The Saddest – and Most Optimistic – Peace Organization Turns 20

What can happen when the initial desire for revenge at the loss of a loved one fades?

Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
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The final evening of meetings in Tel Aviv this summer.
The final evening of meetings in Tel Aviv this summer.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

At the end of 1994, Yitzhak Frankenthal, a bereaved father and an Orthodox Jew, spent three months in a public library in Tel Aviv. His self-appointed task: to go through the library’s newspaper archive and find the names of all the families that had lost loved ones in terror attacks since 1948.

The final list numbered 422 families. He invited 350 of them (forgoing those whose loss was quite recent and those who had made bellicose declarations to the media regarding Arabs) to join a group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families that he was establishing. Representatives of 44 families who had lost members to the conflict responded positively and became the first to join the Parents Circle Families Forum – Palestinian [and] Israeli Bereaved Families for Peace. It’s the saddest – and most optimistic – peace organization that is active here. As it marks the 20th anniversary of its founding, the forum now consists of 620 Israeli and Palestinian families bonded by bereavement.

Arik, Frankenthal’s firstborn son, was abducted and murdered in July 1994, at age 19, by a five-man Hamas squad, while he was serving in the Armored Corps. It was the year in which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin received the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the signing of the Oslo Accords a year earlier, in response to which bereaved parents held a demonstration outside his office urging him to end the negotiations with the Palestinians. The father, who had become friendly with Rabin following the prime minister’s visit to the family during the shivah (seven-day mourning period) for Arik, felt a need to meet with him personally to say that those families did not represent him.

It was following this that Yitzhak Frankenthal decided to establish the forum. “After Arik was murdered, I understood that I had failed as a father,” he recalls. “I had brought a son into the world but he did not live – not because he was sick, but because there was no peace. Because I didn’t do anything to promote peace.”

Frankenthal left the bereaved families forum after a decade – the intensive occupation with bereavement had become too demanding – and founded the Arik Institute for Reconciliation, Tolerance & Peace. However, he continues to uphold the precept of visiting newly bereaved families. His mission, he explains, is “to provide people with a map of how to go on with their lives. I feel it is my obligation to give them what I can from my experience.”

Eyebrows were raised in his religious congregation in Jerusalem, which he describes as religious-right, over his conciliatory activity, although he has never wavered in his religious faith. “My approach to religion,” he says, “is that I worship God, not the other way around. Everything that God does is for the good, even if I do not fully grasp it.”

A miracle for our time

During Operation Protective Edge in Gaza this past summer, when militancy, violence, racism and a vindictive thrust dominated the Israeli narrative, something of a miracle, in terms of the spirit of the time, occurred every evening in the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The forum set up a dialogue tent in the urban space, whose pegs were listening, tolerance, empathy and an impulse toward reconciliation. For 70 Sisyphean days – the 50 days of the war and 20 more afterward – circles of dialogue took place between Israelis and Palestinians, and among Israelis on their own. The message: “It won’t stop until we talk.”

The Parents Circle Families Forum is unique among the country’s peace organizations. Its members hold a kind of joker card, which, when pulled, trumps all other cards. It’s bereavement. Bereavement is a major element in the collective national identity of both Israelis and Palestinians. Usually it’s a springboard to an aggressive approach. Yet for the past 20 years, the forum has invoked the sacred experience of loss and bereavement to achieve the opposite goal.

Indeed, in present-day Israel, the Parents Circle is nothing less than subversive. By virtue of the very fact that Israelis and Palestinians recognize the bereavement of the other side, too, the forum subverts the generally hegemonic nature of the region’s narratives.

The thought that on the other side there is a grieving mother, who has experienced the most horrific tragedy imaginable, and not a mother who encourages her children to become martyrs, flies in the face of the prevailing discourse in the Israeli society. Today that discourse is represented by elected officials such as MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi), who wrote in a Facebook post, “They are all enemy fighters and they are all marked for death. That now includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They need to follow their sons, there is nothing more just than that.” The forum’s goal is the opposite of what Shaked stands for – to create a mirror image of bereavement.

It was also apparent from my conversations with members of the forum that their efforts to come to terms with the bereavement of the other side helps fill the abyss of their loss with new meaning. When the death of a loved one is charged with a purpose and becomes a lever for creating a better world, the pain assumes a role and is fraught with import. More simply put, membership in the forum of bereaved families, and the members’ desire to sow seeds of understanding and reconciliation, may just make it easier for them to get up in the morning.

A case in point is Rami Elhanan. “I am not a religious person – the very opposite – and I have no way to explain the change that came over me in the first meeting with members of the forum,” he wrote, in a statement on the organization’s website. “But one thing became as clear as the noonday sun: from that day onward I had a reason to get out of bed. From that day onward I have dedicated my life to this one and this only. To go from person to person and shout in the ears of everyone who will listen, and also those whose ears remain shut, that this situation is not an unchangeable decree of fate. Nowhere is it written that we have to go on dying and sacrificing our children eternally in this holy and hard land. We can and must break, once and for all, this insane, endless cycle of blood and murder, reprisal and revenge and punishment that just goes round and round without purpose, with no winners, only losers.”

