Unity Is a Barricade Against Bereavement

A year and a half ago, Shmuel Gillis was killed in a terrorist attack. His widow talks about bereavement, and the Palestinian neighbors

On Shabbat, Ruth Gillis was staying in the Dead Sea area with dozens of other families who have lost close relatives in acts of terrorism during the past two years. Gillis spoke about her husband, Shmuel, a senior hematologist at Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem in Jerusalem. He treated Arabs and Jews equally and was murdered on his way home to Karmei Tzur, near Al Aroub Palestinian refugee camp.

She explained how she and her five children are coping with their tragedy, and listened to the words of other widows and orphans who are dealing with similar blows. When she emerged from this difficult encounter, she was told about the attack in the neighborhood of mobile homes near Karmei Tzur, which is called Tzur Shalem in memory of her husband.

A year and a half earlier, when Ruth Gillis was sitting shiva [seven days of mourning by close relatives] one of her visitors was Avihu Cohen, the secretary of Karmei Tzur, whose father, Baruch Cohen of Efrat, was murdered a few months later in the Tunnel Road on the way to Jerusalem. Cohen wanted her to find a name for the new neighborhood of mobile homes. Gillis chose the word shalem [whole], which has some of the letters of the first name of her husband Shmuel, and which in her opinion embodies his personality. Before the word shalem she added the word tzur [rock], one of the names for God, which also symbolizes strength and steadfastness.

The news of the attack at Tzur Shalem, whose residents she knows well, shocked her. When she got home, she found dozens of concerned messages on her answering machine. The first was from an Arab doctor from Beit Jala, a friend of Shmuel Gillis, who wanted to make sure she and the children were all right. The friend from Beit Jala left several messages on the answering machine, and calmed down only after Ruth Gillis called him.

Even today, after the murder of her husband, after the attack on the mobile homes last Shabbat, Gillis is a great believer in interpersonal relationships. Her late husband, Shmuel, felt the same way. His funeral in February 2001 was a manifestly non-political event. Nobody shouted and nobody issued warnings and nobody asked anything of Ehud Barak, who was then prime minister, or of his government - not even security. The Oslo Accords weren't mentioned.

Without politics

Among the many funerals of victims of Palestinian terrorism during that period, Shmuel Gillis' funeral was special, because they spoke about one issue only - the unique character of Gillis as a doctor, a person, and a family man. As he was described at the time by his wife, Ruth: "For us, Shmuel was a bridge to a world of people, regardless of their age, religion, sex or nationality. A basic bridge between people." Even Gillis' brother-in-law, Ron Shechner, who served in the past as the security coordinator of the Yesha Council [for the communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip] and as the head of the regional council of the southern Hebron hills, and who several months later was injured himself in a shooting incident, avoided politics at that special funeral.

There were Jewish and Arab cancer patients there, standing side by side and shedding tears over the man who had saved so many of them. There were also Arab neighbors from the villages in the area of Karmei Tzur, who had been treated by Gillis. After the funeral, one of Palestinian Authority Chairman Arafat's close associates, who had been treated by Gillis, called the Hadassah Medical Center to apologize. "It was a mistake," said Arafat's associate. When they told Ruth Gillis about the conversation, she remained silent.

Today, after the murder of Shalom Mordechai and of Eyal and Yael Sorek in Tzur Shalem, she is no longer silent. "On the personal level, they felt that it was a mistake," she says, referring to that conversation, "but in their overall perspective, there is no mistake here. They shot at Shmuel's car because they knew there was a Jew sitting in it. These are people who have lost all their humanity, who operate out of racist, anti-Semitic motives."

Gillis believes that "the conflict with the Palestinians is not over land. Anyone who lives here, like me and like many others, sees how many bare hills and valleys there are here. There's plenty of room here for everyone, for us and for them. What is missing is room in their hearts. That's why the murderers are not fighting to obtain territory. The murderers murder Jews because they are Jews. That is anti-Semitism and racism for its own sake. Their war is against [those of] a different identity who live alongside them, here in Karmei Tzur, and here in Haifa and in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem and in Tiberias - to them there is no difference. They are fighting against the Jew because he is a Jew. The land is a secondary factor in their struggle."

After Shmuel's murder, Gillis remained alone with her five children - Reut, 14, Amihai, 13, Neta, 12, Noam, 9 and Shai, 4. She and Shmuel spoke for the last time when his car was at the Etzion Bloc junction. "I'll be home soon," he said. When 10 minutes passed and Shmuel didn't come and Ruth ran from one telephone to the other, the children understood that something had happened. The moment the news came, she told them immediately. Father was killed. Father is dead. Father won't come back. "I wanted to be sure they were with me," she said this week. "They heard the whole truth immediately."

Did the children talk about moving somewhere else? Did you consider it?

"The children didn't ask questions. They told me what they wanted, and they didn't hide their anger at those who asked them similar question. `We aren't going anywhere else,' they told me, `this is our home.' It wasn't a political statement on their parts, but a simple and basic feeling of belonging to a home, to after-school activities, to friends, to the neighborhood. I didn't think about leaving, either. This is our home. To acclimatize in a new place would only have made everything more difficult that it was anyway."

