In Israel, we move quickly from Passover to Holocaust Memorial Day to Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror and then, finally, to Independence Day. The days proceed through a well-known set of rituals, intended to give us a shared meaning as a society and to inculcate and frame Israel’s official narrative: from slavery to freedom, from victimhood to victory, the irreducible tie between death and rebirth.
This year Israel commemorated the 24,213 soldiers and 4,255 victims of terror who, according to the Ministry of Defense, have been killed “in terrorist attacks and in defense of the Land of Israel since 1860, the year that the first Jewish settlers left the secure walls of Jerusalem to build new Jewish neighborhoods.” Fifty-nine active duty soldiers have died since last Memorial Day, along with an additional 86 disabled veterans who died of wounds sustained in previous years; 31 terror victims died this year, along with two more who died of wounds from previous years.
Memorial Day is both personal and collective. In Israel, nearly everyone knows or is just one degree removed from someone who’s died by war or terror.
When the government breaks its bond with the public, everything becomes politicized and even our most sacred narratives can no longer be taken for granted.
Each year soldiers and volunteers walk through Israel’s nearly 100 military cemeteries, placing a small Israeli flag on each grave. The chief of staff places a flag on the last soldier killed on his watch. The Ministry of Defense hands out small stickers imprinted with the word Yizkor (“remember,” and the name of the ritual mourning prayer) and the wildflower known as the “Blood of the Maccabees” because its clusters of tiny red petals resemble drops of blood.
Many places of entertainment, business and leisure are closed. The public radio stations broadcast a well-known, canonical playlist of sad songs and interviews family members who talk about the heroism of their loved ones and their own grief.
Throughout the day, we are meant to physically and symbolically show we see and feel and share the loss. At 11 a.m. sirens initiate a solemn two minutes of silence. The country comes to a halt. Buses stop, people stand still wherever they are—even on major highways, people get out of their cars and stand silently. It is as if we compress all of our solidarity and pain into a single day that peaks during those seemingly endless two minutes.
Afterward, ceremonies begin in the military cemeteries. Every year, the Knesset assigns ministers and MKs to attend these ceremonies and to speak to the families in the name of the country.
All of these symbols—the fighter-plane flyovers, the military salutes, the honor guards, the young men and women standing in their sharply pressed uniforms standing at stiff attention—are supposed to touch something very primal within us, and to make us feel united.
But not this year.
Israel is now in its 17th straight week of protests against the government that is tearing the nation apart. Despite the demonstrations and repeated surveys that show the public does not support the antidemocratic judicial overhaul, the capitulation to the most demanding whims of the most extreme ultra-Orthodox, nor the attempts to curry favor with the most messianic factions of the settler movement, the government continues to push its agenda. And when the government breaks its bond with the public, everything becomes politicized and even our most sacred narratives can no longer be taken for granted.
For weeks, many bereaved families have been demanding, then asking, then pleading that ministers and MKs not attend this year’s ceremonies, feeling it would be a desecration to the memory of their loved ones to allow ultra-Orthodox members of government and others who never served in the military and who seek to exempt all ultra-Orthodox men from military service to “pay tribute” to those who died defending the country.
Others, horrified by the government’s anti-democratic and exclusionary policies, have made it clear that they don’t believe this is the country their loved ones died for. Throughout Israel, families are paraphrasing the words of poet laureate Haim Nachman Bialik, who wrote, “In their deaths, they bequeathed us life.” Instead, they have placed signs on their loved ones’ graves reading, “In their memory, we must uphold democracy.”
Some officials did pull back and agreed not to attend the ceremonies, or at least not to speak. Some did so graciously, others with disdain or rebuke. But mostly, the government and its supporters have responded to the bereaved families as they have to the protest movement. Unable to see, or unwilling to acknowledge, the pain and deep national loyalty behind these movements, they have repeatedly denounced them. Last week, the same Distal-Atbaryan, who said she would not attend the ceremonies, venomously called pilots “cowardly dropouts” after they announced they would not continue to volunteer for reserve service if the government didn’t pull back. Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi told them to go to hell. Transportation Minister Miri Regev has called the demonstrators and bereaved families “anarchists” and accused them of being disloyal.
Hamodia, the mouthpiece of Agudat Yisrael (the Hasidic wing of United Torah Judaism), wrote an editorial last week acknowledging that it would be best if the party’s representatives absented themselves rather than being disrespected at the ceremonies—but blamed the “smearing and incitement of the leftist media” for the situation.
When a bereaved daughter asked Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to prevent the politicians’ participation in the ceremonies, he advised her to simply come to the cemetery “the day before Memorial Day”—as if Memorial Day were really for the benefit of the government, and the bereaved families are just the background for their self-serving appearances.
