Another Tack: Saccharine for the masses

Why are terror victims' kin expected to be ultra-forgiving, to evince inordinate largesse and be readier than anyone else for yet more sacrifices?

Saccharine 521 (photo credit: Michal Machlouf)
Saccharine 521
(photo credit: Michal Machlouf)
On the first anniversary of the October 26, 2005, suicide bombing in Hadera’s open-air marketplace, the city organized a memorial for the six victims (the seventh lingered and died of her injuries four years after the blast). The families expected a solemn, respectful occasion. It was anything but.
Michal Machlouf, who lost her mother Pirhiya in that atrocity, came away feeling alienated: “Municipal politicians heartily slapped each other on the back for having successfully reconstructed the market. Our tragedy became their vehicle for unabashed campaigning and expedient self-congratulation. Mom’s name was misspelled on the commemorative monument, and we felt surplus to requirements. It was obvious that the organizers couldn’t wait for the bereaved relatives to go away, because we were killjoys. We focused on the blood, while they had very nimbly moved on.”
The same sense of alienation resurfaced during the exhilaration sparked by Gilad Schalit’s release: “I’m pleased he’s back, but this outburst of euphoric festivity is so out of place, so unseemly and so unfeeling. Again we, families of terror victims, were made to feel like killjoys, like burdens who remind the celebrants of horrors-that-were and of horrors-to-come. Despite obligatory lip service, nobody wanted to remember the past or think about the future.”
Michal, one of my daughter’s best friends, homed in on the Israeli collective’s most pervasive syndrome – the yearning for instant wish-fulfillment. “It’s Peace Now, stripped of history and neglectful of consequences,” she notes. “Our opinion-molders peddle saccharine for the masses. Saccharine becomes an ideal, and anyone who probes the price is pilloried.”
This breeds short memories and belittles sacrifices. “We were told it doesn’t matter how many mass-murderers are set loose in return for Gilad because the victims are already dead. Dead corresponds to forgotten/ irrelevant,” Michal remarks. “Nobody knows the names and nobody knows the persons. But these were living individuals with faces and identities. They aren’t disposable statistics.”
Hadera-born Pirhiya “Pickie” Harband was the second daughter of Hannah, who came to this country from Poland at age three, and of Yitzhak, who arrived here in the midst of World War II with General Anders’s Polish Army. Pirhiya (whose Hebrew name means “flower of God”) was named after Blooma, an aunt murdered in the Holocaust.
Pickie was shy, very bookish, served in the IDF (Military Intelligence) and studied literature at the Hebrew University. In time, she began working at the Bank Leumi branch near Hadera’s old market, where she stayed on for 30 years. There she met Libyan-born Haim Machlouf, employed at the same branch. They married and had three children – Noa, Michal and Ron. Their family, amalgamating East and West, was quintessentially Israeli.
The only career Pickie ever wanted was to be a mother. An avowed Anglophile, she loved British humor, literature and TV. She taught her children fluent English and instilled in them the love of reading. “My fondest memories are going to the library together, or shopping with mom, who’d delegate tasks to each child. We never misbehaved, because we were meticulously taught manners, even how to conduct ourselves in a restaurant,” Michal recounts.
“Mom was a night owl and would cook late, which was when we had long heart-to-hearts. I could unload and tell her everything. She was the only adult I knew when growing up who had no trouble apologizing to her kids. Saying sorry, she believed, wasn’t weakness.
“Childishly naïve and shy as she was, she taught us three to fear nothing, to climb trees, attempt the highest playground challenges and achieve whatever we set out to. We were competitive siblings, and she was our balance wheel. When she was taken from us, our family lost its linchpin.
“That fateful Wednesday didn’t seem unusual. Several days later I was supposed to start my freshman year at university, and my sister was to begin her third year. Mom wanted to cook treats for us and planned to leave work early to shop at the market. My brother and I drove her to the bank because Ron needed the car. I always phoned mom during office hours, but not that day. I was in an awful mood throughout. Maybe it was premonition.
“When we heard about the blast, I tried to call her, but she didn’t answer. It wasn’t necessarily an ill omen. Mom was a technophobe and often forgot her cell phone in a drawer somewhere.”
During the ensuing hours, the entire family frantically searched for Pickie. Officialdom didn’t help. No information was obtainable. Haim finally did what he had been dreading and went to the Abu Kabir morgue. Pirhiya’s name was broadcast before he reached home.
Ron heard it on TV. He punched the wall so hard he cracked a bone. Michal returned to find newsmen milling around the house. “We were treated like circus freaks on show,” she recalls. “The funeral was usurped from us. We had no control. Fourth-rate ministerial aides paid condolence visits, but at least these small fry didn’t promise that the terror masterminds and their facilitators would never be released.”
The driver who smuggled the suicide-bomber past various obstacles into Hadera was apprehended and tried. The Machloufs attended one court session, but could take no more. “We were extraneous to the proceedings,” Michal explains. “We still don’t count. I couldn’t bring myself to scrutinize the list of swapped terrorists to see if he was among them. I can’t abide the release of triumphant savages, and I can’t identify with the Gilad-fest jubilation in our midst. I can’t see it as cause for rapture.
“My mother perished on the pavement of her native town at age 53. We were relatively ‘lucky.’ Unlike others, we had a body. Mom died of internal injuries. No gory mangled remains. But her life ended on the sidewalk. I can’t regard our state as the paradigm of unstinting solidarity and humanist virtue when those felled in our streets keep being trampled upon.
“Why do we not impose the death penalty? Jewish tradition warns that he who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful. What will we do in upcoming spates of terror and hostage-taking? “The wholesale release of terrorists is tantamount to acquiescing to the annihilation of Jews because they’re Jews. Why should legal verdicts and sentences not stick to Arabs? Why need we occupy the moral high ground while homicidal Arabs garner global sympathy? “How dare anyone judge families like mine! “Why is it okay for us to wake up to a run-of-themill morning only to have our world devastated by afternoon? Why are terror victims’ kin – sentenced for life to anxiety and sorrow – expected to be ultra-forgiving, to evince inordinate largesse and be readier than anyone else for yet more sacrifices?”
In Michal’s view, “these expectations are immoral and come from people who know nothing, least of all why they mouth leftist mantras. They never knew Pirhiya Machlouf and never gave her a passing thought. But Pirhiya was real.” And her favorite flower was the bird of paradise.
The Tack is going on vacation in November.