Jewish Journal

A Zionist without quotation marks

by Dikla Kadosh

Posted on Jul. 2, 2008 at 9:44 pm

Yaron Amitai entering Lebanon in the 2006 war. Photo courtesy of Meirav Amitai

Yaron Amitai entering Lebanon in the 2006 war. Photo courtesy of Meirav Amitai

Yaron Amitai was the oldest soldier killed in the Second Lebanon War. At 45, he was past the required age for army reserve duty. Amitai nevertheless volunteered to serve as a combat medic in the Paratroopers Brigade scheduled to go into Lebanon. He was killed by friendly fire on August 13, 2006, two hours before the cease-fire was announced.

The following is an excerpt from "A Twenty Year Love Story," a narrative written by Amitai's widow, Meirav, and published in an Israeli army journal in September 2007, a year after Amitai was killed.

6 p.m. Friday evening.

The telephone rings and I hear your voice on the line, "Meiravi, we are preparing to enter Lebanon again."

I tell you that you did not even have a chance to rest. And for the first time I ask, "Yuru, haven't you done enough?" And you answer, "I cannot abandon the doctor and the team now. We'll talk about it later."

But we won't talk again. We will never talk again. This was our last telephone conversation....

That evening I sit in the living room. The children are asleep, and I can't understand why I am crying when we spent time together just a few short hours ago. For some reason, Yuru, I know what is about to happen, so I decide how I want the funeral to be, decide to bury you here, in Zichron Ya'akov, and not in Jerusalem. I imagine the shiva.

I know that I am waiting for the army representative to arrive. I tell friends that I am hiding so he won't find me, but I refuse to go out for the nightly walk with my friend that evening because I know what I am waiting for.

They arrive at 4:30 a.m. Monday morning -- the cease-fire will go into effect two hours later. Just like in the movies, I hear a knock on the door. I ask over the intercom, "Who is it?" And the answer comes, "The army."

I already know that you are gone forever, Yuru, and I debate whether to go down and answer the door or not, as if it will make a difference.

So I open the door and the army representative informs me of what has happened. I tell him three things, "I knew it. Are you sure? But I love him."

I go upstairs to the children's bedrooms and stand before their doors thinking to myself, "Whose life should I ruin first?"

I already know that my life will be divided by this event -- before you were killed, and after....

Before Amitai's death, Meirav was a wife, a mother and the owner of a small flower and gift shop, Meirav's Place. After her husband was killed, Meirav became a widow, a single mother of three, and the founder of a nonprofit association created to advance the legacy of the unabashedly Zionist Israeli.

In Hebrew, the foundation's name means Zionist Without Quotation Marks, referring to Israelis' often cynical use of the word Zionist and Amitai's contrasting whole-hearted dedication to his country.

"Yaron reflects to us a Zionism that we are ashamed to use today," said Yaron Dotan, an Israeli film director hired by the Amitai family to produce a 45-minute film telling the fallen soldier's story through his family and friends.

In January 2008, the director was interviewed for an article in Moshavot Magazine, a local publication in the family's hometown of Zichron Ya'akov. The magazine honored Meirav as "Woman of the Year" for her courage, faith and dedication to spreading her husband's life values.

Choosing to give the nonprofit a name Americans will easily understand and relate to -- A Zionist at Heart -- Meirav set out to raise money in Israel and the United States for an ambitious project she conceived as the ideal memorial to her husband: building the Yaron Amitai Memorial Park at the western entrance to the Alona Natural Park near Zichron Ya'akov.

Meirav's dream is to turn the expansive landscape into a playground for young children, with ancient stone board games that require them to gather natural elements as playing pieces. Each game board will be inscribed with quotes written by Amitai. The park will also have hiking and biking paths, an open-air theater with 100 seats for public use and areas for picnics and other outdoor family activities. Every year at Sukkot, the foundation hopes to organize a range of activities in Amitai's memory -- family trips, parades and festivals.

In addition to the public park, which will encourage families to spend quality time together in a natural setting, as Amitai loved to do with his children, A Zionist at Heart is also developing youth activities at local schools to pass on Amitai's commitment to giving, volunteering and serving his country.

"Life in Israel has changed during the past years," Meirav wrote in a letter to potential donors. "The war in Lebanon left the population torn. Many of the youth today believe in individuality. They're busy with their own lives and achievements and are less devoted to their country, their friends and to others. We, Yaron's family and friends, would like to treasure the memory of Yaron's way of life and his values of friendship, compassion, commitment and loyalty in a lasting and meaningful manner."

The memorial park is still a long way from becoming reality. The project will cost an estimated $450,000 to complete and several years to build, but Meirav is undaunted. She recently visited Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles on her first fundraising trip and shared her husband's story with students from three local schools.

Meirav's remarkable strength in the face of such a tragedy comes from a promise she made to her children in the same breath that she delivered the news of their father's death: They will continue to live as they always have -- with love, with a strong sense of family and with a commitment to making the world a better place.

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