The forgotten casualties: Helping Israeli society mature in the way it deals with war

"A soldier is not a mythological hero – he is a human being with pains like the rest of us.”

By ORRI J. AVRAHAM
May 29, 2016 02:42
Rodrigo Gonzales

Rodrigo Gonzales. (photo credit: TAL ELYAKIM-ZE’EVI)

 
X

Dear Reader,
As you can imagine, more people are reading The Jerusalem Post than ever before. Nevertheless, traditional business models are no longer sustainable and high-quality publications, like ours, are being forced to look for new ways to keep going. Unlike many other news organizations, we have not put up a paywall. We want to keep our journalism open and accessible and be able to keep providing you with news and analyses from the frontlines of Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish World.

As one of our loyal readers, we ask you to be our partner.

For $5 a month you will receive access to the following:

  • A user experience almost completely free of ads
  • Access to our Premium Section
  • Content from the award-winning Jerusalem Report and our monthly magazine to learn Hebrew - Ivrit
  • A brand new ePaper featuring the daily newspaper as it appears in print in Israel

Help us grow and continue telling Israel’s story to the world.

Thank you,

Ronit Hasin-Hochman, CEO, Jerusalem Post Group
Yaakov Katz, Editor-in-Chief

UPGRADE YOUR JPOST EXPERIENCE FOR 5$ PER MONTH Show me later Don't show it again

When Israel mourns each Remembrance Day and honors the fallen soldiers by whose ultimate sacrifice the Jewish People can live free and prosperous in their ancestral homeland, little else but the hallowed dead themselves and their shattered families seems to deserve an iota of public attention.

Remembrance Day is an important societal vent through which the pain of loss can be acknowledged and a measure of sanity preserved against the backdrop of a constant state of war that mars the reality of life in Israel.

Be the first to know - Join our Facebook page.



However, it would be remiss, if not naïve, to suppose that the price paid by this country since its founding can be swiftly summed up by a bookkeeper in the graveyard.

No culture could be so immersed in conflict for so long without absorbing it to some degree; three generations of recurrent warfare have taken their toll on the Israeli psyche in subtle ways that are difficult to quantify.

None bear a heavier share of this burden than the veteran soldiers who have returned from battle unscathed on the surface, but emotionally scorched within. Thousands of Israelis who endured the infernal experience of combat found themselves at fighting’s end being thrown back into the routine of civilian life virtually at the flick of a finger, bereft of any chance to digest the sounds, the smells and hellish sights of war.

With none around them who could truly understand their plight, many choose to keep their traumas buried beneath a thin guise of normalcy and their agony shrouded in silence.

“There is an unspoken rule that if I came back from war physically whole, I have no right to speak,” relates Shlomi Esquira, a veteran of the Second Lebanon War.



“For years I kept on with a strong sense that I never really had closure; but I felt as though society never really wanted to listen, and so I just kept silent.”

In 2006, Esquira had served as a young officer in the Nahal Brigade and took part in the fierce fighting of Wadi Saluki, where IDF forces suffered heavy casualties, but it was only a decade after the war that Esquira was able to openly discuss his experience in Lebanon and his personal ordeal thereafter back home. A nascent NGO aptly named Resisim [“shrapnel” in Hebrew] had been the first forum to enable him to freely share his recollections of the war and, in the process, learn to cope with them emotionally.

Resisim was founded in 2014 by a fellow veteran and close friend of Esquira, Yaron Edel, who himself had served as a company commander in the Second Lebanon War and has borne the burden of silence alone until a single photo he posted on the social media, showing him in Wadi Saluki, was answered by a barrage of photos of the scene taken by other veterans that same day. Apart from helping him slowly piece together the events of that chaotic battle, the sheer scope of the response he had received online struck him with the realization that he was far from alone in silence.

Thence came his decision to shatter this stifling social taboo and help Israeli society mature in the way it deals with war.

“To participate in combat is a profound, formative experience that thousands of Israelis have gone through, but the fact that many of them live with a poisonous sense of frustration and loneliness years afterwards seriously harms our cohesion and resilience as a society,” Resisim spokeswoman Perle Nikol says.

“We are strong enough today to open up the wounds and have a fearless discussion about the realities of war. A soldier is not a mythological hero – he is a human being with pains like the rest of us.”

