Manipulating Bereavement

Obviously you cannot turn back history and confine bereaved parents to cemeteries and state ceremonies; it is obvious 10 times over that you cannot let them run the country.

The scene caught on the Knesset's television cameras was very brief, but loaded with meaning. MK Arye Eldad approached the prime minister's table, stood behind Ehud Olmert and tried to hand him a pamphlet. "Mr. Prime Minister," he called in a voice that was picked up clearly by microphones, "this is the bereaved families' report...." Olmert, who was deep in conversation with Minister Ze'ev Boim, turned his head for a moment. "I'm talking now," he uttered and returned to his conversation with Boim. Eldad retreated, leaving the report on the table. As far as he's concerned, the objective was achieved - he came off as the guardian of the bereaved parents while Olmert appeared as an impassive prime minister, who is contemptuous of bereaved families.

But the scene may also be viewed another way. Eldad, who is among the leaders of the extreme right in the Knesset, assumes political patronage over the group of bereaved parents who drafted the report on the Second Lebanon War. They let him do the work for them and take the occasion to demonstrate their political leanings. Except that Eldad does not really intend to present the report to the prime minister. For that there are more established channels. What Eldad is actually doing is orchestrating a little political protest. He has a winning card: the plight of bereavement. On such a sacred mission, anything goes. Olmert can't get off unscathed. Go argue with bereaved parents.

Except that this time they must be confronted, especially the militant bunch that composed the report. They are entitled to act in the political arena, but as soon as they do so they lose the protective halo surrounding them and place in doubt their real interest. They can no longer presume to hold special public standing, as they did in the report ("we represent those who cry out in the silence that will never cease... it is not possible to shut one's ears and not hear that cry. Our recommendations should be accorded additional weight").

Certainly you cannot shut your ears to their cry, but why exactly should their recommendations be accorded "additional weight"? After all, these recommendations ("the prime minister cannot remain in his post") stem from their political views, which bereavement only renders more extreme. The emotional style of the report does not even pretend to objectivity. It is not a "probe" but rather a sentimental document, written from an incensed heart ("Ehud Olmert, you were so very wasteful. The voice of the fallen sons' blood cries to you from the ground...").

We should also bear in mind that only a minority of bereaved families had a part in the incriminating report. The pain of bereavement has many faces, and it can be interpreted to reach various conclusions. "I estimate that about 10 families were actively involved in writing this report," Nahum Zarhi, whose son Tzur was killed on the last day of the war, told Ma'ariv. He, for instance, does not think Olmert must resign. Nor does Amos Shalev, whose son Nissan fell a day before the war ended ("the desire for vengeance and heads rolling is not what I need. What matters is how things get fixed, and this government has an advantage at that").

The problem is that parents of the Zarhi and Shalev sort tend not to make their grief a public matter, and leave the stage to their colleagues. The loudmouths. The media, hungry for a tearjerker, turned them into public figures (not to say celebrities), that skillfully play on the collective guilt strings. The mingling of bereavement, politics and the commercial press gradually hardens the heart against the authentic pain and leaves an uncomfortable feeling of exploitation and emotional manipulation.

Maybe this is the bereaved parents' way of dealing with their loss, but you cannot ignore the damage they are doing to their cause and their excessive influence on the leadership's security considerations. Bereavement has become a controversial political lobby, whose tireless activity eats away at the public's natural sense of identification. But it is sufficiently effective to serve as the dominant - sometimes paralyzing - component in operational decisions, and as the sole measure of military failure. Obviously you cannot turn back history and confine bereaved parents to cemeteries and state ceremonies; it is obvious 10 times over that you cannot let them run the country.