Saturday, April 25, 2015

Another kind of memorial

Thousands attending joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial
photo: Combatants for Peace

At last we know when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began. It started in 1873, exactly seventy-five years before the creation of Israel, and the first casualty in this conflict was Aaron Herschler. His name opens the official list of the Israeli Defense Forces soldiers killed in the line of duty. On Memorial Day every year, that list is broadcast on a special channel of Israeli TV, mournful music accompanies name replacing name on the screen until the whole list is run through, from 1873 to 2015. Also on the rest of the year, the List of the Fallen can be found online. 

This year Aaron Herschler was mentioned specifically in the Prime Minister’s  ceremonial Memorial Day speech. "The blood of our loved ones is soaked in the soil of Israel. Our  boys and girls fell on a mission to secure the existence of our nation. The first to fall was Aaron Herschler in 1873, when Arab rioters attacked a Jewish neighborhood here in Jerusalem. Aaron was a yeshiva student, he cut off his  studies in order to repel the rioters, he tried to catch them but they shot him and he was mortally wounded. He was the forerunner for all the fighters who came after him and defended their homes".

After the Prime Minister’s speech, diligent journalists went to the archives to find out more about that Aaron Herschler. Indeed, the case had been widely reported in the country’s first Jewish newspaper, which started appearance a short time before. According to the contemporary report, there had been no rioters attacking a Jewish neighborhood but simply Arab bandits, stealing  both from other Arabs and from Jews. They broke into the house of Aaron Herschler, 23-year-old yeshiva student, to steal money. Herschler tried to chase them and recover the stolen property. They did open fire, severely injuring him, and he died at the hospital a few days later.

In January 1873, when this incident happened, the Zionist movement was still in its infancy. Theodor Herzl, was a boy of thirteen in Budapest and had no idea that he would grow up to be a renowned Zionist leader. The first Zionist settlement in Israel, Petah Tikva, would be established only five years later. Aaron Herschler was born in Hungary and came to Jerusalem to attend a Yeshiva seminary and join the "Old Yishuv", the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community which for centuries lived among the Arab residents of Jerusalem under Ottoman rule. Members of the Old Yishuv were not enthusiastic about Zionism, to say the least.

What would Aaron Herschler have said if he could have known that a hundred and fifty years after his death there will be in this country a mighty state, with a mighty army. What would he have thought if he could know that  the army of this country would retroactively enlist him in its ranks, and that that county’s Prime Minister would hail him as the first among 23,320 soldiers who gave their lives for this country? And on the other hand , what would have those anonymous thieves said if could have known that the bullets which they fired at the young man pursuing them would be considered in retrospect as the first shots in a war which would last more than a hundred years, a conflict that would figure prominently on the agenda of international diplomacy and engage the attention of the American President and the leaders of Europe and Russia and China? 

Aaron Herschler was not the only shade from the past which Netanyahu conjured up. Also figuring in his speech was Shlomo Ben Yosef. Shlomo Ben-Yosef had been a member of the Jewish nationalist underground known as Etzel of Irgun, and on 21 April 1938 tossed a grenade at an Arab civilian bus on  Rosh Pina–Safed Highway, in revenge and retaliation for acts committed by Arabs in the same area. Ben Yosef was sentenced to death and hanged by the British Mandatory authorities, and  came to be considered a hero and martyr for his cause. In the state of Israel his face appeared on a postage stamp and streets were named after him in many cities. In a song written in 1939, poet Shlomo Skolski praised Ben Yosef and held him up as a model and inspiration for young Jews. The most well known words of that poem are "You don’t conquer the mountain top/If there is no grave on the slope." Those were the words which Netanyahu quoted in his speech on the occasion of Memorial Day 2015, and he too presented them as the model and recommended way of life for young contemporary Israelis.

"Our proud people this day bow down their heads and flag in the greatest of all gratitude to our loved ones who had fallen. Our persecutors and enemies change face, the battlefields remain virtually the same. The more the threats of our enemies to destroy our home increase, the more increases our determination to defend that home. Our spirit has not weakened throughout the years, it grows ever stronger. We have seen that great determination in this past summer in Operation Protective Edge - such courage and fellowship and  togetherness and sacrifice. Unfortunately, in the Middle East as it is we have to continue to fight for our place. Our place here is not to be taken for granted without such a sacrifice. Only through the Iron Wall, each stone of which is held by our sons and daughters in the IDF - only thanks to them can we go on living here and raise our children and grandchildren. Dear families, our loved ones who had fallen have all become the foundation stones of that Iron Wall.” 

The term "Iron Wall" is taken from a well-known 1923 article by Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the ideological current from which today's Likud party emerged.  Jabotinsky argued that it was impossible for the Zionists of his time to hold dialogue and reach agreement with the country’s Arab inhabitants. Instead, he urged his fellows to concentrate on establishing a strong Jewish military force, strong enough that the Arabs would have no choice but to accept Zionism, paving the way for peace.  Evidently, Netanyahu believes that the same still holds nowadays, nearly a century later. Except that if the great force built up by Zionism and Israel in these hundred years was not enough to “convince” the Arabs, it is doubtful if anything ever will.  

