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Coffins at the UN
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, USA
March 22, 2002
Our family is expecting a baby any day now—a boy whose tiny body has been admired for months on a sonogram—my sixth grandchild, the son of my son. The Talmud says, from one life comes a world. My husband and I have experienced the miracle of exponential multiplication first hand. If we're lucky, we might live to see the fourth generation, our arrow into eternity.
I thought about this already-adored little boy and the world that might flow from him as I listened to fourteen bereaved parents of children who've been killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, eight Israelis and six Palestinians who came to New York to talk about peace and reconciliation.
Members of The Israeli-Palestinian Families Forum for Peace, they represent the Parents' Circle (200 families of Israeli casualties), and the National Movement for Change (150 families of Palestinian casualties) who, as they put it, "have paid the highest price for the absence of peace." Monday night they spoke at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, then again on Tuesday at a remarkable event—the display of 1050 flag draped Israeli and Palestinian coffins. The exhibit, simple, eloquent, heart-breaking, was first mounted in Tel Aviv on March 13, then brought to New York and set up on Dag Hammarskjold Plaza across from the United Nations for just one day, March 19th.
Beneath the words, "The Pains of Peace are Preferable to the Agonies of War"—a statement made at various times by Menahem Begin, Ezer Weizman, and Yitzhak Rabin—stood row after row of mock full-sized coffins, 250 draped with Israeli flags and 800 draped with Palestinian flags, representing the casualties suffered by both sides since the start of the second intifada 18 months ago. The Israeli/Palestinian ratio corresponds to the actual proportion of lives lost on each side. (Though the death toll is actually more than 1400, the organizers chose not to represent the exact number in deference to those who, for whatever reason, would not have wanted their children's coffins included.) In Israel, it took five months and five High Court decisions to permit the display of the Palestinian flags in this context.
Other than the women who wore head scarfs and the men who wore kipot—and unless you could differentiate between Palestinian and
Israeli-accented English—it was difficult to tell who were the Jews and who were the Arabs (or in one case Druse). More symbolically, the parents' anguish was indistinguishable—raw, deeply human, the agony of unthinkable loss, a pain so naked one felt almost ashamed to witness it. One after another, their stories stung and seared.
Yitzhak Frankenthal, founder and managing director of the group, father of five, lost a 19-year-old son in 1994. Rather than seek revenge, he said, he formed the Parents' Circle. Ibrahim Bushnak, an Arab Israeli and the Palestinian coordinator of the group, lost a nephew in the conflict. "We want to send all our leaders a message," he said. "If we can sit together, why can't you?" Roni Hirshenzon lost two sons, one to a suicide bomb, one to suicide because he couldn't bear the deaths of his brother and his best friend. "I will go the ends of the world if I can prevent one more parent from sharing the grief and sorrow I suffer," said Roni. Aaron Barnea said his son died in service to his country on the eve of Yom Hashoah while dismantling explosives in South Lebanon, five days before he was to complete his army service. "From his death we swore to continue to struggle for peace and give sense to the nonsensical death of this boy." Khalid Mohammed Abdel Khadir's son was killed barely three weeks ago, yet he came here from the West Bank to deliver much the same message. Of the parents' group he said, "We are a family of people who lost our sons. We are weeping together." Nurit Elhanan Peled's daughter was killed in 1997 by a suicide bomber, "a young man who was humiliated and desperate to the point of killing her and himself," said Nurit. "Their blood was mingled in death. There is a growing kingdom of dead children. The Holy Land must not turn into a wasteland." Tzvi Shahak said March 19th, the day of the coffin display at the UN, would have been his daughter's 21st birthday. A man from Gaza killed her and two other girls celebrating Purim on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. Later Tzvi found her diary which was full of poems she had written about peace. "If the killer had read her poems," he said, "perhaps she'd be alive today."
The Talmud also tells us that he who destroys one life, it is as if he has destroyed a world. Looking at the poignant field of coffins and listening to the bereaved parents, I thought of all the young lives dead-ended on their branch, the worlds destroyed forever, the grandchildren who would never be born.
Nira Levi lost her soldier son; her husband died soon after, of sorrow. Fatmah Batnij carried a picture of her son, killed by Israeli soldiers when he went out to the store. Roni Nazih Kahour, a Druze, lost a son who ran to help people injured in a bus explosion and was killed when a second bomb exploded at the site. Yosef Galili told of a son killed in Lebanon, a wife murdered in a terrorist attack on their kibbutz. "I lost my dearest," he said, "but I didn't lose my head or my hope for peace."
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Amos Oz imagined "being able to send the ghosts of all the dead children, Israeli and Palestinian, to haunt Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat." In fact, the living ghosts are here in plain sight, those desperately bereaved parents and siblings and cousins and husbands who came here to present an open letter to President Bush, Kofi Annan, and Gunther Burghardt, European Union Ambassador to the US, asking them to "take concrete steps to end the violence, by pressuring the parties to return to the negotiating table."
Everyone knows that is where the violence will end for, eventually, always, bloodshed ends in talk, in treaties, in words on paper. The question is, how many more parents must weep at their children's graves before their so-called leaders accept the inevitable?
"One day," writes Oz, there will be a settlement of the conflict and "we shall all have to laugh at the stupidities of our past. Even as we laugh, we shall have to answer for the spilling of so much innocent blood. But the mothers and fathers of the dead will not be laughing."
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a feminist activist, author, and lecturer.
From the Forward, March 22, 2002.