The 47 volunteers who dedicate hours out of their hectic lives each week to keep the project alive are determined to fundamentally alter the way our culture relates to its veterans and to create an atmosphere in which they are encouraged to share their memories of combat in the open. In so doing, they will not only have unburdened the battle-hardened veterans themselves, but also, the founders of Resisim believe, made way for a healthier Israeli society altogether.

“We are fighting for our continued existence here, and there is certainly a strong conviction in the righteousness of our cause,” explains Esquira, “but whether we like it or not, the constant conflict impacts the collective spirit and often translates into hidden tensions and a dormant aggressiveness that run deep in our culture.The only way to discharge these energies is by creating the space for veterans to speak out and by legitimizing this subject in the public sphere, as painful as it may be. We will only strengthen as a country for it.”

To that end, the passionate young men and women behind Resisim have resolved to make Remembrance Day a day dedicated not only to the commemoration of the fallen, but also to the warm collective embrace of all living veterans of combat. By creating the platform for them to reach out and tell their stories in memorial ceremonies around the country, the hope is to inspire the same open public discourse all year round and pave the way for a more sober grasp on this painful topic as a country. To encourage the veterans to speak, we must first show them that we are ready to listen.

Last week marked the third annual Resisim Remembrance Day ceremony. Nearly 400 attendees huddled in the stony courtyard of Jerusalem’s Beit Hansen center to honor Israel’s 23,447 fallen; and indeed to listen to a brave handful of veterans who were there to publicly relate their personal experience of battle for the first time. The shriek of the memorial siren split the frozen evening air like a crack running deep through an ice sheet, further penetrating into the minds of all present like a needle. The sanctity of the act was born of an underlying realization that millions of Israelis had partaken in it at the same moment all across the country.

Over the course of two hours, a solemn audience kept unnaturally silent as one speaker after another stepped onto the stage to share a poem, a prayer, a story. Zvia Askira pulled a heartbroken crowd by the hand into the world of a fallen soldier’s little sister, to share, if only for a moment, in the unfathomable grief of a young girl awaiting her brother’s return from the army in vain.

Her pain, which could scarcely be conveyed by any volume of ink upon this paper, was thus described by Zvia herself: “An open wound can never heal when forever watered by fresh tears.”

Having served as a paramedic in the Second Lebanon War, Avi Konigsberg witnessed more blood than most of his comrades who took part in the operation and shared much of it that somber evening in front of a tearful crowd. As the first person on the scene after a nearby tank hit an enemy land mine, he struggled to save the lives of two mortally wounded crew members trapped inside the tank, but to no avail. Over the course of two months in the field, Avi treated dozens of casualties, and to this day he bears the inevitable pangs of guilt over those he was unable to save, along with the recurrent flashbacks of atrocities no 20-year-old should ever witness.

In a nearby sector served infantryman Rodrigo Gonzalez, originally from Chile, and participated with the Golani Brigade in some of the bitterest fighting of the war just outside Bint-Jbeil in southern Lebanon. Gonzales recounted weeks of sleepless nights, fierce exchanges with Hezbollah guerrillas and abhorrent sights, the description of which sent shudders through a transfixed audience in the Beit Hansen courtyard.

Many cried with him in aching empathy as he struggled to relate some of his darkest memories of the war.

Scores of Jerusalemites of all walks of life had gathered that cold evening to pay their respects to all those who fought in the defense of Israel, both dead and alive. For the latter, the chance to finally speak before scores of sympathetic friends offers indispensable relief that can send them on the right path toward closure and mental peace after years of struggle with a painful past. Indeed, the latent pain of Israeli society as a whole will be alleviated.

Though this year ceremonies were held in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv alone, Shlomi Esquira and his partners in Resisim are committed to gradually spreading their concept of Remembrance Day nationwide. Other forums and panel talks with veteran soldiers are likewise held throughout the year at the initiative of Resisim, as well as a veteran jogging team that runs weekly in Jerusalem. All the while, the public is urged to take part in this project.

Esquira ends by addressing silent veterans: “The experience of war touches a person’s core. It may not necessarily feel like it at first, but its impact runs deep and the only way to grapple with it is by facing it with courage and talking it over.”

Related Content

August 21, 2018
IsraAID team to help victims of South-Indian floods

By HAGAY HACOHEN