The Price We Must Pay: An Interview with Rachel Liel

Every year on Memorial Day Rachel Liel travels from her home in Mivaseret Tzion to the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in Tel Aviv to participate in a national ceremony held there in the military section. “It’s an event that expresses my belonging to Israel and to our history and at the end of the day, the feeling of unity that the ceremony creates is important to me,” Rachel says.

The day after observing Memorial Day, a very solemn day in a country in which nearly everyone has experienced loss, Israel moves swiftly to a raucous Independence Day celebration.

“The sharp transition to Independence Day is very hard for me,” notes Rachel. “Despite understanding the thought behind it, if it was my decision I would soften the connection between these two days.

“When I was young, we were raised on the ethos that there is no choice but to pay a price in blood in order to build our nation and defend her, and from this was born the immediate connection between mourning and celebrating independence. After many years, this narrative whereby we must continue to live with wars and occupation became rooted in the psyche, but it is no longer clear that bereavement is a price Israelis need to pay. I think that it is possible to prevent some of these costs. The automatic link between Memorial Day and Independence Day reinforces the narrative that a price in blood must be paid for victory.”

Forty two years ago, Rachel joined the tens of thousands of bereaved families in Israel. On October 10, 1973, during the battle over the Suez Canal between the IDF and the Egyptian Army, her first husband, Ziv Shorar, was killed, when a missile struck his tank. They had been married two years before when Ziv was a student of economics and statistics and Rachel was studying sociology and music.

“Mourning is an experience that doesn’t get easier with time,” Rachel says. “Time teaches you to better cope with the sadness, but it doesn’t shut off or repress it completely. That doesn’t mean that people that mourn someone they loved walk around depressed all of their lives.  I, for example, am a happy and energetic person and I have built a full life and a wonderful family since then, but still the mourning is a part of me and I learn to live with it every day.”

Does the fact that you are part of the group of “Bereaved Families” help to ease the pain?
“No, ‘the grief of many is half the comfort’ doesn’t apply in this case. What is very hard for me is to see the cycle of violence continue. And that it doesn’t look like we are getting closer to the day when we will finally end it. I remember the mother of Alon, my husband, saying to me before our wedding that when Alon was born she’d hoped that there would already be no need for him to go to the army when he came of age. In the end he didn’t just go but was badly injured in the leg in the Battle of Karameh in ’68.  And then when Ori, my oldest son, was born, I said to myself the same thing and yet he also served for three years. I worried, like all the mothers in Israel.  And still today young mothers, my daughter among them, say the same thing when their sons are born.”

Is your work with NIF something that you do despite your personal bereavement or because of it?
“Listen, of course the horrible feeling of seeing families experiencing this terrible pain over and over again pushes me somehow to try and act towards a genuine peace in Israel, at home and abroad, but I wouldn’t say that that is my main motivation. I don’t look at it that way. Many experiences in life influenced me and brought me to the New Israel Fund.  Our stay in South Africa during the fall of Apartheid, for instance, when my husband was the Israeli ambassador there. Those were the first elections during which blacks were allowed to vote. To see the excitement of people who were oppressed for so long and suddenly be liberated – it influenced me deeply and pushed me to look for an organization that works for people, for human beings, in the struggle for a life of honor and liberty and the ability to organize and change lives.  The first seed of that thought to move from private industry to social causes was planted then, in April 1994 in South Africa.

In Israel there is almost a consensus regarding the desire to end the cycle of violence. When there is an argument it’s about how to do it. The New Israel Fund believes that peace and reconciliation can succeed in bringing an end to the violence when that aim is truly adopted. Do you still believe in this?
“Yes, and I don’t agree with the idea that the path of reconciliation doesn’t work. I very strongly believe in the saying, ‘if there’s a will, there’s a way’ and to me, we have not done enough to follow the path of peace in order to end the occupation and the spilling of blood. A great deal has been written about this subject, on the Oslo accords for example – why they didn’t work, who’s responsible for the failure, and so on – and on other pivotal moments over the years that could have been a breakthrough, though we’ll probably never get a narrative about it that isn’t subjective from one side or the other. What is clear is that there hasn’t been a real attempt to stop the war and conflict for a number of years. I have no doubt that this option has not been exhausted in Israel.

The possibility of reconciliation loses out to fear in Israel, which, as we saw in “Protective Edge,” can turn into hate. Can you understand this feeling that exists among many Jews in our society?
“Of course I understand the fear, in light of what goes on in our area and the actions of terrorist organizations. I am also afraid sometimes. Fear is one of the most basic emotions, a feeling that is very easy to manipulate as we saw in the last few years and, specifically, during the elections.
Someone who has an existential fear, it’s hard for him to think about values like solidarity with, and tolerance of, those who are different. The key is not to surrender to fear but to provide a counter balance that will work against it through long-term investments on multiple fronts. There is no magic formula here and we need to work on a few strategies at the same time to nourish these values.

For instance, if the necessary political will arises to somehow generate a political solution to the conflict and people start to have positive experiences living quietly alongside our neighbors – it will help greatly to humanize the other side and to reduce the hate. It happened to us with Egypt and with Jordan. The Israeli educational system has to deal with the narrative of the other side; has to educate for a shared society, for peace, and has to strengthen these values to the point where they will survive even in times of fear. The work of civic organizations has to continue and to provide an alternative to racism and hate. Additionally, it’s important to convince the public that warfare is not the only way to gain security. There are a variety of defense strategies that don’t include war as a path to securing a quiet future.”

What out of all this gives you optimism?
“I look at the last elections and am encouraged that millions of Israelis showed that they share the values of the New Israel Fund: Democracy, the equality of citizens and social justice, compassion and solidarity, pluralism, tolerance and, of course, an end to the occupation and striving for peace. We are not anywhere near the margins of this society and I am also convinced that in the government and in this Knesset people on their side and ours have a lot in common.

Every day I meet thousands of caring Israelis who act for a better Israel and that fills me with hope. Alice Miller is lighting a torch for the glory of the State of Israel on Independence Day. Her accomplishments are the legacy of the work done by the Israel Women’s Network and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel – organizations that the NIF has supported for many years.

When I see Hapoel Katamon organizing soccer practices for Jewish and Palestinian children from Jerusalem, that see themselves as part of the fabric of a shared society – I’m happy. And when I see young Ethiopians proudly going into a club just like everyone else and not encountering a humiliating selection process, it’s because of lawsuits that our organizations conducted – and I am filled with pride. Additionally, the NIF is a partnership of Israelis and Jews from the diaspora, and that there are thousands of Jews in communities around the world that share our values also gives me optimism.

What do you want to wish Israel on its 67th Independence Day?
“Happy Birthday to my beloved country. I hope that we will keep and strengthen the good and courageously fix that which needs fixing.”

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April 2015