Episode 17: Four Mothers: Orna’s Story (Transcript)

Episode 17: Four Mothers: Orna's Story

Nahanni Rous: At the end of a gravel road that skirts fields of banana trees and date palms, Orna Shimoni’s tiny pickup truck is parked alone in the scorching sun. The 76-year-old woman stoops to coil a hose beside a cinderblock building. Her arms are wiry. Sweat soaks her t-shirt. It’s 10 a.m. in Israel’s Jordan Valley, and it’s already 104 degrees. Orna wipes her hands on her cargo pants. Her weathered face is softened by a mane of bleach-blond hair, and her pale blue eyes are piercing. She raises her hat brim in greeting.

[Theme music]

Nahanni: Welcome to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous. Our last episode was all about a growing women’s movement in Israel called Women Wage Peace. Women from across the political spectrum are uniting to demand a peace agreement with the Palestinians. In this episode, we’re focusing on one of the members of the movement: a woman who harnessed her grief to make political change: Orna Shimoni.

[Theme music]

Nahanni: Orna Shimoni is one of the matriarchs of the women’s peace movement in Israel. In the 1990s, while she was protesting a war she thought was futile, and then her son died fighting in it. Her grief fueled her activism, and Orna became a prominent member of a movement called the Four Mothers. Four Mothers marked a turning point for women’s political engagement in Israel when it successfully pressured the government to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. Even after the success of Four Mothers, Orna remained a committed activist and is now a leader in Women Wage Peace.

[Sound of walking on gravel, dove cooing]

Nahanni: It’s a Friday morning in July, and I’m in a gravel parking lot outside Orna’s kibbutz: Ashdot Yaakov, a literal stone’s throw from the Jordanian border.

Orna Shimoni: Shalom, boker tov.

Nahanni: Shalom.

Orna: Atem ro’eem et hadegel ha yardeni?

Nahanni: I meet Orna at a memorial on the outskirts of the kibbutz... It’s a memorial to seven teenage girls killed 20 years ago by a Jordanian terrorist.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, tranlsated: This is a story every Jew should know. Seven girls were murdered right there by a terrorist. He came up from behind and fired at their backs.

Nahanni: The 13 and 14 year old girls were from the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. They were here on a field trip in March 1997. Orna was nearby when a rogue Jordanian soldier opened fire. She heard the gunshots and the screams.

Orna: Natalie, Shiri, Adi, Keren, Nirit, Yaela, ve Sivan.

Nahanni: The girls’ names are written in flowers on seven gravel islands, separated by green astro-turf and red gravel paths. Orna built this memorial and has tended it for two decades.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: I’m not one who thinks that when they hit us we should turn the other cheek. And I’m also not among those who think we are lovers of war. I very much want peace, and I am ready to talk with our enemies. But I want people to know.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

[Music]

[Truck door shuts]

Nahanni: We’re dripping with sweat, so we climb into Orna’s truck and head for air conditioning. We bump along a dirt road on the perimeter of the kibbutz, past fields and warehouses. We enter the village. Most of the houses are small, only one story, with stucco walls.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew: I have lived here since the age of 19. I got married, I finished the army.]

Nahanni: Orna has lived here since she was 19, when she finished the army and got married. She was born on a nearby kibbutz in 1941. Seven years before the State was founded. Her parents were ideological Zionists and socialists, from Russia and Lithuania. Orna and her husband raised five children on this kibbutz. Her husband passed away 25 years ago.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Nahanni: We pull into a community recreation center called Beit Eyal. Orna founded it in memory of her son. It’s a modern facility, made with concrete and glass. By kibbutz standards, it’s pretty lux. There are pools, a fitness center, even a spa. On this sweltering Friday in July, it’s buzzing with activity.

[Kids in pool]

Nahanni: But this place, it’s also a memorial… with plaques, photographs, and videos about Eyal and more than a thousand other soldiers and civilians killed in violence near Israel’s border with Lebanon. This mixing of tragic memories with mundane and even joyful activity is important to Orna. That’s her life.

[Pool sounds]

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: You see here, everything is life. So many kids... Such happiness. And everyone who comes in just has to lift up their eyes and see that there’s a hint of a remembrance.

Nahanni: A twelve foot tall banner of Eyal hangs next to the pool. He has close cropped hair, an army backpack. He’s standing in a misty landscape.

Orna, translated: The morning swimmers tell me that the sun comes up from the east and its rays come up here, and they see in the dark that the image of Eyal joins them, and they say it gives them strength. Energy.

[Music]

Nahanni: It wasn’t just Orna’s son Eyal who fought in Lebanon, it was most of the men in her family.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: I was in bed with this war... my husband had also served in Lebanon, he was in the First Lebanon War. All of my boys, and my sons in law. The war was sleeping in my bed with me for 15 years. You have to know that Lebanon, next to you in your bed, is a never-ending nightmare. Everyone knows what Lebanon is.

