Bereaved Parents: Unlikely Allies for Israeli-Palestinian Reconciliation

Ever since Hamas killed his son, Yitzhak Frankenthal’s been waging peace.

palestinian activist and israeli soldier, palestinian and israeli soldier fight, palestinians and israelis in ramallah

A Palestinian activist argues with an Israeli police officer during a protest in the West Bank village of al-Janiya near Ramallah. About 40 Israeli and Palestinian activists arrived at the village to plant trees in response to what they said was the defacing of a Palestinian house. (Photo: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

Everything changed for Israeli businessman Yitzhak Frankenthal in July 1994. His 19-year-old son Arik, a soldier in the Israeli army, was captured by the militant Palestinian faction Hamas and killed.

Frankenthal set aside seven days to sit shiva, grieving for his son. At the end of this week of mourning, the bereaved father came to a decision. He must, Frankenthal realized, relinquish his business interests and focus on ending the tragic conflict that has brought so much death, sorrow and hate to both sides of the Palestinian and Israeli divide.

It’s okay. You are a victim, so what? What are we going to do now? Do you want to live in the past, to lose the present and the future? Or would you like to find another way?

Frankenthal established the Parents Circle—Families Forum, an organization of more than 500 Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families. Each family had lost an immediate member to the conflict. Parents shared their grief, one to another, regardless of which side of the occupation they lived on. An almost magical thing happened. Instead of retreating into their partisan beliefs, the so-called “others” were touched by one another’s humanity. This sudden revelation of humanity in a presumed enemy was the spark that fired Frankenthal’s mission.

In 2004, he established the Arik Institute, which worked to bring the Palestinian narrative into mainstream Israeli discourse and to promote awareness among the Palestinian public of the assurances that Israelis craved.

In October 2009, Frankenthal became Executive Director of the Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace, an organization founded by singer Leonard Cohen with the goal of breaking down the deep-seated psychological barriers between the Palestinian and Israeli societies.

Frankenthal spoke to TakePart about the pitfalls of victimhood, the need to speak one truth to all audiences, and his unlikely relationship with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.

TakePart: You’ve said that both Israelis and Palestinians see themselves as victims. How to you break down that self-perception as a victim?

Yitzhak Frankenthal: It’s not important to break it. I would say even, “It’s okay. You are a victim, so what? What are we going to do now? Do you want to live in the past, to lose the present and the future? Or would you like to find another way?”

I lost my son. I’m a victim. Should I behave as a victim? Or should I do everything I can so it will not happen again? To feel as a victim will bring me to a dead-end. So we say, “Yes, you are a victim. Yes, it’s right that they are fighting against us. Yes, it’s right that they don’t want us. Yes, it’s right there was the Holocaust. It’s right there was 2,000 years of the Diaspora. It’s right that you are living under occupation, Palestinian. It’s right that you have paid a heavy price, Palestinian. Every thing is right. So what now?”

You cannot play with the truth. The truth is that everyone can feel himself as a victim. But enough is enough.

If you say the truth, even if the truth is difficult, it is the truth.

TakePart: You showed me a questionnaire titled: “Are you an ethical people?” How can a person going through the day know if they are being an ethical person?

Yitzhak Frankenthal: You raise the question to the people, if they are doing the right thing or the wrong thing. You don’t say to them, “You are doing the wrong thing.” Just ask the correct questions. We have a saying: A good question is half the answer. That’s what we try to do. Get the people to start thinking, not to ignore the issues. This is how you move them to mobilize the government, to mobilize themselves. But if you say to them, “Ah, you are wrong. You are not correct,” you lose them. They close their eyes. They close their ears. They close the nose!

TakePart: Do you tailor your message to the interests of the various audiences?

Yitzhak Frankenthal: I was interviewed in Israel more than 100 times. You can check what I’ve said in the media. I say exactly what I am sitting here saying. I am not a politician. I place the truth on the table. I don’t manipulate, and I say what I’m thinking.

TakePart: What’s the importance of saying the same truth to all audiences?

Yitzhak Frankenthal: First of all, people appreciate it, even if they do not agree with you. They can feel if you are manipulating them, or if you are true. I hate to manipulate people, and I hate when people manipulate me. Unfortunately, our leaders manipulate us all the time, every minute. And people feel it. If you say the truth, even if the truth is difficult, it is the truth.

TakePart: Can you explain your seemingly unlikely personal relationship with Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat?

Yitzhak Frankenthal: I’ll go further. Hamas murdered my son. You need to know that my relationship with my son was more than a father and son. When Arik was 8 years old, his mother went to England, I divorced, and Arik and his brother stayed with me. They grew up with me. That creates a very special relationship. You need to know that until today, it’s 17 years, it’s not real for me that I lost my son. I never dream about Arik, because I’m thinking about him all day long. No one will take from me the pain I’ve got.

Now, the question is, where will we go from here? Do we always want to look back as victims and blame others? Or do we need to learn about the others, to find out what’s going on with the others.

I started to meet Hamas, to understand why they killed my son. Did they kill my son because he was a Jew? Did they kill my son because he was my son? Why? The answer I got was that they killed him because he was a soldier. Even if he were just a civilian, they would kill him also, because the Israelis are their enemy. Why are we enemies? “Only because of the occupation. Finish the occupation, and we’ll live side by side as good neighbors.”

I talked with many Hamas people and leaders. Yes, there are Hamas people who want to destroy Israel. No question about it. As you’ve got extreme Jewish people who would like to see the Palestinians outside the Middle East. Or to kill them even.

When I met Arafat the first time in Oslo [at the 1993 peace accord talks], I got the feeling that he’s a man, a real man. Yes, he knows how to manipulate, but once you take, like the peel from the apple, you find what’s inside. He said to me, “Yitzhak, I know that you are sitting with me as a religious orthodox Zionist.” We had many, many, many talks, for hours. All the discussions that we had, it was the discourse of a man who needs the peace. He said to me, “We need the peace 100 times more than you because you’ve got a state. We don’t have a state.”

I don’t know if you know about the Altalena affair. It was in 1948, when Israel had been established. One of the Jewish organizations, it was not part of the government or army, had sent a ship loaded with weapons to fight against the British or the Arabs. David Ben-Gurion, who was elected as Prime Minister in Israel, said to the people before the ship came to Tel Aviv, “You need to give all the weapons to the army. You cannot continue to behave as you are behaving. You need to be part of the Israeli army, and if you do not give the weapons to the Israeli army, we will shoot on the boat.”

That’s what happened. That was the Altalena affair, and they killed people. In Israel, people who are still living from those days in 1948, they have a lot of hate for Ben-Gurion because of this.

I was sitting with Arafat once when he got a report of a terror attack in Israel. His reaction was so painful. They were destroying everything that he wanted to build. So I asked him: “Why are you not doing Altalena to Hamas people as Ben-Gurion did it?”

He said to me, “Yitzhak, Ben-Gurion did it when he got Israel as a Jewish state. I don’t have any state. What? I will do Altalena to the Hamas if I don’t have any state? Once we have a state, the Hamas will follow me. They will not fight against Israel. And those who will not follow me, we will know how to handle them.”

So, going back to your questions, I found with Arafat an enemy that I would like to make peace with him. My target is to make peace with my enemy. I don’t need to make peace with you or with my friends.  I need to make peace with my enemies.

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