Op-Ed: Celebrating the Lives of Israel’s Defenders
For one day, on Yom Hazikaron, National Memorial Day of Israel, we remember fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. Yet for the survivors, or the family of the bereaved, it is a lifetime of memorials … and remembrance … and stories. In these stories of one soldier who has survived and three who have perished, we remember and celebrate their lives as people – as human beings – and establish real faces in an overwhelming sea of facts and statistics.
Ken was on reserve duty in 2003 when he was seriously injured in an attack by three terrorists on his military base. He never thought that “I would be dealing with the effect of my injuries on so many levels for such a long period of time.” Four other soldiers were killed in the attack.
Ken knows that he could not have done anything differently the morning of the attack to save their lives. “I know that I did everything based on my training. I couldn’t have saved anyone else’s life, although I wish I could have. I would live like this for the rest of my life, if it meant that the four of them were still living.” On Memorial Day, when he visits the graves of the fallen soldiers at the cemetery, “I get this weird feeling throughout my body because it occurs to me how close I was to being there.”
Dina and Omer, Russian immigrants and parents of three sons, lost their oldest son to cancer in 1993. Three years late, their middle son Ofir was killed in a suicide bombing while on patrol in the Gaza Strip. Ofir had chosen to join a combat unit against his parents’ wishes. Although his father already knew what it meant to lose a child, he also understood that “it was important for him to choose whatever was best for himself and his life. He wanted to be a better human, a better citizen, a better soldier. He wanted to show other people that it’s possible to be better even though he had lost a brother.”
After Ofir died, “Every Shabbat is so difficult – I make kiddush and I see just a wife and one son, and two are not there. Every holiday, it’s like dying again because in Israel the holidays are family holidays. I think the loss of one child is too much; two is incomprehensible.” Dina thinks about her two dead sons, wondering where they would be today. But she also worries about being a good mother to their youngest son Yair. “He is miserable too – he lost two brothers. And in this case a kid loses his parents too. I’m not the same mother; I don’t have the energy, the patience, the desire.”
The soldier sons of Susie and Cheryl were killed by terrorists, both in Nablus, but six months apart in 2002-3. With all the heartache, Susie remembers her son Ari Yehoshua with pride: “It matters to me that he died as a soldier fighting for his country.”
At his funeral, his father said: “Ari believed that serving in the army in a combat unit was not a burden of punishment, but a privilege. You were a shy boy, unsure of yourself, but in the end you were everything that your name was meant to be – brave and courageous as the lion (ari) and a leader like Yehoshua.”
Susie reflects: “It’s like a constant mourning. It is a second curse of God. First he takes away my son and then he makes me wake up every morning to the same reality. Every mother’s nightmare happened to us. I still can’t believe it. And I hope that I go to my grave not believing it, because the reality is just horrible.”
Like her son Daniel, Cheryl is a fighter. She is steadfast in the belief that “the enemy had a victory over me when they killed my son and they will have another victory over me if I go down with him. I have chosen not to give it to them.” As a bereaved mother, Cheryl “feels like I am in the middle of a trek that is called life, and now I have been handed the machine gun to carry. I wasn’t trained to carry this heavy load and I certainly have not been prepared to do it, not physically and not emotionally. But I am carrying it because that is what my commanding officer, Hashem, has commanded me to do. And I am doing it with as much dignity and as much positiveness as I can out of love and respect for my beloved son Daniel and out of love and respect for all am Yisrael!”
Like so many other bereaved parents, Cheryl’s experience has strengthened her resolve to live in Israel. “Now my son is buried here, no way I’ll leave here. With Daniel’s blood we have become real Israelis and the connection I feel now to Israel is really much, much, much deeper. I am connected by blood now with 22,500 other mothers who have lost a child.”
So on this Yom Hazikaron, let us remember these survivors and families of the bereaved and how they are able to live next to and move forward with their feelings of grief, pain, and helplessness, overcoming suffering and moving forward from terrorism to hope and optimism and from grief to meaning and healing. Ken, whose mental and physical toughness learned in the army helped him through his recovery, now understands “What life is, how to enjoy it, what to do about it, what to take seriously, what not to take seriously, and how it doesn’t pay to get upset about unimportant things.”
Omer sings in a men’s choir of bereaved fathers “not because it makes me happy; but because our performances make our children remembered. We are seen and heard – but they are remembered.”
Dina’s memories of Yisrael and Ofir sadden her, but also inspire her to move forward. She has become a cornerstone of OneFamily, showing other bereaved parents that, although she lost two sons, “I am productive and strong. And they get encouragement from this. They see that when the body begins to strengthen, the spirit begins to work with and take care of the body.”
Susie knows about “food and feeding and moms” and started Ochel Ari – the food of Ari – to “bring food to soldiers in the field with no kitchen facility and no warm food.”
And Cheryl Harmony – yes that is her actual middle name – has always loved performing and dancing. “A dancer is who I am and who I will always be. I’m older and wiser, but I still love to dance. And the more people watch me, the happier I am. I think I was always a mover. I’ve learned that whatever you were before your tragedy, you are after your tragedy.”
I fervently hope that these stories of triumph and struggle will help all of us to understand how tragedy and loss is endured, remembered, and retold. And I hope these stories will shed a little light on someone else’s path through a dark period of life.
Excerpted from Living Beyond Terrorism: Israeli Stories of Hope and Healing, by Zieva Dauber Konvisser, PhD, Gefen Publishing House, 2014.
Zieva Dauber Konvisser, PhD, is a Fellow of the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University. Her research focuses on the human impact of traumatic events, such as terrorism, genocide, war, and wrongful conviction. She served on the National Commission on American Jewish Women and is currently on the international board of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma. Her book Living Beyond Terrorism: Israeli Stories of Hope and Healing is an inspiring look at how 48 survivors of terrorism move forward from terrorism to hope and optimism and from grief to meaning and healing.