War on terror

3 Haifa men try to upgrade the status of their children killed in a 2003 bus bombing.

By ARYEH DEAN COHEN
August 21, 2008 15:28
War on terror

The Three Fathers 224.88 courtesy. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Acommon fate doesn't always mean common recognition. That's the lesson Yossi Zur, Ron Kehrmann and Yossi Mendellevich learned shortly after their children were killed in the No. 37 bus bombing on Haifa's Rehov Moriah on March 5, 2003, leading them to launch The Three Fathers, aimed at changing what they term Israel's "hierarchy of bereavement" they believe discriminates against civilians killed in terror attacks. For while two soldiers killed in the same attack were recognized as Halalei Ma'arachot Yisrael (Fallen of Israel's Wars), the three high-school students were not granted such status. Instead they were termed Nifga'ei Pe'ulot Eiva (Terror Victims). The Three Fathers fail to see the difference, believing that making such a distinction does a disservice to their children and the state. "The enemy doesn't distinguish between me and a soldier. And since we are being murdered by the same enemy, I don't think we need to make this type of segregation," says Kehrmann. The discrimination became evident almost immediately. At the first Remembrance Day ceremony they attended in Haifa after Asaf Zur, Tal Kehrmann and Yuval Mendellevich were killed, their fathers discovered the names of soldiers killed were mentioned, but not civilians. "We asked: 'Why not add our children's names; they were only recently killed.' They said: 'No, no, only the soldiers, not civilians.' So we asked them: 'Why did you invite us to the ceremony?' They said: 'Courtesy, we couldn't not invite you. But we don't change the ceremony.' That's when we knew we had to do something," says Zur. Compensation and other assistance for families of terror victims comes from National Insurance; the Defense Ministry handles families of fallen soldiers, which includes financial as well as emotional assistance in dealing with the overwhelming struggle facing both groups. But the Three Fathers insist recognition, not money, is the only issue. "We want them to be connected to the ethos, to the story, to the narrative of the Zionist, Israeli, Jewish story of the State of Israel, and not be considered as nonexistent persons, like they are today," says Mendellevich. Connected to the ethos, like groups as diverse as the Jewish Brigade, members of the IZL and Lehi and even yeshiva students killed in Jerusalem in 1860. So far, however, including terror victims in this group has proven what Zur calls "a hot potato" that government officials and MKs have been reluctant to handle. THE THREE FATHERS are not the first to take up differentiation between the victims. "The discrimination in this regard apparently existed a long time before we joined the family of the nation's bereaved," says Zur. Their predecessors' complaints focused on the lack of any official Remembrance Day ceremony - legislation which used the term Hok Yom Hazikaron Lehalalei Ma'arachot Yisrael - for their loved ones. "We, like those who took this up before us, said: 'We want Remembrance Day to be Remembrance Day for everyone,'" says Zur. In reaction to more claims of discrimination growing out of an increase in terror attacks in the late 1990s, the government in 1999 set up the Maltz Committee, headed by former Supreme Court justice Ya'acov Maltz. It ruled that Remembrance Day should also be for terror victims, and that a central memorial site should be established for them on Mount Herzl. A separate state ceremony is currently held there at 1 p.m. on Remembrance Day. However, that committee did not deal with issues of recognition or solve all remaining procedural disputes, some of which remain as divisive as ever. Issues discussed range from whether a song should be sung between the reading of fallen soldiers' names and those of terror victims or how many memorial gardens should be planted, to the greater issue of whether such civilians are a part of the state's ongoing battle for its existence. "The state, on an ethical level, has to decide how it views the fallen: Is everyone who was killed by the enemy part of the state's ethos, part of its battle for its daily existence here, or just those who had a gun in their hand and were killed in battle?" says Zur. WHILE THE Three Fathers have pursued legislation to obtain their goal, when one such proposal reached the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who had earlier signaled support, stopped it, Zur says. Mofaz's spokesman did not return calls asking for a comment on his current position; Defense Minister Ehud Barak does not want to meet with them, says Zur. One reason might be what Kehrmann encounters when he buttonholes MKs for their support. "You come to a politician and he asks you, 'Eizeh check yesh lecha?' [How many votes can you deliver?], and the best we can say is 3,500 families," he notes, not enough to impress them for now. A similar pass-the-buck approach emerged in efforts to obtain comments from both the Prime Minister's Office and the Defense Ministry. While the PMO has been directly involved in the controversy, and in late 2007 appointed former Supreme Court justice Ya'acov Turkel to find a solution - a request for answers to written questions about the dispute met with a laconic e-mail response: "Please contact the Defense Ministry, which deals with all matters related to the fallen of Israel's wars, their burial and memorialization." Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror wondered why it was even a Defense Ministry issue, noting "this is a government decision." "The government decided at the time that there would be a differentiation between Halalei Ma'arachot Yisrael and Nifga'ei Pe'ulot Eiva... We as the Defense Ministry don't take a stand on the matter... They [the terror victims] have their status, they have this Remembrance Day, they have their ceremonies... We don't have a stand on whether it should be this way or not - we accept the government decision." Dror also insisted that ultimately, the entire issue is about money. "Whoever says they don't want money is misleading you - in the end, it all costs money," he said. THE STRONGEST opposition to the Three Fathers' request, the three men say, has come mainly from Yad Labanim, the government-appointed body that memorializes and aids the families of IDF fallen. "They insist on differentiating and maintaining this separation, exactly because they see us as an 'accident'... our children, who died at the hands of the enemy, aren't considered to be the same," says Mendellevich. This attitude was reflected in a letter written by Yad Labanim