How Israel’s Dead Soldiers Are Becoming Fathers

How Israel’s Dead Soldiers Are Becoming Fathers

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Memorial Day in Israel is a day when people across the country gather and remember those who were killed in the military, typically in conflict. Ludmila Rozhkov's son German Rozhkov was killed in March of 2002. When someone is killed in the army, a delegation is given the very solemn and difficult task of going to the family and telling them what has happened.

They arrived at Ludmila's apartment, and she tried to block the door in the hope of blocking the truth. She was just beside herself with grief. And at a certain point, she said, "we must get German's sperm."

In Israel there is a growing practice of post-mortem sperm retrieval, in which, if a man dies in the military, his family can ask the military to retrieve sperm from his corpse and to freeze it to create a future child. The sperm in his testicles continue to survive for certainly 24 hours and, indeed, possibly up to 72. A skilled doctor can remove sperm cells from his testicle and put them on ice, and it can then sit for decades. And through in vitro fertilization create a child. It is banned in a number of countries, but in Israel, which has an enormous embrace of pro natal and fertility policies in order to build a strong population, it is in fact, increasingly common.

People who die in car accidents, of cancer and so forth, their families have asked to use it. We're not talking about huge numbers but in Israel the focus right now is on young men who die in the military. Sperm extraction is actually something that we've been doing for as long as I remember. But in the last years, it became more and more frequent. I'm on call 24/7, and sometimes I get a phone call in the middle of the night. I watch TV and I see some breaking news of some terrorist attack in Tel Aviv or nearby.

I tell myself, okay, sure enough they will call me. These relatives are in deep grief. They've just been notified that their loved one was killed. Within a few hours, they can get an approval from a judge for us to perform this procedure. There is like a glimpse of hope and maybe a little bit of light. There is a lot of responsibility because you are helping to create a child who is an orphan to begin with.

Post-mortem sperm retrieval has been more common when the man is married, but really what is so striking about the situation in Israel is many people feel, "I want to be a grandparent. This is an important stage of life that I deserve. And if the state has asked my son for service and he dies in that service, it owes me this help in becoming a grandparent." It is now relatively common, should a young man die in the military, for the parents to be aware that they can ask for this. And then the military will pay for the procedure as with Ludmila Rozhkov who said, "I have lost my only son. I want a grandchild."

And the court acknowledged and agreed to that. In many ways, Ludmila was a pioneer who brought this to Israel. And interestingly, she's not a native-born Israeli. She comes from Crimea. Ludmila took a long time to decide how to proceed.

It was about a dozen years after. And then it took four years of a court battle for them to get permission to use the sperm, and the judge that they faced quoted from the Hebrew Bible saying "pru u'rvu", "be fruitful and multiply" but complications arose in the court cases, because of the question of who is in charge of this sperm. This is not the same thing as giving your kidney or your eye. This is creating another human being. The Supreme Court made a ruling based not on the Bible but on what case law existed, a decision which said there is no such thing as a right to grandparenthood.

We cannot grant this sperm to someone other than the widow, and essentially sent a message to the Knesset, to the parliament that said, if you want this thing to move forward, we need a law. There are people creating a law, which will ask every young man, when he is inducted into the military at the age of 18, whether he has something he would like done with his sperm, should he die in uniform. There is an incredible focus on the family in Israel and on having babies. So Israel has, from the very beginning, viewed its role as a place to rebuild the Jewish nation. Why?

It comes, of course, just a few years after the Nazi Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were slaughtered. So even though there's a fairly heavy religious component in Israel, the fact is there is a secular drive to have children in a way that is incomparable in the rest of the wealthy world. We combine this with the exceptional place of the military in Israeli society, where essentially everyone puts in for boys three years for girls a little under two years of military service. So everyone is linked to this institution. And when someone dies serving his country, the desire to honor that person is also very pronounced. And so parents go onto Facebook or they get interviewed on television and they say, "My son died in the service of this country, and we're looking for a woman to bear and raise his child."

And what is remarkable is that hundreds, indeed thousands of women raise their hands and volunteer to be that mother. Baruch Ben Ygal has been very involved with the Zvi Hauser law and others, because since the Supreme Court said, "We need to really have evidence that this young man wanted children," he said, "I want to put all my energy into creating a law instead of trying to go through the court system." Although he said, "I am certain that he very much wanted to be a father." And he said to me, he has a book of 5,000 names of women who want to be the mother of his future grandchild. Broadly, Israel very much embraces this process, but there are dissenters.

There are deep worries, ethical and legal. People are saying, "I don't understand why would you do this on purpose? You are condemning this child to being a kind of living monument as opposed to having a relatively normal life. Life is hard enough." So Baruch is very involved in lobbying for this law and he is politically savvy and connected.

So he's used those connections for this cause. But he's not alone. There is a nonprofit organization advocating for this in getting everybody on board.

There obviously is hesitation of the defense ministry and others to institutionalize something like this, but it looks like it has the wind at its back right now. So, when you first hear about this procedure, it's hard not to feel a little bit freaked out. At the same time, when you meet these families and the fervor and love that they bring to this fight, you melt, because you see that what is it that drives us in life is love. And these people are engaged in a fight for familial love. And that's a very powerful force.

2022-08-21 13:33

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