Feelings mixed for Israeli mothers as sons go to war

With the Hizbullah-Israel war grinding toward a violent second month, most mothers with a son in the Israeli army would feel conflicted.

But Shlomit Kanotopsky has four. A mother of six, her four oldest children are boys in active duty or reservists who have been called up. One is in Lebanon – she hasn't heard from him in more than a week. Two are stationed near the border. Yet another is posted on a base in a position that she hopes will keep him away from the front lines.

"I want them to feel I'm there for them, that I'm not all stressed," she says, recalling her last phone call with one son. "I wanted to be strong, to hold it in, but ... I cried lot," she says, sitting in a cafe in this seaside town near Haifa, just beyond reach, thus far, of most of Hizbullah's rockets.

Mothers hold an important place in Israel's political fabric. When Israel pulled out of south Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year occupation, it was the antiwar movement "The Four Mothers" that spearheaded the public campaign to withdraw. The group was started by four mothers after a 1997 helicopter crash that killed 73 soldiers on their way to serve in what Israel had dubbed its "security zone." Many women – both mothers who had lost sons and those who wanted to help bring the boys home safely – played an key role in rallying opinion in favor of a unilateral pullout.

Once Israel moved back to the international border, they argued, Hizbullah would have no pretext for attacks. And if the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia did attack, the theory went, Israel would respond with bruising force.

At the time, Mrs. Kanotopsky said in a radio interview that she was quite happy; two of her sons had been serving in combat positions. One of them was angry with her. Indeed, across the political spectrum, there never was clear consensus on the pullout; some here feared that it would display weakness and bolster Hizbullah.

Farewell to sons

Now, however, the famously divisive streams of Israeli public opinion have converged. The debate focuses not on whether Israel should be at war with Hizbullah, but how to wage it better. The founders of "The Four Mothers" have come out in support of the effort. And Kanotopsky, sad as it makes her for both Israelis and Lebanese, says she is sending off her sons with a full heart, feeling that there is no other choice.

"I don't want us going into Lebanon, but I don't want to let them destroy our lives like this," she says, describing a morning commute that includes a scan of the horizon for rockets. "It's a crazy reality we're living in, and I think it's important to be strong and defend our state."

By profession, a key focus of Kanotopsky's job is helping people cope: She's a psychologist specializing in children, and spends most days working at a hospital in rocket-rattled Safed, tending to civilians and soldiers suffering from shock and other signs of trauma. Even after 23 years of experience in a country that has known more than its share of conflict, she says, "This war has been more difficult for me, as a mother, than any time in my life. It has really changed my motherhood."

"I feel this total loss of control over being able to protect my children. It's kind of an unending worry," says Kanotopsky, who wears her hair draped in brightly striped scarf that signals a religious but modern lifestyle, and chunky jewelry that hints at an artsiness.

She's very proud of her sons, but adds that she and her husband, who immigrated from New York when he was 17, never encouraged them to sign up for combat positions.

But Israeli society did. The draft process starts in high school, and many teenage boys consider signing up for a challenging combat unit to be the ultimate expression of manhood and patriotism. The more selective divisions are so in demand that they can afford to take only the fittest and smartest, many of whom will agree to stay for at least a year more than the mandatory three in order to become an officer. Afterward, those with combat duty on their résumés are likely to be favored for better jobs, even in the civilian sector, and an employer may look askance at an applicant who didn't serve.

Given that backdrop, perhaps it's no surprise that each of Kanotopsky's sons followed the next into the elite Golani Brigades. Zvi, who is 30, become a career officer; he's a deputy battalion commander who lives in a community that came under so many Katyusha attacks that he asked his wife to take their two-year-old daughter and flee south. David, at 28 also married and a father of two, got a call-up notice and was sent to a base near the border, along with thousands of other reservists. Evyatar, a 26-year-old whom she describes as the one who doesn't love service – preferring his studies and playing ancient Persian music – is the one who has already been sent into battle.

And Omri, who is 23, is at a base southeast of Haifa, involved in training conscripts.

Her daughter, 17-year-old Avia, is interested in being drafted next year. Girls can choose between the army or "national service," two years in a nonmilitary position such as education or social work. Kanotopsky's youngest son, Eliasaf, is talking about joining Golani.

"And I say, what, already? He's only 14," she says. "I've been telling him, 'You don't have to go into the Golani. You could go into the intelligence corps. You could do many things in the army without going into combat,' " she says, and then smiles sadly, a nod to the fact that convincing him might be a losing battle. "It's a classic argument a lot of parents go through with their kids," she says, a balance between personal motivations and national needs.

Meanwhile, uncertainty gnaws. She feels it at home, where sirens send the remaining adults in the village into shelters many times a day; children have been sent away, leaving an eerie quiet. It comes with the bleat of news interrupted by government warnings to take shelter. She sleeps with the cellphone in her bed.

What puts her most on edge is the sound of a car slowing down outside her home: she worries it might be someone from the army, coming to bring bad tidings.

At work, she puts all of that aside. She has learned that what children under stress need most is calm parents. "When they see all the adults around them panicking they start to panic, too," she explains. "And helping people as I do, it helps me summon a lot of strength. Otherwise I'd sit and just imagine all day."

A home-cooked meal; news of a death

When a nephew, also in the army, had a few hours free on Sunday before his unit moved into Lebanon, she and her husband picked up him and a friend from the same unit. Kanotopsky treated to them to a home-cooked meal and a few hours of relaxation. Two days later, the friend, Noam Meirson, died in the fighting; he was a month away from his wedding day.

"I feel like I was the last mother who saw him," she says, her eyes filming over, before she reaches for the ringing phone. This week, she will attend his week-long mourning service, where she'll visit with people she doesn't know at all, and yet knows all too well.

The loss of soldiers hurts so much, she says, because Israelis largely see them as kids – everyone's kids. "They're serving us, and the tragedy is that they usually haven't had a chance yet to do anything in life except for that."

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