directorate and secretariat member Yoske Harari when a dispute broke out over Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav's support for adding the terror victims to the list of army fallen at a 2004 Remembrance Day ceremony shortly after the Haifa bus bombing. "The governments of Israel and the Knesset and not the parents of the fallen decided to educate our youth in its generations to follow in the footsteps of those who were sent by the state as part of its security services, and who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice," Harari wrote. "No one intended to educate the youth to follow in the footsteps of the terror victims, those killed on buses, discotheques or catering halls." While saying that "the pain of families losing a son or father in war or a terror attack or car accident is the same," the letter added that "including all the victims in one ceremony, on one list, cheapens the memory of those who fell in service and undermines the values of our legacy and education." When asked about his comments four years later, Harari said, "What I wrote is very simple: When a young person is killed, it's a terrible tragedy, regardless of how he was killed... So the issue of commemoration must be for all those who died before their time. "Our organization simply argued that commemoration regarding the fallen of Israel's wars also brings with it a legacy, a form of educating the younger generation. So there is Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is a day in which we remember all the victims, but we don't speak of it as a legacy, and encourage them to be burned in the crematoria in Germany or Poland. On the other hand, there's Hana Szenes, also killed by the Nazis, but there's a difference between legacy and memorializing. "I lost a son in Israel's wars, and my daughter was seriously hurt in attack on one of our embassies. I've experienced both sides. And I educate my grandchildren to be prepared to give up their lives in the service of their people, and to be careful not to be hurt by our enemies on the seashore, buses, a discotheque or car in Judea and Samaria. There's a huge difference between the two, and it's an educational problem, not a matter of blood... "I don't think parents of terror victims want to wish our youth to follow in their children's footsteps. They [the terror victims] are victims of the fact that there is a conflict, victims of the fact that they are Jewish, that they are citizens in the State of Israel... They are very honored fallen, and we must tell their story, but we cannot instruct our young people to follow in their footsteps..." Asked about the Three Fathers campaign, Yad Labanim chairman Eli Ben-Shem referred to the Maltz Committee, adding: "The government decided; it wasn't us. With all due respect, they are three parents and they won't replace the more than 1,500 victims of terror who have a representative body. We signed an agreement with that body before this past Remembrance Day on all the guidelines, and the Three Fathers don't want it... They can try to decide what they want - there are government decisions on this." And not every bereaved parent or spouse wants the change in status. Jay Berman, whose wife, Genia, was killed in a bus bombing in Jerusalem the same year as the Three Fathers' children, says: "I think terror victims are a different grouping, and should remain as such... Each individual and each family should make its own decisions as to how it wants to memorialize its loss, whether that's a victim of terror or someone killed in army service." SOME OBSERVERS believe differentiating between victims poses an even greater threat than just insensitivity. Yehuda Poch, director of communications for OneFamily, which provides a wide range of assistance to terror victims and their families, says, "Our enemies have seen fit to shift their war against us from a military vs military confrontation, which they know they cannot win, to a terrorist vs civilian confrontation, in which they see better possibilities. But ultimately, it's the same enemy, with the same intent. When that enemy sees the official state bodies separating the civilian from the military casualties, it confirms for them their idea that if they can't defeat us militarily, perhaps they can defeat our civilians." The change in terror tactics may ironically help the Three Fathers campaign. Yahav, whose city has suffered a large number of civilian casualties both in terror attacks and in the Second Lebanon War, "simply can't understand" Yad Labanim's opposition. In 2004, he took the courageous move of setting up a separate Remembrance Day ceremony when the siren sounds at 11 a.m. for terror victims in Haifa - the same hour as the one held for fallen soldiers - going even beyond the Maltz Committee recommendations. "Yossi [Zur] is 100% right," says Yahav. "We don't agree with their stand, because every one of Israel's wars has been different from those that preceded it. This war, today, is a war against the home front. And in such a war, both soldiers and civilians are killed, but they are the fallen of the same war. And you can't differentiate between the blood of one and the blood of the other." Being right isn't enough, however, and Zur, Mendellevich and Kehrmann are worried that without action, the memories of civilian casualties will fade, even as they struggle to keep their children's memory alive. Already there are signs this is happening. The families of the civilian victims of the Second Lebanon War were not even mentioned at this year's event, just two years later. Poch says there's cause for concern, noting "hundreds of people" missing from a National Insurance Web site in memory of civilian terror victims, and some who don't appear at all on a similar Foreign Ministry site. While the Foreign Ministry has promised to rectify the situation, "the issue of 'forgetting' the victims of terrorism nationally is one that we cannot allow to come to pass... In this respect, I view the non-inclusion of the victims of terrorism - and the 'forgetfulness' of our national institutions - as a part of the larger malaise affecting Israel politically, diplomatically, culturally and socially." Mendellevich agrees, believing the failure to recognize his son as one of the Fallen of Israel's Wars reflects something bigger. "Terror attacks are considered a failure of the system. We see how after an attack, they quickly come and hose everything down, so they can say: Look, life continues as it was. But I say: You failed? Okay, honor them in their deaths if you weren't able to save them. If you failed, honor their memory so their memory won't be forgotten."

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