Mothers of the slain Israeli teenagers // Getty Images
In moments like this the most powerful voices, the ones most likely to incite empathy and spark reconciliation, are not those of politicians, or military leaders or long-time activists. They are the ones of parents, most often those who have lost their children, who remind us, all too viscerally, that the personal is the political and the political is the personal.
There is a long tradition of mothers’ movements, from the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo who stood up the military dictatorship in Argentina during the dirty war in the ‘70s and the similar movements that sprouted up around Latin America at the time to protest the disappearances of loved ones. In 1989 a mother and philosophy professor whose son was shot and killed by troops during the protests at Tiananmen Square started the group Tiananmen Mothers to protest the government’s suppression of the events of the uprising. And then in the late ‘90s Israeli women who had lost their sons in the ongoing conflict with Lebanon banded together to form Four Mothers and demand an end to their involvement with the country.
When Israel finally did withdraw from Lebanon, these mothers, which swelled to a group of hundreds who regularly protested outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, were celebrated as being a major force in the ending of the 18-year-long conflict. The Jerusalem Post writes:
While the movement cannot be given the full credit for Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, its significance in bringing about the end to the 18-year military affair cannot be diminished. In less than three years, the movement and the sentiments behind it grew and spread throughout Israeli society before finally penetrating the day’s political agenda.The Four Mothers movement has since been hailed and studied both in Israel and abroad as an example of a grassroots movement, notably of women, that successfully ended a war. Although by no means exclusively credited to the movement, in the years since, the role of women in peacemaking has become a significant part of conflict resolution studies and practice.
When these mothers first started protesting, the Israeli public was shocked and skeptical about the idea of mothers demanding accountability from the government. ”Mothers were supposed to make the schnitzel and hand-wash the uniforms and play the passive role inbred in Israeli society,” one of the early members told the New York Times. Overtime however, Israelis came to learn that when mothers speak the mostly men in charge eventually listen.
There is something regressive about women using their status as mothers to incite change. It reinforces the old-school ideas that women are gentle nurturers who are led by their hearts and only want the best for their children, while men are strong and powerful and are led by their tough bodies and minds. In many ways these women used their maternal status as a Trojan horse; for the most part, nobody dares hurt a sweet, innocent mother so their protests are tolerated. Though sometimes, if you can believe it, people actually end up listening to what these mothers have to say and they can incite real change.
Thankfully, the tension that came out of women identifying too closely with motherhood has been replaced not so much by women rejecting motherhood, but more men identifying, and protesting, as fathers too. One of the organizations that participated in the recent peace protest in Tel Aviv is a group that calls themselves The Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF) and is made-up of Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost immediate family members in the conflict.
“Every one of the people here has on their back a very heavy weight,” Rami Elhanan who lost her daughter to a suicide bomber in 1997 told the Times of Israel. “We paid that price and we know how important it is not to have other people join. Who but us knows how [the families who lost sons this week] are feeling? I cry with them.”
Let us now listen to these mothers and fathers whose grief is our grief and whose tragic pasts might help push us all to a period of tolerance and, eventually, just possibly, peace.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
Listen to Israeli and Palestinian Mothers