March 30, 2020
I am sending you testimony that I wish everyone in the world would read, assimilate and discuss. It is heartbreaking testimony told by an Israeli Jew, Rami Elhanan. I have copied it from a book, Apeirogon by Colum McCann, 2020. In the book also appears the profound testimony of Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, and a partner of Rami in the struggle for peace. But here I am focusing on Rami’s testimony, because I am writing from a place where I and many around me are “privileged.” I want this testimony to help us look at ourselves.
E. Martin Schotz, MD
Cummington, Massachusetts USA
Member of FCCPR Peace Task Force
The Testimony of Rami Elhanan
My name is Rami Elhanan. I am the father of Smadar. I am a sixty-seven-year-old graphic designer, an Israeli, a Jew, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite. Also what you might call a graduate of the Holocaust. My mother was born in the Old City of Jerusalem, to an ultra-orthodox family. My father came here in 1946. What he saw in the camps he seldom spoke about, except to my daughter Smadar when she was ten or eleven. I was a kid from a straightforward background — we weren’t wealthy but we weren’t poor. I got in some trouble at school, nothing big, I ended up in industrial school, then studied art, more or less an ordinary life.
The story I want to tell you starts and ends on one particular day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. For Jews this is the day when we ask forgiveness for our sins, the holiest day of our calendar. I was a young soldier fighting the October ’73 war in Sinai, a horrible war, everyone knows this, it’s no revelation. We started with a company of eleven tanks and finished it with three. My job included bringing in ammunition and taking out the dead and wounded. I lost some very close friends, carried them out on stretchers. I emerged from the war bitter, angry, disappointed, with just one thing on my mind — to detach myself from any kind of involvement or commitment, to block myself off from anything official at all. I was a sort of anarchist, not really anarchist even, I had no political involvement. I just wasn’t interested at all, the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, Timbuktu, I didn’t care, I didn’t think about them, I just wanted a normal quiet life.
I got out of the army and finished my studies at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. I got married to Nurit, and we had four kids. One of these children was my daughter, Smadar. She was born on the eve of Yom Kippur, in September 1983, in a hospital in Jerusalem. Her name is taken from the Bible, from the Song of Solomon, grape of the vine. She was sparkling, vivid, joyful, just very beautiful. An excellent student, a swimmer, a dancer too, she played the piano and loved jazz. We used to call her Princess, a cliche’ of course, but that’s exactly what she was to me, a princess, every father knows this feeling, things aren’t such a cliche’ when you’re living them.
My three boys and this little princess, we lived what seemed to be a perfect, sheltered life in Jerusalem in our secure house in the Rehavia neighborhood at the time. Nurit taught in the Hebrew University. She was radical, left-wing, stunning, brilliant. She went to the best schools. She was the daughter of a general. The Israeli elite, really. In a way, you could say we lived inside a bubble, completely detached from the outside world. In this tiny country, smaller than New Jersey, you could drive from one end to the other in a day. It had its problems of course but what place doesn’t? I was doing graphic design — posters and ads — for the right wing, for the left wing, whoever paid money. Life was good. We were happy, complacent. To be honest it suited me.
On and on and on this went, month after month, year after year, until the fourth of September, 1997, just a few days before Yom Kippur, when this incredible bubble of ours burst in midair into a million pieces. It was the beginning of a long cold dark night that is still long and cold and dark and will always be long and cold and dark, until the end when it will still be cold and dark.
I have told this story so many times, but there is always something new to be said. Memories hit you all the time. A book that is opened. A door that is closed, a beeping sound, a window opened. Anything at all. A butterfly.
That day, in 1997, three suicide bombers blew themselves up in the middle of Ben Yehudi Street in the center of Jerusalem, three bombs one after another. They killed eight people — themselves and five others, including three little girls. One of these girls was our Smadari. It was a Thursday, three o’clock in the afternoon. She was out buying books for school and later she was going to sign up for jazz dance lessons. A nice quiet day. She was walking down the street with her friends, listening to music.
