Eitan Zamir of Kibbutz Ein Dor is 54, the same age his father Nissim was when he died in an army training accident.
“He volunteered to accompany a truck driver. On the way an axle went and the truck overturned. He was killed on the spot. The clock stopped at 10:15 that evening,” Zamir says 38 years later.
His parents had already separated, so his mother, despite suffering a breakdown, never received a pension when her husband died. Eitan and his brothers were sent to live on kibbutzim. He migrated among five schools, lived in an abandoned preschool replete with mice, got drafted into a combat unit (after his mother consented), later got transferred to desk work (after his mother withdrew her consent), then married quickly – a union that didn’t last.
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“My relationships don’t work when I have it good,” he says, now married again and a father of three. “At the crossroads I came to I chose unwisely and wound up in bad places. I’m not someone to be pitied, but I’m a survivor.”
Like many people who lose parents in military service, Zamir would like the country to pay attention to him every once in a while, even though he’s no longer a child – after all, life’s problems don’t end when you’re 18. The children of soldiers who were killed while serving in the Israel Defense Forces are used to hearing warm words, especially around Memorial Day, but when it comes to the day-to-day they face a struggle.
Legislation from decades ago recognizes them as “IDF orphans” only if they were under 21 when a parent died serving and they had been supported by that parent. After 21 they lose their monthly allowance and aren’t invited to official ceremonies. They’re eligible for marriage grants, tuition and housing aid until they’re 30, when they also stop receiving any psychological care they were entitled to.
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Additional therapy may be approved after a special request and the navigation of red tape. Still, many people need their parents’ support when they’re in their 40s and 50s too, and those who lost their parents in the service of the country have a hard time filling this gap.
“All we’re are saying is that we’ve been forgotten,” says Lahav Bagir, 47, who lost his father in an accident when he was 1 and a half. “It’s an archaic law that may have been appropriate at one time but isn’t anymore,” he says.
“We’re no longer seen as IDF orphans. If I ask the Defense Ministry today for a letter that I’m an IDF orphan, I get a letter back saying that I’m the son of a fallen IDF soldier.”
He says former lawmaker Shuli Moalem-Refaeli and other members of an IDF widows group strove for the widows and children to be invited to ceremonies.
“Do we need the Knesset’s approval to get invited to conferences?” Bagir asks. “Our parents thought the country would be there for us. Today’s conditions – the high cost of living, the difficulties – have made it such that all parents help their children even when they’re 30 and 40. Our fathers are no longer here to give us this support.”
Still lost at 47
Limor Meltzer, who lost her father in the Yom Kippur War when she was a year old, never thought she deserved anything. From an early age she realized she had to help her family and couldn’t express her grief.
“You grow up feeling that something very difficult has happened and that you have no place; there’s no room for your problems and tears,” she says. At 47 she says she still hasn’t “found a place for herself” or a way to receive support for her daily problems.
“I grew up in a house full of women and didn’t know how to communicate with men. All those who lost parents in the IDF realized ... they had to be strong, courageous problem-solvers, sort of a ‘we mustn’t fall down,’” she says.
“On Memorial Day we try to be as official as we can; we place wreaths, we go to memorial events even if it rips us apart inside. We look impressive, but on the inside we’re collapsing.”
The current phase of the struggle for orphans and widows' rights is being led by Orly Zohar, an IDF widow whose husband Amir died in 2000, leaving her to raise their three small children. Zohar wants to break the thinking that the widows manage financially.
“From the very start we’re hurt,” Zohar says. “I had a tourism business with 50 employees. It was clear I couldn’t go on with it alone. Without my parents I would have faced catastrophe.”
A few weeks ago, Zohar sent a letter in the name of other widows and orphans to Knesset members and defense officials.
“For many years there has been neglect, social and economic damage; the despair of an entire population segment has been exploited after they paid the most difficult price,” she wrote. “The State of Israel, the IDF, the government and Knesset blatantly violate the guarantees they gave our people when they went to serve and protect the homeland.”
Zohar certainly hasn’t forgotten the orphans. “Children are entities unto themselves,” she told Haaretz. “If they’ve been hurt, they deserve not to be lacking.”
Life without a father figure
As Oded Deutch, who is now 41, puts it, “I’ve passed 30; now what?” When he was 9, his father Shraga Deutch died of cancer while serving in the IDF medical corps.
“I didn’t really know him because he was in the army and spent much of his time in Lebanon,” Deutch says. “I didn’t deal with the orphan status until a year or two ago; I avoided it for many reasons. I don’t even know why, and then it all started to surface.”
For Deutch, recognition of his rights doesn’t only mean invitations to ceremonies but also support for problems he still faces. “I want to phone a psychologist without going through a committee,” he says. “I expect to be treated the same as bereaved parents and widows. It’s not about money. It’s about recognizing us as part of the family of the bereaved.”
But Deutch and other IDF orphans seek to shirk a crybaby image. “I’ve managed without the Defense Ministry, but there are many others who haven’t and have fallen by the wayside. I went to higher education after 30; I had no father figure to guide me,” he says.
“So does that mean I shouldn’t deserve assistance under the law? It angers me that we’re thrown to the wayside because we’ve passed a certain age. Why should we have an expiration date inscribed on our foreheads?”
Zohar Vered lost her father in the 1967-1970 War of Attrition against Egypt when she was a toddler.
“What would have happened if reservists knew before their departure to the battlefield that if they died their children would no longer be recognized as orphans when they reached 21? Vered asks.
The pain doesn’t go away, she says, yet when they tried to recruit her son to a combat unit, she was told “you’re not a bereaved family.” Her father’s death wasn’t considered relevant. “The minimum you could give us is for me not to have to lose my father and my son,” she says.
For its part, the Defense Ministry said it “embraces and appreciates the bereaved families throughout the year” and does its utmost to “support them with professional devotion and sensitivity.”
It said IDF orphans are eligible for support for academic study, and a stipend for living costs of 3,000 shekels ($837) a month. They are also eligible for a marriage/housing grant through age 30 of 136,000 shekels, emotional therapy with no age limit, and participation in relevant workshops.
“The Defense Ministry will continue to support IDF orphans, accompany them and examine their needs,” the ministry said.