Making Sense of Our Sons' Deaths
My two year old is starting preschool tomorrow. In his 27 months of sweet and innocent life, he has spent less than 27 hours apart from me. Tonight I went to our first parents’ meeting with butterflies in my stomach, anxious for both of us about this emotional milestone.
This is how it began: “Hi, I’m Ruchama, the head teacher. The first thing I want to tell you is that my son Moshe, my Moshiko, served in Gaza this summer. On the twenty-second day of the war, he was killed. He would have been 21 this summer.”
Ruchama went on to tell us that this has (understandably) been a very difficult summer for her, and that she was sure it would continue to be a hard year, but that when her son left for the war he left behind an early birthday card in which he urged her to “watch over the children” – our sweet children. And she told us that “ילדים זה שמחה – children are happiness”, and that she hopes and believes caring for our children will make the coming year, with its heartbreaking difficulty, a little bit brighter and more joyful for her.
As she shared her story, Ruchama was not crying. She smiled gently throughout. I pictured her crying so much this past month that she simply had no tears left.
Aside from hers, though, there were very few dry eyes in the room.
And with that, she made a “sharp transition” as she called it, to reviewing the simultaneously poignant and mundane topics we would need to know as our children began their first year of preschool. We wiped our tears and turned to discussions of diapers and the new catering service and how best to say goodbye to our toddlers on their first day.
This is not how this meeting was supposed to go. This is not how any meeting should ever go.
I wish I had something profound to say about this. I believe many people here in Israel would indeed have something powerful and sincere to say. Something along the lines of what Bibi told so many bereaved parents of barely-adult sons over the past two months: “I would like to share in the grief of the families whose dear ones have fallen. They have fallen in defense of the nation and we all mourn their passing. There is no more just war than this one that our heroic sons are fighting.” Those moving and reassuring words, deliberately phrased to comfort, to assure the devastated parents that their beloved sons’ deaths had purpose and meaning, that they did not die in vain…
I can’t begin to imagine the pain of a parent who loses their child. I have nothing but the deepest respect and appreciation for the parents who watch their children go off to fight for this country, not knowing when or if they will return. I am humbled by their selflessness. And if the ability to think this way brought them comfort, I am truly glad.
As I did so many times this summer, though, I could not help but picture myself in their shoes.
When my eldest was born, before he had even been cleaned of the gunk and blood covering his tiny body, a bizarrely incongruous thought popped into my mind: “One day, this baby will go to the army.” I was shocked. In a million years, I never would have imagined this would be my first thought upon the birth of my firstborn. I assume that despite studiously avoiding the internet as I struggled through my forty-first week of pregnancy in a sweltering July, some news had seeped through. So this strange thought must have had something to do with the terrible war we were fighting in Lebanon, and the fact that the maternity ward at Hadassah Ein Karem was overflowing with refugees from the north who came here to give birth safe from the threat of Hezbollah’s rockets. But wherever that shocking thought came from, there it was, and so began my life as a mother.
And so it has continued through every war since. Every time rockets and bombs start falling, I am profoundly aware: “One day this baby will go to the army.” Only now the baby comes up to my shoulder, and only ten years remain instead of eighteen, and my desperate hopes that “by the time he is ready there will be no need” seem more and more farfetched.
But it’s worse than that. Because at the time my eldest was born, I think I would have, through tremendous, crushing sorrow, believed in Bibi’s words. I would have been comforted by knowing that my son (God forbid, a million times over) had sacrificed his life in defense of something pure and good and just.
But now… Now I am struggling so much. I am struggling to find my voice and my thoughts between the many overwhelming critiques I have of my government on the one hand, and the very real threats on our soil and throughout the world on the other.
I believe in the State of Israel – that it is both necessary and just that there be a Jewish state. And I believe in the absolute necessity of the IDF’s existence. I don’t think another Holocaust is beyond the pale of possibility and I think it’s our obligation to make it so.
But I believe holding on with all our might to the occupation of another people is destroying us. I believe we have missed many real opportunities to move toward peace. I believe our government has behaved in ways that have moved us further away from peace. And I believe these failings are partially responsible for this recent war.
I do not think we’re any less moral than any other nation or army, including our Palestinian neighbors, who also bear responsibility. And I am terrified of Hamas and the threats they continue to pose, to us and to the Palestinian people. I believe it is right and just to defend ourselves when necessary against them and others who would threaten us. But I remain very unconvinced that that is what this recent war was. I fear that our entire military operation only moved us further from peace. And I wonder whether, with wiser leadership, the whole horrific ordeal – the destruction of thousands of lives, and of homes, and of hope – could have been avoided.
So at least for now, when I imagine my babies going to the army, I cannot see myself believing that there is “no cause more just” than the one I hope they would never have to be fighting for. The best I can manage is an overwhelming ambivalence – a faith in the rightness of Israel but not in its current course of action, an enduring belief in the need for the IDF but a sense of looming fear that its actions have been less than completely just.
All I can do is pray I will never have to answer the question that has been haunting me ever since I read Bibi’s words: What about those parents who did not feel there was “no more just war” than the one their sons died fighting in? Where did they find comfort? How will they make sense of their sons’ deaths? How will they find the strength to move on?
With all my heart, I wish them peace and comfort. And I pray we, the citizens of Israel, will find the wisdom and courage to make sure no one will ever have to answer that question again.