I was driving to Ben Gurion airport and I heard about the bombings on the radio. At first when you hear about an explosion, any explosion, anywhere, you keep hoping that maybe this time the finger of fate will not turn toward you. Every Israeli knows this. You get used to hearing about them, but it doesn’t alter the skip in your chest. You just wait and you listen and you hope that it isn’t you. And then you hear nothing. And then your heart starts to pound. And you make a few phone calls. And then you make a few more. You ask and you ask and you ask for your girl. You dial and you dial. But nobody has heard anything. Nobody has seen her. Then you hear something else. The last anyone saw her, she was near Ben Yehudi Street, downtown. And your heart, you can hear it thump in your ears now. You and your wife, you drive into town. You drive so fast, you think no, it can’t be happening this way, no no no. You leave the car and you find yourself running in the streets, in and out of shops, the cafe’, the ice cream store, trying to find your daughter your child, your Princess — but she has vanished. You shout her name. You run back to your car. You drive even faster. You go from hospital to hospital, police station to police station. You lean over the desk. You plead. You say her name over and over. And you know, you just know, deep in your heart, by the way the nurses look at you, by the way the policemen shake their heads, by their hesitance, by the silences you know, but you won’t admit it. You do this for many long hours until eventually,very late at night, you and your wife find yourselves in the morgue.
The finger of fate, it points at you. Right between your eyes. The morgue staff guide you through. They bring you to a room. You hear the slide of the tray. The metal roller, the rubber wheels. And you see this sight which you will never be able to forget for the rest of your life. Your daughter. On a steel tray. and you will never be the same.
Her funeral was held in Kibbutz Nachshon, on a green hill on the way to Jerusalem. Smadar was buried next to her grandfather, General Matti Peled, a true fighter for peace, a professor, a Knesset member. He was much loved on both sides and people came from everywhere in this mosaic of a country, Jews and Muslims and Christians, representatives of the settlers, representatives from the parliament, representatives of Arafat, from abroad, everywhere. And then she was buried beside him.
You come back home, the house is filled with hundreds and hundreds of people coming to pay respect, offering condolences. These are the seven days of shiva. You are enveloped by these hundreds of people, thousands actually — they lined the pavement, they had to put up orange cones to close the street off. Traffic cops for your daughter. But on the eighth day, everybody goes back to their normal everyday business, and you’re left alone. Without your daughter.
You wander the house. You say her name, you whisper it, and when you’re alone you shout it. Smadar. Smadari. You touch things. Her books on her shelf. Her music tapes. You listen for her. She’s not there.
Time doesn’t wait for your. You want it to wait, to freeze, to paralyze itself, to go backwards, but it just doesn’t. You need to wake up, to stand up and face yourself. She is gone. Her chair at the table is empty. Her room is empty. Her coat is on the doorknob. You have to make a decision. What are you going to do now, with this new unbearable burden on your shoulders? What are you going to do with this incredible anger that eats you alive? What are you going to do with this new you, this father without a daughter, this man who you never thought could have existed?
The first choice is obvious: revenge. When someone kills your daughter you want to get even. You want to go out and kill an Arab, any Arab, all Arabs, and then you want to try to kill his family and anyone else around him, it’s expected, it’s demanded. Every Arab you see, you want him dead. Of course you don’t always do this in a real sense, but you do this by asking other people to kill this Arab for you, your politicians, your so-called leaders You ask them to slam a missile into his house, to poison him, to take his land, to steal his water to arrest his son, to beat him up at the checkpoints. If you kill one of mine, I will kill ten or yours. And the dead one, naturally, has an uncle or a brother or a cousin or a wife who wants to kill you back and then you want to kill them back again, another ten times over. Revenge. It’s the simplest way. And then you get monuments to that revenge, with mourners’ tents, songs, placards on the walls another riot, another checkpoint, another piece of land stolen. A stone leads to a bullet. And another suicide bomber leads to another air strike. And it goes on and on. And on.
Look I have a bad temper. I know it. I have an ability to blow up. Long ago, I killed people in the war. Distantly, like in a video game. I held a gun. I drove tanks. I fought in three wars. I survived. And the truth is, the awful truth, the Arabs were just a thing to me, remote and abstract and meaningless. I didn’t see them as anything real or tangible. They weren’t even visible. I didn’t think about them, they were not really part of my life, good or bad. The Palestinians in Jerusalem, well they mowed the lawns, they collected the garbage, they built the houses, cleared the plates from the table. Like every Israeli, I knew they were there, and I pretended I knew them, even pretended I liked some of them, the safe ones — we talked about them like that, the safe ones, the dangerous ones — and I never would have admitted it, not even to myself, but they might as well have been lawn mowers, dishwashing machines, taxis, trucks There were there to fix our fridges on a Saturday. That was the old joke; every town needed at least one good Arab, how else could you get the fridge fixed on Saturday? And if they were ever anything other than objects, they were objects to be feared, because, if you didn’t fear them then they would become real people. And we didn’t want them to be real people, we couldn’t handle that. A real Palestinian was a man on the dark side of the moon. This is my shame. I understand it as my shame. I know that now. I didn’t know it then. I don’t excuse myself. Please understand, I don’t excuse myself at all.
