Atinsky’s activism

A US-born immigrant fights for road safety.

May 27, 2010 06:25
Brian Atinsky

brian atinsky 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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Within minutes of arriving at a Jerusalem-area mall for this interview Bryan Atinsky is approached by a complete stranger.

“He told me that he saw me on TV and that I am very brave,” says Atinsky, shrugging and adding in a flat voice: “It happens wherever I go; I guess I’m famous now.”

Indeed, Atinsky, with his distinctive unruly hair tied back in a ponytail and dark-rimmed glasses, has achieved a fame of sorts, but not in the way anyone would desire.

Those who recognize the 40-year-old most likely saw the Milwaukee-born veteran immigrant on Channel 2’s popular Friday Studio with Yair Lapid earlier this month.

On the program, Atinsky made an emotional appeal for tackling road safety and barely held back the tears as he spoke about the head-on collision two months ago that killed his wife, Efrat, two children, Noam, five, and Ya’ari, nine months, and his mother-in-law Esther Gamliel.

Atinsky, who had been living for the past year with his family in Athens, Georgia, while Efrat worked to complete her post-doctorate at the University of Georgia, was actually in Milwaukee at the time of the crash staying with his parents. He returned three weeks ago to be with his wife’s family here and to sort out the legal issues surrounding the accident.

His other goal in returning, he says, is to raise public awareness to the increasing number of deaths on the country’s roads and to demand that the government takes more responsibility in improving road safety and stamping out bad driving, so that “others don’t have to feel what I am feeling.”

“I think it is just in my character that when something terrible happens I feel it is my obligation in life to work to change it,” reflects Atinsky, as he tells how he managed to turn his heart-wrenching grief into a fight against negligent drivers and government indifference. “The only thing I can do now in my life is to work to make the world a better place.”

Since appearing on Channel 2 on May 7, Atinsky says that people have not stopped coming up to him in public to express their sympathy and condolences.

“Some give me hugs, others start crying or they just shake my hand and tell me how brave I am,” says Atinsky, adding that while he appreciates the outpouring of sympathy, the hugs, handshakes and even the intense media attention are simply not enough.

“People here know what is happening on the roads; they have seen the stories of these terrible tragedies a million times,” he says. “There is always an outpouring of compassion, but there is really no additional step. No one seems to be stopping and saying, ‘Why is this happening here?’

“Everyone is quick to blame bad driving or the ‘Israeli mentality’ and they say that nothing can be done to change it, but that is simply not true. There is a plan in place, a plan that is based on a similar one in Europe that helped reduce road deaths there. The problem is that it is just not being implemented here at all.”

IN THE short time he has been back, Atinsky has made it his business to gather as much information, resources and statistics on road deaths as possible to build a successful awareness campaign and provoke the authorities into tackling what he refers to as “the No. 1 killer of Israelis.”

As we talk, he takes out a laptop filled with newly gleaned data following recent meetings with local campaign organizations such as Or Yarok (Green Light) and Metuna. He reels off statistics and talks with the authority of someone who has been passionately involved in this fight for most of his life.

“The problem is endemic,” he states. “The fact of the matter is that there was a committee created in 2005 [the Sheinin Committee] that made very detailed and clear recommendations for improving road safety in Israel. Sadly, however, few of those recommendations have been implemented.”

Among the suggestions made by the committee, which was headed by Dr. Ya’acov Sheinin, was to increase spending in areas such as road safety education in schools, make physical improvements to some of the more dangerous roads and to greatly increase the budget for police supervision.

Five years later, however, road safety campaigners are quick to highlight that almost none of these steps have been taken and that Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz has even been working against Sheinin’s recommendations.

Just this past Sunday, Katz’s recommendation to remove road safety lessons from the national educational curriculum was overwhelmingly approved by the cabinet. The subject has been taught to all ages from kindergarten up to matriculation since 1993 but was criticized as being too costly.

“At least 300 video cameras were supposed to have been installed in certain danger spots,” says Atinsky. “The last minister of transportation, Shaul Mofaz, took some responsibility for this issue and there was a lowering of some degree in traffic deaths under his watch, but Katz seems to have totally ignored this issue and there has been a 20 percent increase in traffic fatalities since he took over.”

Atinsky’s observations concur with road death statistics published by the National Road Safety Authority, a government body created to fight the phenomenon but which in the past few years has seen its budget greatly slashed. According to its Web site, so far this year some 150 people have been killed on the roads, 12 more than in the same period last year. In March, the month in which Atinsky’s family was killed, 39 people died.

“In 2006, a decision was made to put up physical barriers in places where there is an existing white line, but it was never carried out,” says Atinsky. “If it had been, then the driver who was trying to pass in a no-passing zone wouldn’t have been able to and my family would still be alive today.”

Efrat, her mother Esther, Noam and Ya’ari had been on their way to visit friends on Kibbutz Revivim in the South when an army vehicle tried to overtake another truck in the opposite lane to the one which the family was traveling. The head-on collision caused the family’s car to catch fire, killing all the passengers inside.

After sharing his story and his pain with the nation via the national media, Atinsky says that his next step is to take on Katz.

“I want to ask him about this rise in traffic deaths on his watch and why he has not taken any responsibility for putting [Sheinin’s] recommendations into practice,” he says steadfastly. “I want to meet with him face to face in front of television cameras, and if he refuses, then I will gather as many people as I can and we will demonstrate outside his office until he takes notice.”

Appeals from road safety campaigners and representatives of the media for Katz to meet this freshly widowed father have so far been turned down, but Atinsky refuses give up hope. He says he plans to stay here until he sees justice done.

ATINSKY, who works for the Alternative Information Center, an internationally oriented, progressive, joint Palestinian-Israeli activist organization, is no stranger to activism.

“It probably comes from my parents,” he says of Merry and Jordy Atinsky, who have refused to leave their son’s side since the night of the crash and even accompanied him to this interview.

“When I grew up in Milwaukee in the 1970s, there was a big neo-Nazi movement and my dad helped form a group that followed them around to keep tabs on them,” Atinsky says. “Eventually they managed to kick them out of Milwaukee and sent them to Chicago, where they went on to march in Skokie [in 1977].”

Atinsky says that it was this and other types of activism by his parents that caused him to become involved in numerous social rights issues while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and later, after making aliya in 1997, to become involved in fighting for the rights of Palestinians here.

Atinsky brushes off the notion that he is an incredibly strong person with an unusual ability to take such a terrible tragedy and turn it into a call for action.

“I don’t think I am strong at all,” he says, his voice wavering as he is forced to remember why it is he is here. “I still cry every day and I have nightmares every night. I scream in my sleep and last night I dreamed that Efrat came to me and I was holding her even though I knew she was dead.

In a shaky voice, he goes on, “I figure there are three options for me at the moment – I can stay in a vegetative state and live alone in my suffering; I can kill myself; or I can do something constructive and move forward. Trying to make changes for the better is just part of my personality.”

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