PRESIDENT REUVEN Rivlin delivers a speech near the covered bodies of Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham and Francois-Michel Saada, victims of Friday’s attack on a Paris grocery, during their joint funeral in Jerusalem..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week’s decision to bury in Israel four of the murdered Jews from the kosher supermarket in Paris was not without controversy. According to media reports, the families were not given much choice (although others did withstand the pressure and decided to bury their loved ones in France) and were also subject to extravagant financial demands by the various burial societies, until the government finally stepped in and made all the necessary arrangements.
The president and the prime minister attended the funerals, along with a few thousand participants, many of them members of the French Jewish community living in Israel; nowhere near the mass numbers initially expected.
In no way could the funerals be compared to those which were accorded the three murdered teenagers last year, or the soldiers who had been killed in action during the subsequent Gaza war. The tens of thousands who turned out to pay their condolences to the Israeli fallen were conspicuously absent from the funerals of the French citizens, even if there was widespread sympathy for the families of those who had been murdered in this blatant anti-Semitic attack.
Neither did the way in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to transform the act of anti-Jewish terrorism into a political act associated with Israel help. His controversial speech in France calling on all French Jews to leave France; the fact that Prime Minister Holland had requested that he not attend; and left the Paris synagogue before Netanyahu began his address; or the speech which he gave at the funeral itself; all went a long way to make the French Jewish community feel less, rather than more, secure in the country in which they have decided to live.
By going out of his way to portray the danger to Jews who opted to continue to live in France, and by being so outspoken while a guest in France, Netanyahu may have scored a few electoral points among the Israeli Right, but did not go over well among the French public, including much of the Jewish community.
It is part of a long tradition where Israel is always presented as the “safe haven,” the last place on earth where Jews can find refuge if they are persecuted and where, even if they are faced with terrorist threats and rockets attacks from beyond the border, they can count on their own independent army, that will provide security and safety for Jews, regardless of their origin. Almost 70 years down the road and we are still the country which will hold out against another Holocaust, and every incident of anti-Semitism which takes place on the soil of Europe reminds our politicians and Jewish Agency officials of the message which is so easy, but sometimes so cheap, to sell.
It is the lowest common denominator – come to Israel because you are threatened and insecure. While Israel clearly serves this function as a safe haven and a final refuge, it is a sign of failure that the country is no longer able to sell itself as a place for Jewish self-fulfillment for those who live in relative safety and security in Europe, North America and other parts of the world. To have to wait for an anti-Jewish terrorist incident to sell the idea of coming to live in Israel is a far cry from the days when larger numbers of Jews came to live in Israel because they desired to be part of the challenge of building a new society, a society within which they could determine the contours of the first independent and sovereign Jewish entity for 2,000 years.
But at least fleeing from insecurity and having a country which will always take you in while you are alive is a lot better than having your body flown to Israel for burial after you have been killed in a terrorist attack, as happened last week.
It is not only victims of terror who are accorded the dubious privilege of being interred in Israel. Increased number of Diaspora Jews have, in recent years, had their bodies brought to Israel for burial. The fact that they chose, of their own free will, to spend their lives in the Diaspora when they could have contributed to the state, but chose to have their bodies transported here for burial when they no longer had anything to contribute other than taking up increasingly scarce burial plots, is inappropriate.
Burial in Israel has become a function of money, and the burial societies, which are obligated by law to provide free burial for Israeli citizens in the next available plot, are only too eager to charge exorbitant prices for reserving a plot and even more for having the body transferred from elsewhere in the world. As was evident in last week’s initial negotiations with the French families, they had few compunctions about trying to make as much money as possible out of the bereaved family members.
Burial in Israel for Jews of the Diaspora has become particularly popular with religious Jews. Famous rabbis are brought for burial on the Mount of Olives or in the rabbinical section of the Har Hamenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem. Not only do they desire to be buried in soil of the Holy Land, but they wish to be as close as possible to the place where they believe the Messiah will arrive at the time of Redemption and therefore be among the first to be brought back to life. Their lifelong negation of the categoric religious precept of settling in the Land of Israel does not worry them, or their families and communities, when it comes to having their lifeless bodies transported to be buried in Israel.
Since Jewish law insists on burial in the ground rather than cremation or other methods of body disposal, Israel is filled with cemeteries, and the search for available land for the residents of Israel itself is increasingly difficult.
Why should the cemeteries, which are already over pressured for space, be filled up with the bodies of those who made aliya only after death? It is unnecessary and should cease, regardless of how much is paid to reserve a plot and how much the burial societies profit from these business undertakings.
With all its problems, Israel is a vibrant land and it is very definitely a country for the living, not the dead. It may provide a safe haven for those who have no other choice but this should never be seen as its main function.
At the very least it should be a country where people opt to live when they are still alive, preferably as young adults who can contribute to the daily life of the country, or at the worst following retirement when they still are able to contribute to, and benefit from, the social and cultural dynamic of the diverse Jewish experience which takes place here. It is not a country established in order to become transformed into a massive cemetery, least of all for those who have chosen to spend their entire lives elsewhere.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.