Four years ago this week, Meytal Ofer woke early to 40 missed calls from her mother, and the news no child ever wants to hear. Her adored father had been brutally murdered by terrorists in the Jordan Valley, and she could barely process the grotesque details that unfolded from the police report.
“They came with axes; they killed him with 41 blows. And they murdered him as a ‘gift’ for Hamas prisoners to celebrate the holiday of Eid el-Adha,” says the daughter of former senior IDF officer Sraya “Yaya” Ofer.
“When I heard the news, I didn’t get it,” she admits quietly, as we talk in Jerusalem. “My father was so strong, so charismatic. He had so many friends — 900 came to the funeral. How could strangers kill a man they didn’t even know?”
She could not think beyond the practical details: “How will we arrange the shivah? What shall I pack if I’m leaving home for a week? More than that was too much to process.”
But with the terrible events of 2014 worsening her trauma, particularly the kidnap and murder of three Jewish teenagers and the brutal reprisal murder of a Palestinian boy — “for what? They were just young boys” — she realised she would have to find a way to come to terms with her grief and anger.
Perhaps fittingly for a former cook, Ofer’s moment of epiphany came with a recipe book written by women who understood only too well what she had gone through.
“They were from the Parents’ Circle, an organisation of Israelis and Palestinians who had all lost a family member to terrorism, and I met them at a book fair in Jerusalem,” she explains.
“They were selling their book, Jam Session, written by women on both sides which told their stories as well as giving their jam recipes. I felt I needed to belong to this organisation. The murder of my father was still really, really fresh, and I wanted to do something which would give some meaning to his brutal death, to try and convince people that violence is not the way.”
The route to peace, felt Ofer, was for Israelis and Palestinians to meet, one on one — “ordinary people living their lives who are not soldiers or policemen” — exactly the route embraced by the group, which sends Israeli and Palestinians to speak in schools in pairs.
“There are 600 of us; we lecture all over the country. I cannot go to the West Bank without permission but I have met Palestinian women in Beit Jala, a town near Jerusalem, and sometimes the Parents’ Circle gets permission for others to come in and hear us speak.”
Ofer admits her motivation was personal healing as well as the desire to influence youngsters against violence.
“I felt it was important to meet the other side and not give room for hate to develop.” She had already had to deal with the effects of terror in the 1990s when two of her close friends fell victim to bus bombings in Jerusalem: “Now I don’t travel by bus,” she shrugs.
However, a bus, albeit a privately chartered one, is at the heart of “Dissolving Boundaries”, the powerful event Ofer helped launch during Mekudeshet, the cultural festival in Jerusalem for which she is a research officer.
It takes participants to meet figures on both sides of the Green Line working for peace in sometimes unexpected ways. She was instrumental in identifying these individuals: “We had conversations with many, many people from all over society we found impossible to typecast; Jerusalem is full of people you can’t put in a box, who are trying to influence others to see the city from their point of view.
“We ended up with a list of more than 100 we felt the public needed to meet, and many are in East Jerusalem; on one journey, we crossed the rail tracks which form the Green Line in order to meet them.”
Devising the event helped her personal healing, yet perhaps the greatest aid to recovery has been becoming the mother of twins at the age of 40.
Remarkably, she fell in love at the worst time in her life: “I met Rami through the internet one month after my father was murdered,” she explains. “He had sent me a message before but, because of events, it took me weeks to get back to him.”
The fact she made the effort to meet a man at a time when her instinct was to curl up and hug her hurt was one of life’s great miracles, she says: “When I looked into his eyes, I knew he was going to be my husband. He is my rock, the one who gives me a back wind and drives me to do what I do.” That includes sometimes controversial activities like speaking on behalf of Parents’ Circle at Israel’s annual Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers.
Her lectures are seen by some as a left-wing act, she says: “There have been times schools don’t want us to come in when tension is rising, but we are only interested in showing people who is on the other side when it‘s easier sometimes not to know what’s going on in the West Bank, how Palestinians have to queue for hours at checkpoints just to get to work.
“Once you realise not all of them are terrorists but ordinary people with jobs and children and dreams, you can decide whether to hate them or not.” But she admits she will never fathom the motivation for her father’s killers: “I can’t understand how they could raise an axe 41 times to a person whose breath they could feel, whose eyes they were looking into, whose blood they felt on their hands.
“I can’t forgive them, and I don’t want anyone else to have the same experience.”
She has not yet worked out how she will tell twins Hillel and Tamar, born in December 2016, of the fate which befell their grandfather. It is significant that Hillel was named not only after Ofer’s own grandfather but the talmudic character who, when commanded to recite the Torah standing on one leg, begged of his tormentor to not ask of him what he would hate to do himself. “That’s how I want to raise my children,” she says quietly. And she takes comfort now from a sense that her father has re-entered her life: “For years after the murder he seemed so absent, but now he feels like a presence again. I can imagine calling his phone and him picking up to take my call.”