Foolishly, at the beginning, I thought I could go on with my life, pretending as if nothing had happened. I got up, brushed my teeth, I tried to lead a normal life, went back to my studio, to draw, to make posters, to create slogans, to forget. But it didn’t work. Nothing was normal anymore. I wasn’t the same person. I had no idea how to get up in the morning.
Then after a while you start asking yourself questions you know, we’re not animals, we can use our brains, we use our imaginations, we have to find a way to get out of bed in the morning. And you ask yourself, Will killing anyone bring my daughter back? Will killing every other Arab bring her back? Will causing pain to someone else ease the unbearable pain that you are suffering? Well, the answer come to you in the middle of that long dark night, and you think, dust returns to dust, ashes return to ashes, that’s all. She is not coming back, your Smadari. And you have to get used to this new reality. So in a very gradual, complicated way you come over to the other side; you start asking what happened to her, and why. It’s difficult, it’s frightening, it’s exhausting. How could such a thing take place? What could cause someone to be that angry, that mad, that desperate, that hopeless, that stupid, that pathetic, that he is willing to blow himself up alongside a girl, not even fourteen years old? How can you possibly understand that instinct? To tear his own body apart? To walk down a busy street that way? Where did he come from? Who taught him this? Did I teach him this? Did his government teach him this? Did my government?
Then about a year after Smadar was killed I met a man who changed my life. His name was Yitzhak Frankenthal, a religious Jew, Orthodox, with a kippah on his head. And, you know, we tend to put people into drawers, stigmatize people? We tend to judge people by the way they dress, and I was certain that this guy was a right-winger, a fascist, that he eats Arabs for breakfast. But we started talking and he told me about his son Arik, a soldier who was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in 1994. And then he told me about his organization the Parents Circle, that he had created — people who lost their loved ones, Palestinian and Israeli, but still wanted peace. And I remembered Yitzhak had been among those thousands and thousands of people that came to my house a year before during those seven days of shiva for Smadar, and I was so angry with him, so confused, I asked him, How could you do it? Seriously, how could you step into someone’s house who just lost a loved one, and then talk about peace? How dare you? You came to my house after Smadar was killed? You took for granted that I would feel the same way as you, just because I was Matti Peled’s son-in-law, or Nurit Peled’s husband, you thought you could take my grief for granted? Is that what you thought?
And he, being a great man, was not insulted. He understood my rage. He invited me over to a meeting in Jerusalem of these crazy people, they had all lost a loved one, and I was curious. I said okay, I’ll give it a try, I have nothing to lose. I have already lost so much, but they’re crazy, they have to be crazy. I got on the bike and I went to see. I stood outside where people were coming for the meeting, very detached, very cynical. And I watched those people arriving. The first group were for me — as an Israeli — living legends. People I used to look up to, admire. I’d read about them in the newspapers saw them on television. Yaakov Guterman, a Holocaust survivor, he lost his son Raz in the Lebanon war. And Roni Hirshenson, who lost his two sons Amir and Elad.
To be bereaved in Israel is to be part of a tradition, something really terrible but holy at the same time. And I never thought that one day I would be one of them.
On and on they came, so many of them, But then I saw something else, something completely new to me, to my eyes, my mind, my heart, my brain. I was standing there, and I saw a few Palestinians passing by in a bus. Listen, this flabbergasted me. I knew it was going to happen, but still I had to do a double take. Arabs? Really? Going into the same meeting as these Israelis? And I remember seeing this lady in this black traditional Palestinian dress with a headscarf — you know, the sort of woman who I might have thought could be the mother of one of the bombers who took my child. She was slow and elegant, stepping down from the bus, walking in my direction. And then I saw it, she had a picture of her daughter clutched to her chest. She walked past me. I couldn’t move. And this was like an earthquake inside me: this woman had lost her child. It maybe sounds simple, but it was not. I had been in a sort of coffin. This lifted the lid from my eyes. My grief and her grief, the same grief.