Elhanan, who is 64 and whose family has lived in Jerusalem for seven generations, terms himself “a Jew, an Israeli, but, above all, a human being.” On the first day of the new school year in September 1997, his 14-year-old daughter, Smadar, went with friends to the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in downtown Jerusalem to buy school supplies. Smadar and two of her girlfriends were killed, along with two other people, when three terrorists blew themselves up.

Elhanan’s initial impulse was a desire for revenge, but in time he began to question that need, as he relates in his statement: “Will killing someone in revenge bring my daughter back? Will causing someone else grief do anything to reduce my grief? The answer is, of course, negative.” In a process he described as “long and slow, difficult and painful,” he set about trying to understand what could cause someone to be “so angry and despairing that he is ready to blow himself up along with young girls. And most important, what I, personally, can do to ensure that others do not suffer that unbearable pain.”

One day, he continues, he met “a large, impressive man with a knitted yarmulke on his head. My first, unthinking thought was that this man with the yarmulke eats Arabs for breakfast, is a terrible fascist and that all he wants is to sing the praises of the people of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the Land of Israel. He proceeded to tell me he had founded an organization of people who have lost children in the conflict but nevertheless want peace. He suggested that I come to a meeting of the ‘bunch of crazies’ and see with my own eyes. Not wanting to offend him, and also because I was a bit curious, I went.”

Elhanan recalled his first encounter with the forum: “I stood to the side when they arrived. Very distant, completely disconnected, cynical as usual. People who were legends for me, as a deeply rooted Israeli, started to get off the bus. I remember seeing Yaakov Guterman from Kibbutz Ha’ogen. Yaakov, who is a Holocaust survivor, lost his son Raz in the Lebanon war [of 1982]. He was one of the first bereaved parents who dared stand outside the Prime Minister’s Residence with protest signs. I remember seeing Roni Hirshenson, a wonderful person and a determined seeker of peace. He lost his two sons, Amir and Elad, on the altar of this accursed conflict, but has remained the same marvelous human being and fighter for peace.

“And then,” he continues, “I saw something that stunned me: I saw Arabs getting off the bus. Bereaved Palestinian families – men, women and children. And I remember very clearly a respectable-looking elderly woman, dressed completely in black, with a locket attached to a chain around her neck containing a small picture of a boy of about six.”

‘How could he have let Jews into the house?’

On May 12, 1948, the grandfather and two other relatives of Osama Abu Ayash, 48, were killed in a battle during Israel’s War of Independence. More than half a century later, Abu Ayash’s wife, Antisar, lost two of her brothers – Kamal, killed at age 20 in 2002, and Tayseer, killed the following year, also at 20 – both of them shot by Israeli soldiers. Antisar suffered a mental breakdown after the death of Tayseer, who was the closest of the siblings to her. Osama left his job as a truck driver in order to devote himself to looking after his wife. After a few months, when her condition had improved somewhat, he allowed himself to walk around his village – Omar, near Hebron – for the first time since the second death. Suddenly he saw a car with Israeli license plates parked outside the home of his sister, Ilham and her husband, Ghazi, who had lost his brother, Yusuf, a few months earlier. Yusuf, who was married and had a daughter, had been Osama Abu Ayash’s best friend. One day he got into an argument with a soldier who was posted in the village. In the heat of the argument, the soldier shot Yusuf in the head.

“I couldn’t understand how Ghazi had allowed Jews into his house. I was furious at him for not honoring the memory of his brother,” Abu Ayash relates. “I pounded his door, and kicked it, too. He told me the two visitors were friends. I told him that those people were not friends but Jewish murderers. He told me to calm down and invited me in for a cup of coffee. ‘If you want to beat up the man after the coffee, go ahead.’ I went in and started to shout at them: ‘What are you doing here? You go around saying that all Palestinians are terrorists.’ I told the Israelis about all the people I knew who had been killed – my grandfather, my in-laws, my best friend – and about how I was tortured in interrogations by the Israelis.

“They didn’t say a word until I was done,” he says. “I thought they were keeping quiet because they were afraid of me. But as soon as I stopped talking, the man said to me, ‘I am here because I acknowledge your pain. I know exactly how you are suffering; I too have experienced loss.’ He told me he had lost his daughter, Smadar, in a terrorist attack. He told me how much he loved her and how much he missed her.

“When he was done, he said, ‘Osama, I am Rami Elhanan. Whom did I lose?’ ‘Your daughter.’ ‘And Ghazi, whom did he lose?’ ‘His brother.’ He went on, ‘So if the two of us, who lost the people closest to us and paid the steepest price possible, are sitting today and talking, then everyone can. If we are able to understand this, we all can.’

“He is right. After four hours at Ghazi’s place, I signed up for membership in the bereaved families forum.”

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