Conspicuously absent from the speech of Israel’s Prime Minister was the word "peace" and the phrase "Our hand is always extended in peace to our neighbors," which Israeli Prime Ministers traditionally tend to include in their speeches - even if it often seems no more than lip service. It was the speech of a leader preparing his people for a total war without compromise, without presenting his listeners with the slightest hope of an end to the bloodshed ever. Among other things, this can be considered as finally dispelling the rumors and speculations of Netanyahu intending to invite opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog to join his cabinet and serve as a Foreign Minister who would present a moderate and dovish image to the world.
"We will serve the people from the opposition benches. It is from there we will topple Netanyahu" stated Herzog. "Netanyahu is scare-mongering, spreading poisonous propaganda. It worked in his elections campaign, but eventually it will stop working. With his right-wing  cabinet he is heading for a right-on crash into the wall. His government will get into a dead end, and then maybe the public will see sense".

At just the time that the Prime Minister delivered his speech of blood in Jerusalem, a completely different type of memorial event took place in Tel Aviv. It was the tenth time that an alternative Memorial Day ceremony was organized by the Israeli-Palestinian group of "Combatants for Peace", bringing bereaved Israelis and Palestinians who all lost their loved ones in the ongoing conflict together, let them tell their stories of the personal loss they experienced and comfort each other.

"The common Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony came out of the  initiative of a bereaved father, Buma Inbar," explains Avner Wishnitzer who lost his own son Yotam at Lebanon in 1995. "His intention was to make it possible for the bereaved families to mark Memorial Day while emphasizing a message of reconciliation and an action to prevent further bereavement. We are not strangers to pain. Many of us have served in combat units, have lost relatives and friends. But we must always remember that war is not a foredoomed fate but a personal choice. Precisely on this harsh day we call upon both sides to acknowledge the pain and the hope of those living on the other side of the fence, to try to prevent the next war. "

The first ceremony ten years ago was attended by some two hundred people. Since then the number of participants kept increasing by the year, this time  already reaching many thousands. A large hall was taken and filled to capacity, and many were left out and had to squeeze into adjacent halls where the ceremony was shown on large screens. Big screens attracted considerable numbers of viewers in the Palestinian territories, at several European locations and in California. Many others – in Israel, the Palestinian territories and wordwide, were watching at home via the Internet. Until the last minute there was a tension on whether the Palestinian bereaved families would be able to attend – a settler group tried to get their entry permits to Israel cancelled. But eventually, the Palestinians did arrive and were received with applause.

The Y-Net website concentrated on two of the bereaved parents who participated. Iris Segev of Rosh Pina describes her son Nimrod, who was killed in the Second Lebanon War, as a young man, full of life and laughter, with an ever-present smile. Jihad al-Sre’ir of Idna village near Hebron says his son that “My son  Ala’a was my heart”. Ala’a was killed in the village by IDF soldiers during Operation Protective Edge. Rather than bitterness and seeking revenge, they – like others of the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Familes’ Forum – found they could share their pain. 

Iris’ son Nimrod, 28 years old at his death, was a  computer expert and held a senior position in Microsoft. "In fact, his position as an army reservist was in process of being shifted from a tank crew member to an army computer expert, and he did not have to go on a tank to Lebanon in 2006. But he insisted. His tank was hit by a roadside bomb which was immediately followed by Hezbollah anti-tank missile. The missile explosion killed all four tank crew members.

"My husband spoke to him on the phone just before he went back into Lebanon.   Nimrod said he did not believe he will live out this mission. He described exactly how it would happen. He said if the tank would hit a roadside bomb it would be immobilized, and then it will be a sitting duck for a missile. Hezi told him, 'If that's how you feel, get out! Put down the phone, get away, don’t return to the army.' Nimrod replied, 'That’s not the way I was brought up'. He also said that if we get a coffin, he will not be in it. ‘There will be three sandbags inside the coffin to give it a weight. I will not be in it, nothing will be left of me’. And that's exactly what really happened. Six months later, officers arrived and told us that parts of Nimrod's body parts were found in the morgue and we needed to do another burial. It was a nightmare. "

"For years  I just drifted, I could not find any meaning, either to my life or to the death of Nimrod. Four years ago I saw a TV documentary which shook me. It was called ‘A Heart from Jenin’, about Ismail Khatib, whose 12-year old son Ahmed was shot to death by the IDF fire. In the hospital, he decided to donate his killed son’s organs. The film documents the father’s meeting with the three families whose children received the organs – an ultra-Orthodox family from Jerusalem, a Bedouin family from the Negev and a Druze family from Peki'in ".