As the rhetoric increased, just before the siren call Monday morning, Gallant called on the public to “leave the controversy outside the cemeteries.”
But since so many of the politicians insisted on showing up at those cemeteries, the controversial politics could not be left outside. Coalition members were heckled at nearly a dozen sites throughout the country. In the Druze village of Issufiya, for example, a minister wasn’t even allowed into the cemetery. Elsewhere, family members sang the national anthem as coalition members tried to speak, and at the main ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was met by protestors, including one who held up an Israeli flag with the text of the Declaration of Independence.
The most serious disruptions, which briefly turned violent, occurred in the southern city of Beer Sheva, where National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir insisted on speaking, despite requests by representatives of the organizations of family members. At the time of his compulsory conscription the army refused to enlist Ben Gvir, a known provocateur and supporter of Meir Kahane, because he was considered too violent. In anticipation of his speech, security officials erected a makeshift security tent and fences, and draped the entrances with tarp. The number of family members permitted into the cemetery was restricted, and those whose deceased relatives were buried close to the stage were prevented from getting too close. Ben Gvir’s supporters scuffled with and cursed those who opposed his appearance, and soldiers tried to separate them. One supporter yelled at the protestors, “With God’s help, your children will be here next year,” while others threw bottles of water and other objects at them.
No denouncements by Ben Gvir have appeared in the media so far.
Together with some 15,000 Israelis and the several hundred Palestinians from the West Bank who were granted permission to come into Israel, I attended the 18th annual Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony in Tel Aviv on Monday night. The ceremony is sponsored by the Combatants for Peace Movement—a nonprofit volunteer organization of ex-combatant Israelis and Palestinians who have rejected all forms of violence and are working together to end the occupation of Palestine and demonstrate that Israelis and Palestinians can work and live together—in cooperation with the Parents’ Circle – Bereaved Families Forum, which brings together Palestinian and Israeli bereaved family members in shared grief and hopes for peace.
“Until we can hear each other’s pain and understand what the other side needs and wants, we will continue to bury our sons, our brothers, and our husbands.”
Gallant, the defense minister, had attempted to ban Palestinians from entering Israel from the West Bank to participate in this year’s ceremony. In response to a petition filed by the sponsors, and based on previous similar rulings, the Supreme Court decided unanimously that the Palestinians be allowed into the country, subject to security checks. All of which added to the weight of attending a ceremony that’s never easy, participants acknowledge.
Palestinian Layla Sheikh’s 6-month-old son died in 2002 at a checkpoint in Bethlehem because Israeli soldiers, doubting that the child was really sick, refused to allow her to take him to a hospital.
“After my son was killed, I was so filled with anger and hatred toward Israelis, I never wanted to meet or even talk to them. I only wanted revenge,” says Sheikh, 45. “But I came to realize that as a woman, as a mother, we need peace and we have to stop hating. No mother—Palestinian, Israeli, or anyone else—should ever have to bury her child. But until we can hear each other’s pain and understand what the other side needs and wants, we will continue to bury our sons, our brothers, and our husbands.”
Niv Sarig, 36, acknowledged that it took “ten years after my brother, Guy, was killed in clashes on the Temple Mount in 1996, to even consider attending this ceremony. I had to be able to break free from my own beliefs that we, the Jewish people, are the ultimate victims, that the whole world is against us, that the Palestinians are the heirs of the Nazis. I had thought of myself as a leftist, but I had not really ever listened to Palestinians. Maybe I was afraid to listen, to realize we are both perpetrators and victims, just like they are.”
On stage, Palestinian and Israeli presenters alternated telling about their personal journeys from hatred and revenge-seeking to personal and collective reconciliation. The Palestinians spoke in Arabic, the Israelis in Hebrew, and their speeches were translated in captions on large screens.
From outside the cordoned-off area of the event, a dozen or so demonstrators used megaphones to scream at the presenters, calling them traitors, whores, and other epitaphs. “I don’t understand exactly what they are saying, but I get it,” said Sheikh, referring to the protestors. “I feel sorry for them.”
Sheikh acknowledges that Palestinian participation in these ceremonies is not popular at home. It takes courage to attend a ceremony like this, where death is not glorified and military sacrifice is not weaponized as it is in both Israeli and Palestinian societies. It takes extreme fortitude to walk away from the warmth of the tribal bonfire, and it must be very lonely to try to find a path towards a humanistic and universal vision.
It takes true compassion to assert that the cycle of violence isn’t a force majeure but a calculated decision on both sides to perpetuate the conflict. National grief and mourning are inherently political, but the mourning in this ceremony denied the politics of both our countries. It rose above politics and offered hope.
Opening image by Gili Getz