On Mothers, Sisters, Narrative and War

My best friend heard the air-raid siren but thought it was part of the background noise of the episode of “Orange Is the New Black” she was watching on Netflix. My younger sister was playing Ultimate Frisbee in a field in Tel Aviv when she saw the rockets coming towards her; she ducked for shelter, but reported that she finished the game “with tight defense” a few minutes later. Last night, my twin and her husband of one month were looking for a basement apartment to sleep in because theirs is on the top floor of their building.

On the Web and radio and newspapers, narratives abound, like these small anecdotes, updated by the minute. From a distance, I’m glued to the screen, to still photos of plumes of smoke, as if hoping something comprehensible will rise from them.

With much of what’s really going on shrouded by military secrecy, these stories of real life in the current moment seem all the more necessary.

And audiences around the world seem drawn to the persistent and understandable coverage of the mothers who have been at the center of this news. These women are Rachel Fraenkel, American-Israeli mother of Naftali Frankel, one of the three boys whose murder is widely believed to have launched the current outbreak of violence; and Ayda Abdel Aziz Dudeen, whose young son Muhammad was killed in initial actions during the search for the three missing Israeli teenagers. The New York Times featured the mothers in a photo essay that juxtaposed and divided them at once.

Later, Ari Shapiro movingly reported on the strained condolence visit made by ordinary Israelis to the tent where another family mourned: that of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old who was burned alive in what is believed to have been a revenge attack by Israeli extremists. Shapiro’s empathetic reporting revealed what happened when Khdeir’s mother ultimately welcomed her unlikely visitors.

Is the focus on mothers in these pieces regressive, as Elissa Strauss cautions? Since the Biblical age, when Deborah asked us to envision the grieving mother of Sisera, the figure of the mother bereft has been integral to narratives of war. Are these women ornamental– for lack of a better word – accessories to a conflict whose real history is being traced in fiery trails in the sky above Gaza and Tel Aviv?

It’s possible: after all, at least some of the staying power of the grieving mother’s image is predicated on notions of women as inherently nurturing, defined, entirely, by their role as mothers.

But the bravery and strength of the mothers at the center– Ayda Abdel Aziz Dudeen,  Rachel Fraenkel, and the other mothers of boys who died too soon—lets the rest of us look through the lens of compassion at the shrapnel that is falling into lives on both sides of this narrow, bitterly divided country. The wedding disturbed by bombs; the first air raid siren you’ve ever heard, keening terror into your bones

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