Soldiers deaths push parents into peace movement

TEL AVIV — Aaron Barnea and his wife were watching television on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) last year when there was a knock at the door.

He opened it to find what Barnea called "the picture that every Israeli knows and hopes never to see."

Two men in Israel Defense Force uniforms had come to deliver the news Barnea knew instantly when he saw them: His son Noam, 21, had been killed by Hezbollah in Lebanon. He had just five days to go in his mandatory army service.

Noam had always been a peace activist, Barnea recalled, and strongly opposed Israel's ongoing presence in Lebanon. His superiors reprimanded him for wearing a "Leave Lebanon in Peace" button while serving there, but he refused to remove it. That button was returned to the Barnea family with the rest of Noam's things upon his death.

A slight, gray-haired man with an aura of sadness about him, Aaron Barnea is a member of the Families Forum of Bereaved Parents Who Want Peace. The organization of parents has emerged as one of the most vociferous voices in Israel as of late, calling for an immediate resumption of the peace talks, despite the outbreak of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip three months ago.

On Dec. 7, they became the first Israelis to meet with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, since the violence, known as the al-Aksa intifada began.

The group was founded in 1994 by Yitzhak Frankenthal, whose son Arik was killed by members of Hamas, after they picked up the 19-year-old soldier hitchhiking.

Frankenthal had just sold his business when Arik was killed, and he became a man possessed. "I knew Arik was killed because there was no peace with the Palestinians," he said.

A large man with the knitted kippah of the modern Orthodox, Frankenthal cuts an imposing figure. He quickly gained the attention of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and he spoke at the peace rally at which Rabin was assassinated. Prime Minister Ehud Barak called him before leaving for Camp David.

Frankenthal brings to the cause an air of authority both because of his dead son and the fact that he is religious; unlike some others on the left, he can't be accused of being anti-Israel.

"From the point of view of halachah [Jewish law], there is no question about making compromises to achieve peace," he said. "As a religious person, my duty is to make peace. It would be hillul haShem [profanation of God's name] not to make peace."

After Arik's death, Frankenthal requested from the IDF a list of all those soldiers killed in action in the last 20 years. He was refused because of privacy.

So, with the help of an assistant, he went to the library and read 20 years' worth of newspapers to obtain the names.

He sent out 350 letters to bereaved families, asking them to join his organization that supported reconciliation and peace. He received 44 positive responses and two negative ones.

And now, the parents lecture, they protest, they do whatever they can, to ensure that — despite the violence and reported lurch to the right of many doves — there is still a large and vocal contingent calling on the government to leave no stone unturned in its quest for peace.

Their perspective is fueled purely by raw emotion. They do not use maps or rely on statistics. They back no particular platform, party or candidate because they hold a wide range of opinions and they believe a partisan stance would only dilute the group's message.

Their position is highly personal and filled with pain, with ongoing grief their primary motivator. And precisely for these reasons, their argument is a difficult — if not impossible — one to dispute.

The Israeli public "is too concerned with the price of peace," said Barnea. "They don't realize the price of war, of not having peace."

They've paid that price, Barnea said, with their children.

Now, the group includes about 150 Israeli families, including Yehuda Wachsman. He is the father of Nachshon Wachsman, who, in an extremely high-profile case, was kidnapped and held by Hamas terrorists in 1994. After being shown on television at gunpoint, Wachsman was killed during a botched rescue attempt.

Yehuda Wachsman, who appears in a short film Frankenthal made about the group, is shown meeting with bereaved Palestinian parents.

Frankenthal has reached out to Palestinians who have lost their children to the conflict, and the two groups meet often. Recently, a few members on each side met in London, since they were not able to cross their own borders.

Earlier this month, the group erected a large white tent in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, which is still standing. Later, they added 300 plastic figures, to symbolize the number of Jews and Arabs killed in the recent violence — along with memorial candles.

And each night, members of the group have been holding court there, some of them fasting, to make a public plea for peace, just footsteps away from the sunken memorial where Rabin was assassinated five years ago.

"For all those who have left the peace movement in the recent months, we want to bring them back," said Frankenthal. "We are carrying ourselves into a terrible situation." Referring to the Palestinians, he said, "We cannot have neighbors who are treated like animals."

On the first night the tent was there, a few people paused, but most kept on walking. One man stopped to yell "Death to the Jews" in Arabic for almost an hour. A Jew, he was using the chant to make the point that the Arabs could not be trusted. Group members ignored him.

One woman who came by to show her support was Orna Shimony. Tall and gaunt, Shimony is often recognized on the street by people who tell her, "You got us out of Lebanon."

"Barak decided, and Barak got us out," she said. "But what I and the Four Mothers did was put pressure all the time."

Four Mothers, a group that Shimony founded, is credited with influencing Israeli public opinion in favor of a complete withdrawal from Lebanon.

Her husband served in Lebanon in the 1982 invasion. All five of her children also served there, including her two daughters, although not in combat.

"For 18 years, this war was in my house, in my bed," she said. "For 18 years, I go to bed with Lebanon. I clean my teeth with Lebanon. I eat with Lebanon."

Shimony did not argue with her children, who all believed they needed to be there. She felt they needed to take pride in their assignments. But without their knowledge, she worked behind the scenes to sway public opinion.

Once her youngest son, Eyal, was killed at 21 in 1997, that changed.

"After Eyal fell, I began to work very aggressively," she said, adding that until the day he died, Eyal believed in maintaining an Israeli presence in Lebanon.

Shimony went around the country, speaking to whoever would listen. Now she hopes to do the same to bring about peace with the Palestinians.

Saying that she'd like to talk to both Palestinians and settlers, she said, "It will be more difficult to talk to our own brothers."

But like the others, she will not be deterred.

Speaking of all of those — Jewish and Arab — who have lost children to the conflict, Barnea said: "We feel a deep solidarity with all those people working together. And we think we can move mountains."

Frankenthal is often asked how he could meet with the parents of terrorists. Whether they are or aren't, he said, doesn't concern him. "We don't only share this land, we share what's beneath this land — the graves of our children."

Frankenthal has been called a traitor and a Nazi, among other things. After meeting with Arafat, a settler's radio station broadcast his cell phone number and he received death threats. And many have accused him and the other bereaved parents of exploiting the memory of their sons to further their own political agenda.

Are they?

"Yes," Barnea said, without flinching. "We are using the memory of our kids in the best use we can do. We are trying to find some sense in something that has no sense. We are trying to avoid that others will be in the same situation."

He paused and looked downward, as if he were remembering his son, something he must do, no doubt, countless times each and every day.

"I know he would approve."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."