I went inside to meet these people. And here they were and they were shaking my hand, hugging me, crying with me, I was so deeply touched, so deeply moved. It was like a hammer on my head cracking me open. An organization of the bereaved. Israeli and Palestinian, Jew, Christian, Muslim, atheist, you name it. Together. In one room. Sharing their sorrow. Not using it, or celebrating it, but sharing it, saying that it is not a decree of faith that we should live forever with a sword in our hands. I cannot tell you what sort of madness it seemed. And I was completely cleaved open. It was like a nuclear event Truly, it seemed mad.
You see, I was forty-seven, forty-eight years old at that time, and I had to learn to admit it was the first time in my life, to that point — I can say this now, I could never even think it then — it was the first time that I’d met Palestinians as human beings. Not just workers in the streets, not just caricatures in the newspapers, not just transparencies, terrorists, objects, but — how do I say this? — human beings — human beings. I can’t believe I’m saying that, it sounds so wrong but it was a revelation — yes, human beings who carry the same burden that I carry, people who suffer exactly as I suffer. An equality of pain. And like Bassam says, we are running from our pain to our pain. I’m not a religious person, far from it — I have no way of explaining what happened to me back then. If you had told me years ago that I would say this I would have said your were crazy.
Some people have an interest in keeping the silence. Others have an interest in sowing hatred based on fear. Fear makes money, and it makes laws, and it takes land, and it builds settlements, and fear likes to keep everyone silent. And, let’s face it, in Israel we’re very good at fear, it occupies us. Our politicians like to scare us. We like to scare each other. We use the word security to silence others. But it’s not about that, it’s about occupying someone else’s life, someone else’s land, someone else’s head. It’s about control. Which is power. And I realized this with the force of an ax, that it’s true, this notion of speaking truth against power. Power already knows the truth. It tries to hide it. So you have to speak out against power. And I began, back then, to understand what’s going on. Once you know what’s going on then you begin to think: what can we do abut it? We could not continue to disavow the possibility of living alongside each other. I’m not necessary asking for everyone to get along, or anything corny or airy-fairy, but I am asking for them to be allowed to get along. And as I began to think about this, I began to think that I had stumbled upon the most important question of them all: What can you do personally, in order to try to help prevent this unbearable pain for others? All I can tell you is that from that moment until today, I’ve devoted my time, my life to going everywhere possible, to talk to anyone possible, people who want to listen — even to people who will not listen — to convey this very basic and simple message which says: We are not doomed but we have to try to smash the forces that have an interest in keeping us silent.
It may sound strange but in Israel we don’t really know what the Occupation actually is. We sit in our coffee shops and we have a good time and we don’t have to deal with it. We have no idea what it’s like to walk through a checkpoint every day. Or to have our family land taken away. Or to wake up with guns in our faces. We have two sets of laws, two sets of roads, two sets of values. To most Israeli’s this seems impossible, some sort of weird distortion of reality, but it is not. Because we just don’t know. Our lives are good The cappuccino is tasty. The beach is open. The airport is right there. We have no access to what it’s like for people in the West Bank or Gaza. Nobody talks about it. You’re not allowed into Bethlehem unless you’re a soldier. We drive on our Israeli-only roads. We bypass the Arab villages. We build roads above them and below them, but only to make them faceless. Maybe we saw the West Bank once, when we were on military service, or maybe we watch a TV show every now and then, our hearts bleed for thirty minutes, but we don’t really, truly, know what’s going on. Not until the worst happens. And then the world is turned inside out.
Truth is, you can’t have a humane occupation. It just doesn’t exist. It can’t. It’s about control. Maybe we have to wait until the price of peace is so high that people begin to understand this. Maybe it won’t end until the price outweighs the benefits. Economic price. Lack of jobs. No sleep at night. Shame. Maybe even death. The price I paid. This is not a call for violence. Violence is weak. Hatred is weak. But today we have one side, the Palestinians, who are completely thrown to the side of the road. They don’t have any power. What they do is out of incredible anger and frustration and humiliation. Their land is taken. They want it back. And this leads to all sorts of questions, not least: What, then, to do about the settlers? Repatriation? Land swaps? Generous compensation for the Palestinians who had their land stolen? Maybe a mixture of all these things. And then those settlers who wanted to stay could stay and become citizens of Palestine under the rule of Palestinian sovereignty like the Arabs in Israel. Equal rights. Equal rights to the letter. Then after a period of trying to make it work we create a Europe of the Middle East, a United States. Both sides make sacrifices. Redefine what we kill and die for. Now we kill and die for simplicities. Why not die for something more complex? There can be no way that one side has more rights than the other — more political power, more land, more water, more anything. Equality. Why not? Is it as insane as theft? As murder.
