ago as part of a post-doctorate project I conducted, I interviewed Israeli and Palestinian woman who suffered the consequences of conflict and war. Based on their personal experiences, most of the respondents believed that women suffer the consequence of war differently than men. Widows, for example, contended that their societies set much more stringent standards of behavior for them compared to widowers. Others explained the different behavior of men and women in terms of the two sexes' contrasting roles in national war efforts.  Men are usually engaged in war planning and in actual fighting, having no time, chance, or natural inclination to worry about life back home.  Females, on the other hand, are left the burden of domestic responsibilities in addition to worrying about their loved ones in the front.

     Most interviewees thought that the number of women involved in decision-making on military and security issues was not only disturbingly low, but that their participation could change the nature of such decisions. Most were also convinced that their role in their national and existential struggles was no different from that of the male members of their societies even if such a role assumed a different responsibility than that of men.

     I wonder how women like Karylin Bales would compare their unglorified status with that of their glorified military husbands.

Monday, March 12, 2012


     Since I posted my last essay I read a blog about the duration of grief, written by an anguished widow. Grieving depends on many factors, she correctly observed, including age and maturity, the bereaved character, his or her physical and mental health, their religious beliefs, and their support system.

     But grief also depends on who we are grieving for. The grief of a parent, for example, is not the same as that of a spouse, or a sibling or a child; the grief of being abandoned by a lover is still different.

     At the age of twenty-one, I experienced the grief of losing my unborn girl after twenty weeks of pregnancy. A year later I grieved for my baby boy who was born at twenty-two weeks of my pregnancy. He weighed 800 grams and lived for thirty-six hours. Then, when I was twenty-three, after three years of marriage, my twenty-eight year old husband was suddenly killed in war. I saw him minutes before he died, burnt beyond recognition and suffocating. A month later, once again I lost our unborn child, not only grieving for him or her, but feeling overwhelmed by my own sense of guilt for depriving my in-laws of their future grandchild, the only legacy left of their fallen son.

     I did not see or touch my babies, yet I grieved for them. But the grief for my husband was different: After his death I went through the pain and torment, the loneliness, and the stages of numbness, anger and hate—yes, I hated him for leaving me—and normalization.

     In 2004 I lost my only sister, who died two weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer, and I grieved differently for her than I grieved for my fallen husband so many years earlier. Both my parents died at a relatively young age, and I could not even be at my father’s funeral because the religious establishment in the country where he lived—the country from where I immigrated to the US—did not wait for me for his burial because I was not his son (who would recite the Kaddish prayer at the grave side). I grieved differently for each of them. 

     Writing about my losses scares me intensely, for it reminds me of our vulnerability and the randomness of loss. So beyond the pain, grief has other consequences: Deep, dark, lasting fear was mine.

     But there is life after grieving: In my second year of mourning I became an activist, demanding certain rights for a group of childless war widows in my country. Additionally and unintentionally I became a mentor to many young widows who sought my help.

     Two and a half years into my widowhood I immigrated to the US; and four and a half years after I became a widow I remarried and rebuilt my life. Today I am a wife who has been married for forty years; a mother of one daughter and a mother-in-law; a grandmother of two adorable children; an educator and a writer. Yet that new life that I created for me has always been connected to and built on my past experiences of both tragedy and triumphs. And in that life I built I often think of my tremendous losses. But that is OK, for all of my experiences, the good and the bad, made me who I am.

     As for my memoir, my colleagues at Queens College convinced me to be patient and not to publish it as an eBook, as I said I intended to do in my last posting.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Traditional or self-publishing?

     As I continued this past week my path toward publishing my memoir—contacting other writers, pursuing a few more literary agents who specialize in memoirs, and speaking with platform builders, with nostalgia and a bit of cynicism I recalled a popular limerick we pupils wrote to each other in our autograph books upon graduating grammar school: “Life is a war one must fight, one must fight, and not surrender,” (except that in Hebrew--my mother tongue--the words “war” and “surrender” rhymed almost perfectly).

     At the age of fourteen Israeli kids of my generation had lived through two wars, so we knew something about war, but we did not know much about life or the axiomatic quality of that cliché.

     Having been busy with the things I have to learn to do to publish my memoir, without trying to minimize life’s hardships—my own including--this past week I adapted that verse to the game of book publishing, substituting “publishing” for “life.” For one can easily give up trying, once one realizes how laborious the efforts of a non-celebrity memoirists to publish their work are, in the shrinking market of print books, memoirs especially.

     “Unless the literary agent or the publisher sees the potential opportunity of a movie adaptation of the book, regardless its quality, publishing has become a struggle with each new book, no matter how many books one has published.” a multi published novelist told me.

     Still another industry expert revealed to me the secret of the popularity of a mediocre memoir: “a fabulous and costly publicist, one of the best in the market; and the book is a good movie material.” Well, so is mine, I thought.

     “Unless one has thousand of followers, regardless of the quality of his or her book, neither an agent nor a publisher will take the work,” reconfirmed another member of the publishing community.

     “You need to work hard at making yourself known, you need luck, but mostly you need chutzpah,” a published memoirist told me.

     “You need to have faith and believe in fate,” said another.

     I have faith in my product—as do my memoir writing teacher and my editor. I never had too much chutzpah, but I am willing to learn to be more aggressive. As for fate, believing in it may be comforting but highly insufficient on the road to being published. Hence, after researching and debating the pros and cons of self-publishing, which is an option that a growing number of authors choose, I decided to self-publish my memoir as an e-book, the cost of which is a fraction of self-publishing a print book. It’s an investment and a gamble. In the meantime I will continue to solicit agents and publishing houses.

     But it goes without saying that one cannot self-publish without publicity and marketing strategies, the formation of which can be terribly overwhelming, unless one hires a strategist, another option I opted for.

     While the help of a strategist can be invaluable, the implementation by the author of the worked-out strategy can be as demanding as a full time job. And make no mistake: a strategist is not a publicist. That may have to come next, unless I learn the nuances of public relations.

     To me the trade and mass production publishing process is reminiscent of the tenure rout in academia or the road to becoming a full partner in a large law firm, though academicians and lawyers may disagree.

     What else have I learned this week? That Createspace publishes e-books for free but first I need to hire an e-book conversion service to format my Word document into a pre-conversion document. Lulu charges $150 (250 pp.) to convert a formatted manuscript into an e-book, and $150 for a simple cover design. But since I do have an idea of the design I want for my book cover, I may have to hire a designer too. And, because of my technological ineptness I have to hire a technology maven to help me build an optimized website on my blog, teach me how to find other bloggers in my book community, and how to do other things which are the secrets of self-promotion.

     Am I inundated with work? Certainly. Am I complaining? May be, a little. But I am also excited and exhilarated by what I am learning and by the newness of it all, and by the surprises that are awaiting me in my path to telling my story.

     And now it’s time for me to change hats and resume the responsibility of an educator and observer of international relations and Middle East politics, and go read more about the consequences of the Korans burning in Afghanistan; the “overwhelming approval” of a “new” constitution in Syria, and the continuous slaughter of civilians by Assad’s regime; Friday’s parliamentary elections in Iran; today’s meeting between Presidents Obama and Peres in Washington, the meeting there between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on Monday; the prospect of war between Israel and Iran and the Obama Administration’s stand on the military option in its attempt to stop Iran from producing a nuclear weapon.  And then I’ll watch The Good Wife for fun. 

     Please feel free to comment below.