Nahanni: Most of Orna’s family thought the war was justified, and necessary. Orna had agreed with them, at first. The Palestine Liberation Organization, and later Hezbullah, had used Southern Lebanon as a base for attacking Israeli soldiers and civilians. The Israeli Army invaded in 1982 and occupied what it called the Security Zone. It was a dangerous place.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: Every year there were 20, 25 soldiers killed in the Security Zone! And the State gets used to it! Lives were being burned; there was no purpose.

Nahanni: Orna didn’t think the Army was protecting the North of Israel anymore, it was just trying to survive in the Security Zone. She says there was a national consensus that the army shouldn’t be in Lebanon permanently.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, tranlsated: Everyone agreed that we never intended to stay there. Everyone: all the heads of government. But there was another consensus. That they didn’t know when to get out. Everyone was afraid to get out.

Nahanni: They were afraid that if the army withdrew to the border, civilians in Northern Israel would be vulnerable to attacks again.

Orna, tranlsated: They were afraid of more murders of entire families. I didn’t belittle that. It was a dilemma.

Nahanni: But the single deadliest event of the war on the Israeli side ended up being an accident.

[Ambulance, shouting on loudspeaker; newscast in Hebrew, man speaking Hebrew]

Nahanni: Two transport helicopters headed for Lebanon collided in mid-air. Seventy-three Israeli soldiers died. The prime minister called for a national day of mourning. Funerals were broadcast on television.

[Singing at a funeral]

Nahanni: After the Helicopter Disaster a group of women, mothers with sons fighting in Lebanon, decided it was time to speak out against the war. One woman told a reporter, “We are sick of living from one news broadcast to the next. It’s better that you hear our voices now than our cries later.” They called themselves the Four Mothers, Arba Imahot in Hebrew, a reference to the four matriarchs of the Bible. One of the mothers told the press that unlike the patriarch Abraham, the biblical Sarah would never have sent her son to be sacrificed. Instead, she would have told God, “Forget it.”

Nahanni: Orna read an article about Four Mothers in a kibbutz newspaper, and joined. The women picketed intersections, held silent vigils, and wrote letters to politicians demanding a withdrawal from Southern Lebanon. As the movement grew, they organized marches, tractor and bicycle rides... they even convinced a brigade of taxi drivers to drive from the North of Israel to the South in protest of the war. The men in her family were angry about her opposition.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: The fight was at home. Everyone was against me.

Nahanni: And she was constantly worried about their safety.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, tranlsated: Everything was complicated and mixed up and confusing.

Nahanni: And it was all happening very quickly. In February, the Helicopter Disaster; in March, the murder of the girls. Orna joined Four Mothers in April, and then Eyal was sent into combat.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: Eyal went up to Lebanon in June, and in September, he came back wrapped in a flag.

[Music]

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: When Eyal went up to Lebanon, he made sure that I wouldn’t worry. He would leave me messages on the answering machine, “Ima, don’t worry. I’m sure you heard there were hard battles, but I am in a place where we’re eating chocolate and getting fat.” Only afterwards I found out where he was stationed: 22 kilometers inside Lebanon. He was in Rechan. They called Rechan the Outpost of Death. I didn’t know any of this. But his brothers did.

Nahanni: Eyal came home on leave that summer. Orna remembers their last goodbye.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: He left, with a hug and a kiss and “take care of yourself.” And I would always say to my sons, “Take care of your soldiers.” Take care of your soldiers, it’s also implied that I hope they’ll take care of themselves.

Nahanni: Two days later she was working in the garden, when she heard the Voice of Israel newscast.

[Hebrew news clip]

Nahanni: It was the military affairs correspondent.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: I hear her say there are battles in the eastern sector, and I don’t hear her say there are no casualties.

Nahanni: Orna felt shaky. She stopped in at the kibbutz office, she went to the dining hall. Everyone she saw avoided her. No one would look her in the eye. She saw a taxi pull into the kibbutz, with two army officers inside.

Orna, translated: And I’m still not getting it. And I continue working, but I’m shaking and I’m soaked. They turn into the entrance road and they’re coming and I see them from a distance and then I start to run. There is a tennis court. I run into the tennis court. And I fall. I stumble.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, tranlsated: When they get to me, I say, “Tell me that he is just injured. Tell me that he is just injured.” They said, “We can’t tell you that he is injured.” They said it. And the world ended. Your little boy.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

[Music]

Nahanni: It seemed like the whole kibbutz was in Orna’s house during the shiva. At times it felt like all of Israel was there, too: the families of the seven girls from Beit Shemesh, families of soldiers who had died in the Helicopter Disaster, even the media. Orna’s late husband had government connections, and Ariel Sharon paid Orna a condolence call. It wasn’t a simple gesture. As Minister of Defense, Sharon had led Israel into the morass of the Lebanon War. But Orna didn’t hold him responsible. She met him at the memorial to the seven girls. Sharon arranged for a government budget to maintain the memorial, and then brought Orna to meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Security Cabinet.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: Bibi received me because I was a bereaved mother. He didn’t invite Four Mothers, he invited Orna Shimoni, who he knew was in the Four Mothers. But he didn’t invite me as a member of Four Mothers in order not to open the can of worms. Arik Sharon sat in the meeting with me and everyone told me they were considering the subject of Lebanon.