Nobody can listen to me and stay the same. Maybe you will get angry, or offended, or even humiliated, but at least you will not stay the same. And in the end despair is not a plan of action. It’s a Sisyphean task to create any sort of hope. And that’s what keeps me going. I tell the story over and over again. We must end the Occupation and then sit down together to figure it out. One state, two states, it doesn’t matter at this stage — just end the Occupation, and then begin the process of rebuilding the possibility of dignity for all of us. It’s as clear to me as the noonday sun. There are times, sure, when I would like to be wrong. It would be so much easier. If I had found another path I would have taken it — I don’t know, revenge, cynicism, hatred, murder. But I am a Jew. I have a great love for my culture and my people and I know that ruling and oppressing and occupying is not Jewish. Being Jewish means that you respect justice and fairness. No people can rule another people and obtain security or peace for themselves. The Occupation is neither just nor sustainable. And being against the Occupation is, in no way, a form of anti-Semitism.
Others know all this too, they just don’t want to hear it. Sometimes they’re angry to hear it, sometimes they’re sad and sometimes they turn their world around completely. That’s the truth. It is not any great bravery, it’s just ordinary, it’s natural, it’s what I have to do.
I have been called many things, an insect, an Arab lover, a self-hating Jew I walk into some places and it’s like walking into a volcano. They say I am naive, self-righteous, that I exploit my grief. Do I exploit my grief? Yes, I do. They’re right. Yes — but I’m doing it in order to help try to prevent pain. Is that ridiculous? Okay, even if it’s ridiculous, it doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Somebody, a fellow Israeli told me once that they wish I had been blown up with my daughter on Ben Yehudi Street. I thought about that for a long time — should I have been blown up? And, after a while, the answer was clear: yes. Yes. Because I had been blown up. It had already happened. And it has happened with so many others since. And we are still being blown up, In Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv. And we’re still looking around and collecting the pieces. Every day my mind begs the question, Why?
You never heal, don’t let anyone tell you that you ever fully heal — it’s the living who have to bury the dead. I pay the price, sometimes I despair, but what else is there to be, in the end, but hopeful? What else are we going to do? Walk away, kill ourselves, kill each other? That’s already happened, it didn’t achieve much. I know that it will not be over until we talk to each other — that’s what it says on the sticker on the front of my bike. Joining with others saved my life. We cannot imagine the harm we’re doing by not listening to one another and I mean this on every level. It is immeasurable. We may have built up our wall, but the wall is really in our minds, and every day I try to put a crack in it. I know that the deeper the story goes, the deeper the engagement, the greater the disappointment when nothing happens, when there is no change. And so I go deeper again. And get even more disappointed. Maybe disappointment is my fate. So what? I will embrace it so tightly that I kill it. My name is Rami Elhanan. I am father of Smadar. I repeat it every day, and every day it becomes something new because somebody else hears it. I will tell it until the day I die, and it will never change, but it will keep on putting a tiny crack in the wall until the day I die.
Who knows where things finish? Things go on. That is what the world is. Do you understand what I mean? I’m not sure I can tell you exactly what I mean. We have words but sometimes they’re not enough.
I wanted to share this testimony for the same reason that Rami has given it — to prevent unnecessary suffering — to break down the walls that have been constructed inside us — walls that keep us from recognizing certain other people as human beings, walls that keep us from recognizing the necessity for equality, walls that keep us from seeing that other people are there to be cared for and not used as objects, that Nature is our mother, not “a thing” to be exploited.
While this testimony is specifically about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it also opens out onto the problems of all humanity. As I write, people are dealing with the calamity of a coronavirus pandemic. The calamity is in part due to the fact that we do not have a worldwide system that prioritizes caring for everyone. A large part of this is the result of the fact that my country for decades has been organized to dominate and control other countries — economically, politically, militarily. More than eight hundred US military bases are strewn around the world — a worldwide occupation. And this system of domination and control is justified by the lie called “national security.” The pandemic is making clear what a lie this is. It is way past time to face ourselves, to stop keeping silent, to speak out, and to organize a different system. Even if it is late, nevertheless we must do it, if we want a future for our children and our grandchildren, if we want a meaningful present for ourselves. This is what Rami and Bassam are doing and encouraging all of us to do. “It will not be over until we talk…”
for more information about Rami and Bassam’s organization go to The Parents Circle
If you want to talk, I can be reached by email.