Middle East peace among grieving parents

No Revenge

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ITZHAK FRANKENTHAL, a deeply religious Orthodox Jew, has paid the ultimate price for Israeli security: His eldest son was murdered.

Arik was picked up by members of a militant Islamic group one summer evening in 1994 while hitchhiking home from his Israeli Army base. The three men in the car posed as Jews, listening to a cassette of Jewish songs, and spoke to Arik in Hebrew before killing him.

Since then, the grieving father has been a man on a mission - not of revenge, but to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

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As diplomats try to hammer out a sweeping final peace accord - achieving a minor breakthrough on transferring control of the West Bank yesterday - Mr. Frankenthal is building bridges with bereaved parents on both sides of this conflict. And he is campaigning to change views among Israelis - particularly right-wing Jews. "When I was in mourning, my friends said Arik's death proved we were dealing with enemies and there is no chance to make peace," Frankenthal says. "But I told them Arik was killed because no one had done what was necessary to make peace."

To find out what it would take, the soft-spoken former businessman began devoting his time to visiting homes in Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages, and meeting with groups of all kinds, from Hamas to right-wing religious organizations.

Earlier this year, he founded the Families Forum, made up of Israelis and Palestinians who had lost their children to the conflict. "Among Israelis, you have the fear of peace. So it is very important for a group like us to talk to Israeli society and say we are not afraid. And that Palestinian parents are heard saying what they feel," he says.

But Frankenthal also confronts the intense views of some Israelis toward giving up any land. A recent public survey found that 80 percent of the ultra-Orthodox and the national-religious public see peace as dangerous to the integrity of the Land of Israel; 50 percent are opposed to any compromise giving back land; 30 percent put the authority of rabbis above the rule of law; and 68 percent say Arabs do not deserve equal rights.

He is seeking a solution "especially as a religious person, because many in Israel are using the Jewish law against peace."

One who understands this better than most is Leah Rabin, widow of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "The man who murdered my husband was a religious Jew incited by a rabbi," Mrs. Rabin says. "He believed the prime minister had no right to live because he was returning Judea and Samaria, and land is holier than the life of the prime minister."

Mr. Rabin visited Frankenthal in his home after his son's death, and they became friends. Frankenthal spoke shortly before Rabin at the 1995 peace rally where the prime minister was assassinated.

"Right-wing people say to me, 'Yitzhak, you are our greatest enemy because you are religious and talk our language, yet you are ready to make peace.... Why are you in a hurry? We've got time,' " Frankenthal says.

"They want time because they believe that with time, the settlements will be 200,000, half a million, and then you can't do anything. I say, 'How many kids do you want to lose to have more time - a hundred? a thousand?' "

What Frankenthal and his colleagues are doing "is unique," says Mrs. Rabin, "because very many bereaved parents don't have the strength to raise their voices to say there is no other way but peace." In fact, some groups of victims' relatives adamantly oppose compromise.

"The Israeli right, the Likud, has systematically organized families of victims of Arab terror to object to any form of negotiation," says Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University. "This is a genuine and authentic response" that coincides with much of the Israeli public's desire to assess the past and move forward, he says. "It has a very significant effect. It helps provide the context in which ... [Yasser] Arafat and [Ehud] Barak can meet and negotiate."

Frankenthal's new campaign to persuade religious Israelis that giving up land is not contrary to Jewish law will be carried out by a new group called The Parents' Circle, connected to Families Forum. He is working to raise money for a sophisticated media campaign - advertising on radio, TV, billboards, and newspapers. He would draw, for example, on language from the Torah showing the value of life and that the land is not of supreme importance. He also plans to market ideas on talk shows and in settlements, in synagogues, and in people's homes.

His son's example is a strong motivator. "When Arik was 16, some kids in his class started to shout, 'Death to the Arabs! Death to the Arabs!'," Frankenthal says. "Arik jumped up on a desk and shouted 'Heil Hitler!' When they asked what he was doing, Arik said, 'That's how it all started in Germany. Don't think you can shout like that.' That was Arik."

The Families Forum has grown to about 100 bereaved families on each side. A month ago, 48 Israeli families met in Gaza with 61 Palestinian families to share their individual stories and their grief.

Jawad Tibi - a surgeon and a member of the Palestinian parliament - lost four brothers in the struggle against the occupation, and spent eight years in an Israeli jail. Dr. Tibi joined the group in the hope that "bringing together the families to recognize the others' pain and suffering" would "affect the attitudes on both sides." It helps a great deal "to see your enemy ... recognize and share your pain," Tibi says.

The group has met at least 10 times, in Gaza and Israel. Their discussions are frank and often difficult, but they are establishing relationships.

It's a very difficult time for dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis, Tibi says. He cautions that the group can't move too quickly. To help in the campaign to change Israeli opinion, Frankenthal has urged Tibi to sign onto positions that would demonstrate ways to compromise. But Frankenthal seems to be asking for change in Palestinian attitudes, Tibi says, rather than Israeli attitudes.

They have become friends, but Tibi differs on the group's focus. He would prefer to see it grow gradually. "Going faster will be blocked by the people. We must go in parallel with achievement in the negotiations."

Frankenthal is motivated by the situation within his own community. "Our main problem is not with the Palestinians but between us. Once we solve the Palestinian issue, then those settlers - who are mostly wonderful people - will help build the Israeli community. But what's going on today is a shame," he says.

He personally sees the solution in accepting a Palestinian state, finding a joint solution for Jerusalem, and a compromise on the settlement question. He says less than 7 percent of the occupied area contains over 75 percent of settlers. That portion should be annexed to Israel, and the other 93 percent should go to the Palestinians."What does that mean? It means that if we annex those 75 percent it will not create a civil war in our own community," he says. "I don't want to make peace with the Palestinians and have a civil war between us."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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