Bereaved Families No Longer Ready to Mourn in Silence

"Dear families, please don't run the country for us. Thank you!" That is how one Internet talkbacker, with a bluntness that would once have been inconceivable, responded to the report on the Second Lebanon War published this week by a group of bereaved families.

The very fact that the report was published reflects a change in bereaved families' involvement in the political and security arena. This is not the first time bereaved families have protested against a government, but this time, they seem to have drawn more public notice, and their demand is political and specific: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert must go.

In Israel's early years, bereaved families were expected to bear their loss in silence. In recent years, however, they have become a growing force in Israel's public discourse - in the media, the courts and the political arena, whether demanding probes of training accidents or criticizing the government.

Dr. Yagil Levy of Ben-Gurion University's Department of Public Policy traces this change to the First Lebanon War. "After the Yom Kippur War, bereaved families complained about Moti Ashkenazi, because his very protest [against the government] degraded the value for which their sons had fallen," he said. "But in the battle for Beaufort [in 1982], you began hearing voices saying that there were alternatives, and the soldiers had died for nothing."

Raya Hernik, who lost her son at Beaufort and became a leading critic of then-prime minister Menachem Begin's Lebanon policy, said that during the state's early years, there was greater faith in both the leadership and the necessity of war.

"There was a belief that the great enterprise required sacrifices," she said. "As long as society believed in the righteousness of the path and the good faith of the political and military leadership," families could accept bereavement.

She identifies both the Yom Kippur War and the First Lebanon War as turning points in this faith. While the former was viewed as existential, there was a feeling that "politically, the leadership had failed," she said. "The Lebanon War was the first that was seen as a true political war, and therefore, so was the criticism."

According to Levy, activist bereaved families have generally been middle-class Ashkenazim, who have "access to the media, time and resources. This reflects the distancing of a distinct social group from the principles that were accepted in the past with regard to the army. It's a kind of conditional participation, which does not accept the price and the terms."

But after the Second Lebanon War, religious families joined the outcry as well, motivated by their perception of "a direct line" between the disengagement and the army's poor performance in Lebanon.

Another new factor, Levy said, is the cost-benefit analysis, in which diplomatic or security gains are weighed against the price in casualties. That "has current ramifications, such as the avoidance of a military operation in Gaza."

Hernik agrees that today, bereaved families have more influence over military and political decisions. "They've sharpened the sensitivity to loss of life," she said. "One reason the Israel Defense Forces didn't enter Lebanon with ground forces immediately was fear of casualties, and the same is true today in Gaza. If the families had continued to keep quiet, as they once did, this wouldn't have happened."

Orna Shimoni, one of the founders of the Four Mothers movement that advocated withdrawing from Lebanon, concurs. "In my parents' generation, no special attention was paid to bereaved parents," she said.

Yet at the same time, "people do not hesitate to tell you that you're using the bereavement to enable you to express your political opinions," said Shimoni, whose son was killed in the First Lebanon War. "That hurts. Because we're a bereaved family, we can't express ourselves?"

Levy believes that today's demonstrators have gained so much attention precisely because they have nothing in common other than the demand that Olmert take "personal responsibility" and resign, and have therefore "entered the political arena in an ostensibly apolitical way."

Alongside the increased attention paid to bereaved families, there has inevitably been increased criticism of the fact that they are given a microphone to express themselves on every issue. One researcher in the social sciences, who asked to remain anonymous, said that bereaved families deserve no extra rights in the political debate.

"Someone is making use of them," he charged. "The protest isn't erupting on its own, someone is organizing it. You can't run politics that way."

But Dr. Aryeh Bachrach, who lost his son in a terror attack in the 1990s, disagrees. "The bereaved families have greater moral justification for demanding that Olmert resign, because they were directly harmed," he argued.