As I begin to write this blog, there are three hours left of the twelve hour humanitarian truce in the military violence of Operation Protective Edge. It’s Shabbat, so there are no funerals in Israel today, but there have already been more than thirty funerals for fallen soldiers so far and there will be more. This morning the Israeli military announced the deaths of another two personnel, and then another three, bringing the total to fourty. Each death brings to an early end the story of an individual, a son, a brother, a young person with hopes and dreams. Each death brings immeasurable grief to families and friends, indescribable loss, unending mourning. For Hamas, for Gazans, these losses inflicted on “the Zionist enemy” are a cause for celebration, evidence of another “victory,” as they did when they claimed to have captured Oren Shaul. Certainly, that is how the Israeli media and much of the Israeli public perceive Palestinian response to their loss.
Israel wraps the families of its fallen in the solidarity of public mourning. Families do not mourn alone, as the dead are held to be everyone’s sons, everyone’s boys. A grass roots campaign to encourage people to attend the funeral of Max Steinberg, an American who came to Israel to serve in the army without his family, brought 30,000 to act as his surrogate family. The price paid is a collective price, mourned once at the funeral, during the week long shiva, and then again and again on each Memorial Day.
It is in the nature of the trauma brought on by bereavement to return to the loss. The mourning is repeated, as the loss becomes part of the identity, the very being, of the bereaved. Not to mourn, again and again, would mean to betray those who are lost. Not to be haunted by their death would mean to kill them again. If that is how an individual feels, what is it like when a whole nation feels it?
Yet, the repetition of mourning is destructive. Not only is mourning repeated, but so is the situation in which the mourning first occurred. If the memory of the fallen is to be honoured, then it must be given meaning. In the case of nationally felt loss, the meaning is the survival of the nation. The reason why the dead sons fell is so that the rest of the rest of the national family can live on. The dead fell to protect the family from an enemy, an Other, who must remain the enemy and the Other if the death of the sons is to have meaning, to have been for something, to not have been senseless. The situation of loss is one in which more sons will continue to fall to make sense of the deaths of the sons who have already fallen. Because senseless loss is truly unbearable.
To break the repetition of mourning , the return to the situation of loss, the mourning has to be worked through. A way has to be found to live, not without forgetting the lost, not without ceasing to mourn – as if bereavement could ever stop – but to live in a way so that the act of mourning does not make sense through more deaths. I have never had to mourn the loss of a parent, child or sibling in war. I do not know how it feels, and I never want to. Those who have found a way to work through mourning agree with me. They don’t want me to join them in bereavement. As the Parents Circle Family Forum say, repeatedly, in this video: they don’t want me with them, because they do know how that loss feels.
Each of them has worked through mourning to the point where they can also feel the pain of the Other, Israelis and Palestinians. Or maybe only by feeling the pain of the Other have they worked through mourning to live without the need for revenge, to revisit the situation of loss by seeing the enemy as implacable, incapable of mourning, glorifying and sanctifying their dead without feeling pain. When the Bereaved Families mourn those who have fallen in conflict, they do so together, in a ceremony that takes place on the same day as the Israeli Memorial Day. In dialogue with the mourning of the Other, finding themselves in each other, they seek a reconciliation that will bring not only the bereaved, but those who are yet to be bereaved, out of the situation of loss which brings no security, only more loss. And that is why tonight, as the humanitarian truce has ended been (as I wrote) extended, the bereaved families will be in Rabin Square in a rally organized by Combatants for Peace with many others, Jews and Arabs, calling for an end to the deaths. There will be no end to human mourning and bereavement, but there can be an end to this senseless bereavement.