For the Land She Loved to Death

No one is sitting shiva for Yelena Businov, who died nine days after torching herself to protest against the disengagement.

No one is sitting shiva for Yelena Businov. She has no one: no husband, no child, no sibling. Since the death of her mother, with whom she came to Israel from Odessa five years ago, she has lived alone in a modest caravan in Kedumim. Her elderly father is hospitalized with cancer. He could not even make it to the funeral at the small cemetery in Kedumim on Friday afternoon. All that is left of Businov, 54, are bits of information gathered by her colleagues, most of them friends involved in the same political activities, who want to create a myth out of this death. It is not clear that they will succeed. Amid the flurry surrounding the disengagement, her death slipped by unnoticed. The same was true of the funeral, which had to be rushed due to the approach of the Sabbath.

Perhaps, had she not been an immigrant, a foreigner, her strange death might have sparked more interest. Perhaps when the disengagement is summarized with a sigh of relief that "no one died," they would remember that one woman did die, nine days after setting fire to herself to protest the disengagement. Except for her Russian friends, Israelis are now saying that it was "an un-Jewish act." What they mean is it is a Russian act. Her friends think it is actually a very Jewish act. They are familiar with the story of the mathematics professor, Ilya Riefs, who set fire to himself in Leningrad in protest over the gates barring Jews from immigrating to Israel. They also remember those who immolated themselves when the Russians invaded Prague during the short-lived "Prague Spring." Businov sprang from this ethos.

In the nine days between her immolation and her death, while the doctors at Soroka hospital fought for her life, the Russian-language papers wrote about her from time to time. On one occasion, they interviewed Daniella Weiss, the head of the Kedumim local council. Weiss sprang from a different ethos: she compared Businov to Hanna Senesh, the Jewish resistance fighter in World War II.

Even her friends, or more accurately her fellow Russian right-wing political activists, know very little about her. She didn't really have any close personal friends in Israel and therefore most of the discussion about her actions is ideological. Some are finding out things about her that they did not know when she was alive and putting together a retrospective collage. What they did know, they appreciated very much. The stories paint a picture of a modest, almost to the point of ascetic, woman, who made do with little. They say she had a good head for business, but she chose to live on an allowance and devote her life in Israel to ideological struggles. They say that in order to save, she would not spend money on bus travel and would get around by hitchhiking. Every time she was asked how she was managing, she would say that she had enough.

Ideological fervor

She certainly had enough ideological fervor and then some. "She didn't know how to fight for anything that was for herself, but she knew how to wage battles over issues that were important to her," says Asia Antov of Karnei Shomron. Such as a lengthy fight she waged against Reka (the radio station that broadcasts programs for new immigrants) over what she saw as a lack of Jewish identity programs in its schedule. Without any connections of her own, she managed to make contact by getting to know someone who knew someone and she did not let up.

Jewish identity was a subject that engaged her very much, even back in Odessa. There, as soon as it became politically feasible, Businov, an engineer by profession, delved into the study of Jewish history and philosophy. But that was not the only thing she engaged in. With the arrival of perestroika, she joined Memorial, a liberal-democratic group devoted to researching the crimes of the Soviet regime and assisting its victims. Upon the creation of a Jewish community in Odessa, she became a leading activist in it. She helped the elderly and ailing Jews and did everything covered by the terms "loving kindness and good deeds."

She deepened her study of Jewish identity in Israel. Among other things, she was active in running a group in Karnei Shomron for those interested in undergoing conversion. "Goyim" didn't really attend the group's sessions; Jews who wanted to broaden their knowledge did come. Businov advertised the group, helped people get there. It was important to her. Somehow, "Jewish identity" and love of Israel for her became synonymous with extreme right-wing positions. At the same time, she went to Russian language courses in Judaism arranged by Bar-Ilan University. There she met Dr. Yefim Kelman, a lecturer at the Technion and a resident of Tzur Yigal, who would occasionally offer her a ride to the intersection from where she would make her way alone to Kedumim. "She was one of the straightest people I ever met," Kelman said this week. "Perhaps a little naive, but very straight. She never knew how to ask for anything for herself, but she knew how to fight, not to compromise. Everything was black and white with her. Even politics."

In politics, Businov believed with all her heart that the disengagement would bring disaster upon Israel. Around two years after she immigrated to Israel and learned about it, she joined Russian-speaking extreme right groups. That is how she translated her love of the country. The people she met explained to her that you have to work from within, from inside the Likud. Before the Likud referendum on the disengagement, she tried to join the party. She didn't manage to.

Instead she went to meet Likud members face-to-face, to convince them to vote against the referendum. When even the results of the referendum did not help, she joined all sorts of movements that were working to hold a national referendum. Throughout this entire period, she published articles in Russian media outlets, mainly on the Internet, long, heavy articles.

Hunger strike

When that didn't help either, she went on a one-person hunger strike across from the Knesset. No one remembers exactly how the strike ended - either her strength failed or the vote she was trying to prevent took place. Then she went out to protest on the roads and was even detained twice for questioning. "She tried every democratic means," says Antov, "but she had a feeling that no one was listening to her. Lately we even talked between ourselves about the fact that the obtuse government in Israel was starting to resemble that of the Soviet Union, which was immune to every kind of legitimate democratic protest. She had no option left but to sacrifice herself."

Kelman says he does not agree with the action, but still has a sense of guilt. Three days before she set fire to herself, he tried to reach Businov on the phone and did not succeed. After the fact, he says, had he talked to her, listened to her, he might perhaps have sensed what was going on inside her. "This is one of the dramas of terrible times, like the withdrawal, that pushes people beyond inner boundaries," he says, "people who have no roots, who have no family and no close friends, they are less stable. But not just in her death, but also in her life, she was an inspiring individual. She truly loved the land of Israel."

Antov asks only that no one say her death was in vain, that "she did the only step that was relevant in scale to the scale of the act of expelling Jews from their lands." Kelman also asks that now we make sure to remember that there was a message in her death - of willingness to make a personal sacrifice and of the nation's ability to rise up. But it seems that Businov's tragedy is that not only in her life, but also in her death, she had no voice in the land she loved.