It was one of those unusual, only-in-Israel moments. The army chief of staff had just finished delivering remarks to reporters the morning after Israel’s May 2000 pullout from Lebanon when a woman seated in one of the front rows stood up and proceeded to the podium. She asked permission to say a few words, but didn’t bother waiting for a response as she grabbed the mic from him. Not one of the decorated generals seated at the head table tried to stop her or even seemed to think this was strange.
“I want to share our joy with the parents whose sons have returned today from Lebanon and who cried out, ‘Mom, I’m home,’” the visibly moved woman, with her long blond mane and weathered face, told the crowd on that historic morning. “But I also want to hug those families whose sons could not return today and cry out ‘Mom, I’m home.’”
Among those who could not return was the woman’s own son, Eyal, killed in action three years earlier.
Orna Shimoni then walked back to her seat and burst into tears.
A kibbutznik from northern Israel, Shimoni was one of the best-known faces in Four Mothers – a protest movement that sought to pull Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon. It has been widely hailed as Israel’s most successful anti-war movement.
“Four Mothers,” the eponymously titled film that traces the rise of the movement, has its premiere screening next week at Docaviv – the annual Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival. Because of coronavirus restrictions, the festival is being held online this year – but only for viewers in Israel.
The feature-length film, directed by Rephael Levin and Dana Keidar Levin, has a clear message for those Israelis currently wondering – amid the recent protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – whether ordinary citizens taking to the streets can ultimately affect change: Yes, they can.
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Four Mothers is now considered a textbook case of a grassroots movement that prevailed and triumphed. It has also been credited, among numerous other factors, with Netanyahu’s defeat in 1999 after his first term in office. It inspired Women Wage Peace, a Jewish-Arab peace movement set up after the Israeli incursion into Gaza in the summer of 2014, as well as the more recent Moms Against Violence – a group of hundreds of yellow-clad mothers who show up religiously at the anti-Netanyahu protests with the stated aim of protecting young demonstrators from police assaults.
In June 1985, three years after the first Lebanon war erupted, Israel completed a phased withdrawal of its forces from Lebanese territory with the exception of a 14-kilometer (9-mile) “security belt” in the southern part of the country, meant to protect communities in northern Israel from cross-border attacks. But with soldiers serving in this buffer zone increasingly targeted by local militia, questions began to be raised about its worth.
Yet it was a disaster on February 4, 1997, when 73 Israeli soldiers on their way into Lebanon were killed after two army helicopters collided midair, that served as the immediate trigger for Four Mothers. One of the soldiers killed happened to have been a classmate of several of the boys whose mothers launched the movement.
After the crash – the deadliest air disaster in Israeli history – Eran Shachar, a columnist for a magazine published by the kibbutz movement, wrote a provocative essay, “Mothers At the Army’s service,” questioning how Israeli mothers could continue to encourage their sons to join elite combat units when they knew of the great risks they faced.
How, the author asked, could these mothers deny their most primal instinct to protect their children? And how could it be, he wondered, that these mothers were not out in the streets demanding an end to this futile war?
For Rachel Ben Dor, a resident of the northern town of Rosh Pina whose son was serving in Lebanon at the time, his words touched a raw nerve. In an interview in “Four Mothers” more than 20 years later, she recalls the thoughts that ran through her mind as she read the piece. “I’ll do his laundry, feed him, and then send him off to war where he might die,” she tells the filmmakers. “How? How did we become like this? How can it be that we go against our most basic survival instincts?”
Ben Dor contacted Shachar to say she agreed with everything he had written, and he asked to come meet her at her home for a proper conversation. Hesitant to sit with him alone, she recounts, she called three friends from nearby kibbutzim, all mothers of sons serving in Lebanon, and invited them to join. Like her, these women had also started developing deep reservations about the war in Lebanon. The conversation that took place between Shachar and these women would be featured in a cover story for the magazine titled “Four Mothers.” Published around Passover time, it alluded to the popular seder night song of numbers “Echad Mi Yode’a” (“Who Knows One”).
No sooner had it gone to print than Ben Dor received a call from a journalist with an Israeli public broadcaster, wanting to feature the group of mothers on prime-time television. The reporter, Ben Dor recounts in the documentary, told her and her friends it wouldn’t be interesting to film them sitting around in the parlor, so they needed to “do something.” He suggested they make some anti-war signs and stand outside on the road. They followed his instructions – and that was how their protest movement was officially launched.
‘Go back to the kitchen’
At the time, the views of these moms were far from the consensus in Israel. Many Israelis still believed that the occupation of southern Lebanon was crucial to the safety of the residents of the north. They didn’t yet understand that the more deeply entrenched Israeli forces became in southern Lebanon, the greater the incentive for local militias to attack them.
The women were also told that speaking out against the war was demoralizing for the troops. At one point, Ben Dor was even contacted by a senior adviser to the defense minister, who warned that her activities could jeopardize the life of her son.
The war was not yet a wedge issue between right and left. As Shimoni recounts in an interview with the filmmakers, member of her own left-wing kibbutz let her know, on more than one occasion, that they were fiercely opposed to her activities.
Perhaps more than anything else, what annoyed many Israelis about the movement was that it was led by women. After all, what did women understand about war? Drivers passing by would often shout “Go back to the kitchen” when they saw the women standing at the side of the road with their protest signs.
Old footage shot outside the prime minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street – also the main site of the current protests – captures some of their smart responses to this chauvinism. Bruriah Sharon, one of the movement leaders, is seen asking a guard to deliver Netanyahu – who was prime minister then as well – two very large eggs. “Beitzim,” the Hebrew word for eggs, also means testicles.
“Of course, you need balls to get out of Lebanon,” she says, explaining the strange gift to a reporter who has inquired about its significance. “But I say you also need ovaries [‘beitziyot’].”
It took some time, but eventually public opinion came around to their side. In the process, Four Mothers grew from a tiny fringe group to a mass movement. Two years after the group was established, Netanyahu was running for a second term, against Ehud Barak.
The then-leader of the Labor Party vowed during his campaign that, if elected, he would withdraw all Israeli forces from Lebanon within a year. Soon after delivering this promise, he found himself gaining a huge lead over Netanyahu in the polls. It was testament to the impact of Four Mothers.
But it was not always clear they would achieve their goals. Among the group’s most difficult challenges was winning Israeli politicians over, particularly those on the right side of the spectrum. As Ben Dor relays in an old interview seen in the film, “It was terrifying for us to see who is tasked with running this country.
“When you sit with them, you see how incompetent they are,” she said, noting how frightening it was for her “to know that our lives are in the hands of these people, and they’re the ones who make the decisions here.”
Her words will certainly ring true for tens of thousands of Israelis active in the current protest movement.
“Four Mothers” premieres online at Docaviv on Saturday September 5, and will then be available to stream in Israel until September 15 (with Hebrew and English subtitles). It will also be broadcast on the HOT8 cable television channel.