"The film opened to me a new, humane perspective on the other side. I especially wanted to thank Khatib for what he did. Also thank him for the sense of mission and understanding I gained from him, the understanding that I should not just sit passively grieving for my son, but  do something so that there will be no more bereaved mothers like me, on either side. That  there will be no more sons going out to be killed, none on our side or theirs. When I tried to get my letter to Khatib I found the Bereaved Families’ Forum. Immediately I knew I wanted to be a member of that forum.

Iris is involved in a project which brings together Israeli and Palestinian women - all of whom have lost children in the conflict. They speak at schools and community centers, conducting  dialogue, expressing their grief and giving a message of reconciliation.

“It is exactly bereavement which brings the desire for reconciliation. Nimrod died and I could not accept it. It did not make sense. I felt that what I want to do is not to stop others from going out and getting killed. It is unconceivable to me that mothers go on sending their children to the army and thinking it will not happen to them. I grew up in this country and took in the atmosphere we live by the sword and that we will not have a country if we don’t fight. But I do not want my son to protect me. I want to protect my son. The most important thing for me was to do all I can so that such things like this will not happen any more, that there will be peace. Palestinians come with me to the schools, we tell the story from the personal and human perspective. They are my friends. "

Jihad Ahmad al-Sre’ir, from the West Bank village of Idhna near Hebron, lost his son Ala’a in July 2014. He died nine days after being shot by soldiers with live bullets. Today Jihad al-Sre’ir is a member of the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families’ Forum conflict and prays for an end to the conflict.

Ala’a was 21 when he died. "He was working in the village," says Jihad, "and the month of Ramadan was marked at the time. On that day he came home, and after 19:00 it was permissible to eat after fasting. The custom is not to go to sleep, but to eat a meal that lasts until the wee hours of the night. Around midnight, after we ate, Ala’a said he was going to visit his grandfather, who lives about 200 meters from our house. He went with his uncle, my brother, and there seemed to be no problems, everything was quiet. If there had been any  tensions, I wouldn’t have let him go out. We did not know that there were soldiers. There are large trees near the road. My brother said he heard someone say to them, 'Come here'. These were soldiers. There was a war on in Gaza, but in our village nothing was going on. I do not know why the soldiers suspected them. "

Ala’a was shot by IDF gunfire. "My brother said he heard two shots. One of the shots hit my son and smashed through his belly." He was taken to a hospital in Hebron, where he remained for nine days, and on July 29 died.

Until the incident Jihad used to work in Israel in construction and renovation jobs. “Four or five months after the death of my son I was forbidden to go out again. They took my approval, the note said ‘Forbidden by the General Security Service’. They killed our child and then they took away my job. Now I'm sitting at home. All my life I worked in Israel, I have friends there." (It is a standard policy of the Israeli authorities to deny permits to relatives of those killed, on the assumption that they might be inclined to acts of revenge.)

After the disaster, Jihad became a member of the Bereaved Families’ Forum. "Even before the disaster I had Israeli friends, with whom I keep in contact by  phone. We don’t want bloodshed. We want peace.  'God willing, let my son be the last’. Every night since then, I feel like it just happened. I still live for the moment, but pray to God to stop the conflict, for our children and yours. "

Jihad received a phone call from Osama Abu Ayash, one of the forum’s members on the Palestinian side, who invited him to Bethlehem, established his connection to the forum. "When I joined the forum. We went and sat with some Jewish representatives. Everyone had lost a relative. I said, 'To have peace, to have a future, I'm coming'. We exchanged phone numbers and since then we are in contact."

- Would it not have been more natural to seek revenge?

"God forbid. That is not the aim of Islam. I would just like whoever did it to my son to be brought to justice. At the forum we all sit together and talk. We understand each other, everyone had lost somebody dear".


 Memorial Day is immediately followed the Independence Day celebrations. The 67th Independence Day of the State of Israel, taking place on the 48th year of the occupation…

A great number of young people roamed the streets, watching fireworks and listening to loud music from the loudspeakers. Yearly, the State of Israel tries to recreate the atmosphere of the spontaneous enthusiasm which prevailed in the streets of Tel Aviv night after the UN adopted the Partition Resolution (1947). The new fashion which spread on this Independence Day were giant plastic hammers - almost as high as the kids holding them - decorated with Israel's national flag. The children ran through the streets, busily hitting  each other with these hammers.

Among the many flags that festooned Dizengoff Street, there suddenly shows a surprising item in a shop window: two relief maps hanging side by side – a map of Israel as it is now, with the Occupied Territories included, and next to it a map of pre-1967 Israel, within the internationally recognized Green Line borders, which are only rarely displayed nowadays. It was the Bauhaus Store, a shop dedicated usually to Tel Aviv's unique architecture and to nostalgic accessories of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Not really a store with a clear political agenda. But the two maps were hanging  in the window, side by side.