Bereavement unites

On the day the shiva period ended, prime minister Ehud Barak visited Ruth Gillis' home in Karmei Tzur. After the expected words of consolation and empathy, Barak told Gillis there was no escaping painful concessions, even of places "that are very dear to us." Gillis said to him: "Do you mean my house, this house?" Barak remained silent.

"It was during the period of Barak's party, the Labor Party, that this place was established," says Gillis. "We didn't come here like thieves in the night, we didn't steal land from anyone. It's very unfair to give us the feeling that they are doing us a favor by allowing us to live here."

But you live in the shadow of uncertainty, since it is known that one major side of the political map in Israel sees a settlement such as Karmei Tzur as something temporary, which in the long run, in the context of an agreement, will be uprooted.

"On an everyday basis, people aren't living with this shadow. If someone were living with this shadow, he wouldn't dare to build his home here. Since Shmuel's murder, another 15 families have come here, we aren't living with doubts. Anyone who is living with doubts regarding the future of this place, cannot live here."

How is life for a bereaved family with five children?

"There are crises and there are setbacks, and every morning means having to rise above everything once again. But we also have the soul and the spirit and the spiritual strength that Shmuel bequeathed to us, it helps us to cope. The children are wonderful and amazing and forgiving and lots of fun. I feel that it's a great privilege to go through such a difficult experience together with them. We try very hard to preserve our vitality. I can't say joie de vivre, but vitality.

"I work in art and informal education and give workshops. I have a studio at home and I'm busy all the time, including with things connected to the situation. We just concluded a meeting with military attaches from foreign countries who came to visit Karmei Tzur, and there are also many meetings with girl friends and with people who are experiencing bereavement, like me. One can learn something from every such person. We were also involved in commemorating Shmuel, and we set up a special meeting place for soldiers in the center of the Etzion Bloc, in his memory and in that of Tzahi Sasson, who was murdered a week after him. It's a place that's open from 7 A.M. until 9 P.M., and is manned every day by volunteers from all over the Etzion Bloc and from the town of Efrat. All the cakes there are home-made.

Does bereavement under such circumstances arouse a desire for revenge?

"We, as religious people, say God will avenge their deaths. The entire issue of revenge is not for us to deal with. God has other agents for that purpose. The desire for revenge means filling your heart with hatred, and I don't want that. The army is the official agent for this purpose. Its job is to find the evildoers and to prevent them from continuing to do evil."

What will you do if one of these days the State of Israel tells you to leave this place?

"I was in Yamit [in Sinai] when it was evacuated. I went down during the last months of the town's existence, and although it wasn't the house that I had built, it leaves a wound in the soul. Anyone who, God forbid, leads us to such concessions, is deceiving himself. Their borders are different from what some of us think. They won't stop at any line. But I must say that if, God forbid, our brothers decide that we have to leave, the pain will be not only over where we'll live, but also over with whom we'll live."

Gillis says that she is angry "at us as the Jewish people. I think that more mutual forgiveness, understanding and listening could have prevented the situation to which we have deteriorated. The Arabs understand a limit, when demands are made of them. Operation Defensive Shield illustrated that on a very small scale. I'm willing to respect their national aspirations, but a national aspiration can be expressed without guns and wars, in the direction of recognition of roots and the development of a better future with a better quality of life.

"Instead of bringing Arafat here, we should have invested in the Palestinians' education, health , and other positive things. We failed in that we didn't do this. When the time came to make a decision, we had two options - to bring a terrorist here and equip his followers with guns, or to invest in the Palestinians' quality of life and infrastructure. We chose the wrong option. We equipped them with guns, instead of with textbooks and medicines."

Ruth Gillis thinks coping with the Palestinians and with bereavement and pain must be done out of unity. In meetings with bereaved families, she met Orly Zohar, whose husband Amir was killed in Jericho. Zohar comes from another world, and her political views are far from those of Gillis, but the two have developed a firm friendship.

"This friendship has taught me that there is more uniting us than dividing us here," says Gillis. "Her bereavement and my bereavement have illustrated to me more than anything else to what extent they are trying to hurt everyone. We are all in the same category of Jews who have to live here in security and independence."

At the bat mitzvah party of their daughter Reut about two and a half years ago, Shmuel read words written by Reut's great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Jaffe, in his book Ahavat Tzion Ve'Yerushalayim (Love of Zion and Jerusalem). Gillis reads the same passage: "We are torn apart internally and scattered externally. The quarrelling between the various sects and the accusations between scholars increase from day to day. Those who hate and persecute us will not prefer the Hasid to the Mitnaged, the follower of the Mussar movement to the honest, simple man, the clever man to the knowledgeable one, the God-fearing, religious man who studies in the Beit Midrash to the enlightened Jew. They will hate all of them with a hatred as passionate as death. Is this the time to quarrel? Restrain yourselves, my brothers. Look for peace, look for unity, because peace and unity are like a barricade and a shield before any trouble and distress."

Ruth Gillis says "these words, which were written over 110 years ago, are more relevant today than ever. This is the Gillis family's message to the entire family of Karmei Tzur, to the entire Israeli public."