Opinion

What It Means When Israel Awards a National Prize for Losing Sons in War

In a war for survival, it’s impossible not to see the victims as heroes. But Israel is no longer fighting wars of no choice

Israeli security forces.
JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

Miriam Peretz, who lost two of her sons in combat, will receive the Israel Prize for her contribution to “strengthening the Jewish-Israeli spirit.” Let me clarify straight off: Miriam Peretz is a lovely woman, who possesses great mental fortitude and who not only laughs in the face of misfortune but spreads a spirit of encouragement and optimism over all her surroundings. It’s difficult for me and for anyone else who, to their good fortune, has not been in her place, to gauge the intensity of the pain she has experienced, for there is nothing worse than losing a child – not to mention the horror of losing two.

Peretz is healing the wounds and filling the dreadful emptiness that afflicted her maternal heart by helping others, young people who will be drafted and are at risk of losing their lives, and parents who have endured calamities like hers. To parents, she says that they must not think they have to die themselves, when their sons are killed – that there is life after the death of children, life that will be punctuated by sadness but also by joy, as hers is.

That’s beautiful, completely praiseworthy. Nevertheless, and without any connection to Peretz herself, to award the prize to a woman because she is a bereaved mother is to declare a preference for death over life, to sanctify bereavement.

Peretz is not the only woman who lost two sons and was awarded the Israel Prize. Rivka Guber, who lost two sons within three months in the War of Independence, received the Israel Prize in 1976. But she received the award for her work on behalf of immigrant absorption, in which she had been engaged for decades, since she herself had arrived in the country. Guber was one of the legendary figures who was held up as an ideal to an entire generation and to the generation that followed. She became the symbol of a bereaved mother who does not despair, but bites her lip, buries her grief deep inside and uses her energy for the benefit of society, while that same society does not for a moment allow her to forget that she is a bereaved mother.

I suppose that no one who was brought up on the ideal of the bereaved mother ever dreamed of being one when she grew up, but the image of the bereaved mother who stifles her sorrow was specifically one of the options presented to us. As was the image of the widows of soldiers, as conveyed in no few books that I read in my childhood and in the love letters that soldiers wrote the women they loved before they were killed.

I was born not long after the War of Independence, and by the time I was 20, many soldiers had been killed, their wives widowed and their mothers bereaved, in wars of no choice. At least, that’s what I believed then. When there’s a real war, a war in which sheer survival is at stake, it’s impossible not to see the victims as heroes to whom we owe our lives. In that context, it’s possible to understand how bereavement becomes a dignified ethos, and how parents whose children fell in battle but nevertheless did not let themselves collapse and are never seen shedding a tear, earn respect and esteem.

Sara Netanyahu embraces Miriam Peretz.
Marc Israel Sellem

But it’s been many years since Israel last fought a war of no choice. None of the wars and military operations that have been waged since the 1982 Lebanon War, including that one, were intended to defend our country’s borders. Those wars were the by-product of the constant rejection of the option of peace by all of Israel’s governments – other than that of Yitzhak Rabin, whose efforts toward peace ended with his assassination, and Ehud Olmert’s, which came to an end when he entered prison, and after he himself had initiated a completely unnecessary war. All the wars and operations declared by the government have had other goals: to preserve the occupation and Israel’s rule over territories not its own, or to serve as a means to realize the interests of those who seek to augment their own political power by frightening citizens.

By chance, I was sitting on a sofa next to my friend Manuela, who is also a bereaved mother, when a thrilled Miriam Peretz was interviewed about the Israel Prize she’d be receiving. Peretz mentioned, with a certain pride, “the whole family of bereavement,” and Manuela squirmed. “There is no such family,” she said.

Manuela’s family consists of her husband and her children and her grandchildren and her sisters. The “family of bereavement” is a brazen term that is apparently used to make those who have lost dear ones feel that, although something terrible has happened to their family, there is some sort of small consolation in the form of the existence of a new family, whose members are people who don’t know one another and of which no one wants to be a part. It’s a family one doesn’t choose; that is, the Defense Ministry chose it for you. Real families are united by life; the so-called family of bereavement is united by death.

The “family of bereavement” is the salient manifestation of a whole series of customs, phrases, poems, stories and all the other things that create a whole culture, distinctive to Israel – the “culture of bereavement.” It’s the culture of a nation that, by decision of its leaders, will live by the sword eternally and therefore has no choice but to make a song even out of the worst thing of all: the unnecessary and foreseen death of people on a mission of the politicians who head their government.

The transformation of bereavement into a social ideal and a personal achievement is the “Jewish-Israeli spirit” that the Israel Prize is now meant to encourage. Maybe with a view to the next war.