Nahanni: That year 112 soldiers died in Lebanon. Orna and Four Mothers intensified their activism. She and other women sat in a tent outside the President’s House for a month, holding signs that said “You are silent, and we are dying.” I asked her how Israeli society reacted to the protests.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: Definitely in the beginning of Four Mothers, they criticized us on the basis of “what do you know about it” and “you are speaking from the womb.”

Nahanni: Speaking from the womb... like “speaking from the gut.” The putdowns were subtle, and not so subtle. In televised debates, Four Mothers faced off with army generals, who rolled their eyes when the women spoke.

Orna, translated: They’d say, “Leave the security concerns to those who understand.” There were even some who used obscenities. But for me it was easy to ignore this. The pain was so great. It was an entirely different proportion. You think less about insults, and more rationally about what is correct and just.

Nahanni: But the insults could still hurt. Some people suggested Orna was exploiting her status as a bereaved mother just to make a political point.

Orna, translated: This was really below the belt. I said, "Look, I didn’t choose to be a bereaved mother." My son went to fight for something that I believe in... for the homeland. And I didn’t choose for him never to return. I didn’t send him to the Binding of Isaac as Abraham’s sacrifice. But I did choose to be a person with a worldview, a person with a sense of what is right, a person who goes and fights for what they believe in.

Nahanni: As the war ground on, public support for it waned, and support for Four Mothers grew. At demonstrations, taxi drivers who used to shout curses out their windows began honking their approval instead. During a contentious election season, the leaders of the main parties began to talk about ending the war. In May 2,000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced that Israel would withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

[News broadcast in Hebrew, Newscast music, clapping]

Nahanni: After the withdrawal, Barak invited Four Mothers to the Defense Ministry. Orna and the other women pinned a Four Mothers medal on his chest. The movement had accomplished its mission, and voted to disband. But Orna kept up her political activism. She advocated for the families of three soldiers kidnapped by Hezbullah near the Northern border. She pressured the Israeli government to negotiate the release of Gilad Shalit, who was held by Hamas in Gaza for more than five years. She built Beit Eyal in memory of her son, and she continues to maintain the memorial to the seven girls. The memorials, the activism, Orna calls them her mitzvot, her commandments.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: Mitzvot, you can’t let go. You don’t walk away. But those who give me the strength to live today are not my projects; it’s my children and grandchildren. That’s the joy.

Nahanni: Orna has 15 grandchildren, including five who are serving in the army, some in combat units.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: It’s a worry that tears at the soul. The dread for your grandchildren is a million times what it was for your own children. Why? Because you know what can happen. You know exactly what you went through, and what your children will go through.

Nahanni: This worry is part of what motivates Orna’s continued activism. In the summer of 2014, after Israel’s third war with Gaza in five years, Orna joined a new Israeli movement called Women Wage Peace. It’s now 24-thousand strong. You can learn all about Women Wage Peace in the previous episode of Can We Talk?. The movement’s leadership spans the political spectrum in Israel. They are demanding that the government sign an agreement with the Palestinians, and include women in the negotiations.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

Orna, translated: I know what it is to lose a child. I know what it is that Eyalik has not been with me for almost exactly now 20 years. I see him every day. I see him every day, with children that could he could have hugged, grandchildren I could have hugged.

[Orna speaking in an echoey room]

Nahanni: This summer Orna and more than 100 women from Women Wage Peace were invited to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to meet with lawmakers. Orna spoke, and the room got quieter. There was a palpable sense of respect for her and what she has been through.

[Orna speaking in an echoey room]

Orna, tranlsated: It was the leadership of this country who pulled the army out of Lebanon, with the strength of Four Mothers behind them. But those who really brought the Army out of Lebanon were the dead, and among them my young son, my fifth child. We in Women Wage Peace are a growing force in this country. We are right, left and center, and we will support any government that brings us to negotiations, an agreement and peace. I call on you, members of the Knesset. Strengthen yourselves, and bring this house, this whole house, to an agreement, and to peace.

[Orna speaking in Hebrew]

[Clapping, music]

Nahanni: Thank you for joining Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes JWA staff Judith Rosenbaum and Rachel King. Ibby Caputo edited the script. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard the music of Jorge Mendez. Special thanks to Ned Lazarus for production help, and to Naomi Brodsky for bringing Orna’s lines to life in English. Thanks also to Adina Loeb and Jeff Ernst.

Visit us online at jwa.org/canwetalk to listen, subscribe and send your friends a link to your favorite episodes. You can also listen on iTunes and Stitcher, and if you do, please review us. It helps other people find the show. We’re looking for sponsors for Can We Talk?. If you like our podcast, please get in touch with us at podcasts@jwa.org. You can also help us produce more episodes by making a donation at jwa.org. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. We’ll be back next month.

[Music fades]

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 17: Four Mothers: Orna’s Story (Transcript)." (Viewed on January 22, 2020) <https://jwa.org/episode-17-four-mothers-ornas-story/transcript>.

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