October 3, 2002
Mother Weathers Terror’s ‘Storm’
"Storm of Terror: A Hebron Mother's Diary," by June Leavitt (Ivan R. Dee, $22.50).
Either excoriated as illegal conquerors or praised as pioneers, Jews living in the territories conquered by Israel in the Six-Day War are never portrayed neutrally. The very name of where they live depends on the political bent of the writer: to critics they live in "the West Bank in the Occupied Territories," and proponents historically term it "Judea and Samaria." But at the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian controversy, settlers themselves rarely tell their own stories in print. With "Storm of Terror," June Leavitt has filled that gap.
Leavitt is an American Jewish woman who grew up in secular upper-middle-class Long Island, left for the University of Wisconsin with a trunk full of new mix n' match clothes, then found herself floundering in the drug culture. Today she is an ultra-Orthodox mother of five who lives with her husband and children in the Jewish enclave of Kiryat Arba in the Palestinian-controlled city of Hebron.
"Storm" is the intensely personal diary of her life during the first year and a half of the second intifada, which erupted on Sept. 29, 2000. Apart from emotional references to biblical patriarchs, the book is not a political polemic; Leavitt, passionately convinced of the Jews' historic right to live in the entire biblical Israel (including Palestinian-occupied territories), feels no need to justify her a priori position.
Rather, she tells the story of how it feels to live through the trauma of violence and death that strikes her neighbors and friends daily. She relates chronologically the relentless terrorist incidents in which settlers have been attacked in fields, cars, busses and in their own beds. In each case, Leavitt writes not of some anonymous victim, but of acquaintances in her tightknit community whom she meets in the streets, in the grocery and in her children's schools: "We are burying another of our dead.... Orphans. Orphans everywhere."
When right-wing Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi was assassinated in 2001, it was not some remote politician Leavitt lost but a close family friend who years earlier had himself joined her hospital vigil after rock throwers assaulted her husband causing head injuries.
The real power of the narrative is its honesty, as when Leavitt agonizes about watching her own children on the firing line: "Miriam said that at school her friends are busy writing their own eulogies.... Whoever says they are not frightened is telling a lie."
Leavitt also struggles to juggle among her children's differing viewpoints. Her eldest daughter Estie, a soldier, was stationed in her hometown to quell settlers advancing towards violent Arab demonstrators. One of the settlers was Estie's younger sister, Miriam:
"Get out of here before I smash you with this!"
Estie pushed the settlers back with the butt end of her rifle.
Miriam cried, "Why are you on their side? Why are you going to let the Arabs kill us?"
"Traitor!" other settlers screamed at Estie.
A woman soldier grabbed Miriam's arm. Miriam resisted. When the soldier raised her arm to hit Miriam, Estie screamed, "Don't touch her! She's my sister!"
Leavitt's son became intensely devout as a reaction to friends' deaths. And her 13-year-old daughter was often so terrified that Leavitt spent nights rocking her. In the new reality of the intifada, normalcy is nowhere. Even a simple mother-daughter conversation about planning the daughter's future is not immune: "Both Estie and I are trying to ignore the screaming, the whistling of the mobs, the gunfire, the grenades, the street battles between the army and the Arabs," she writes.
Leavitt lost her mother at a young age, and her father and brother turned their backs on her when she moved her children into the dangers of "the West Bank."
Leavitt continues to search for the meaning that brought her and her husband first to become devoutly religious and then ardent Zionists. As a child of the '60s she used yoga, bioenergy healing, meditation and even tarot cards in her quest for equanimity in the midst of horror.
Leavitt is candidly on the extreme fringe of the Israeli political spectrum. Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in 1994, had been her family doctor. Her comment on the causes for the crime?
"So many friends had died in his arms. Many of us think it was that event which broke our neighbor, Dr. Goldstein."
Leavitt describes, with almost utopian nostalgia, the friendships between her children and nearby Arab families before the peace process "put up barbed wire between us and the Arabs."
"Storm" will not cause any reader to change sides. But its powerful style and even more powerful emotions will engage anyone interested in the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy to race through its pages. Leavitt reveals herself not only as a determined ideologue but as a complex, struggling human being.