Mount Herzl Miltary Cemetary.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The legal adviser to the Defense Ministry attorney Ahaz Ben-Ari has given instructions to permit nonreligious military burial should parents of fallen IDF soldiers request it.
Until now, the families of fallen soldiers could request a nonreligious burial, but such requests were subject to the approval of the IDF rabbinate and could only be carried out in civilian cemeteries without a military service or honors.
Last August, the Hiddush religious pluralism organization sent letters to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot demanding that an “alternative civilian” burial plot be established in every military cemetery in the country in which nonreligious military services or pluralistic military burials can be conducted.
Last week, the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser wrote back to Hiddush saying that he had “instructed the IDF manpower directorate to explicitly anchor in IDF regulations the right of a fallen solider to be buried in a military cemetery without a religious ceremony.”
Hiddush director Rabbi Uri Regev also proposed in his letter that the army allow non-Orthodox religious services to be conducted if families so wish. Regev suggested that a separate plot in military cemeteries be created where soldiers can be buried in a nonreligious ceremony or a non-Orthodox religious ceremony, and where soldiers of Jewish descent who are not Jewish according to Halacha can also be buried.
The issue of burying non-Jewish soldiers in military cemeteries designated for Jewish soldiers is extremely sensitive as Jewish custom is to bury Jews and non-Jews separately. This matter has become increasingly problematic following the ever greater numbers of Israeli soldiers originating from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are not Jewish according to Halacha.
Until recently, the IDF buried non-Jewish soldiers from the former Soviet Union, or the children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, apart from Jewish soldiers with a distinct separation between the two burial areas.
An agreement between Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and MK Elazar Stern in 2013 was supposed to lead to an arrangement in which fallen soldiers of Jewish descent who are not Jewish according to Halacha were to be buried in the same plot within military cemeteries as Jewish soldiers, although not in the same row.
It is unclear, however, if this arrangement was ever formalized and how such soldiers have been buried since the agreement was made.
Regev proposed that soldiers of Jewish descent could be buried alongside their Jewish comrades whose families chose to bury them in the plot that he proposed for nonreligious or non-Orthodox military burial within military cemeteries.
Hiddush welcomed the commitment of the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser, saying the change would be a breakthrough, allowing families to bury their loved ones in accordance with their own beliefs and lifestyles.
Regev noted with caution, however, that similar instructions were issued in 1998 by then IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, but they were never implemented.
“Hiddush hopes that this time implementation will take weeks and not decades, and expects that these [new] regulations will enable not only secular burial but also Reform or Conservative [Jewish] burial as is possible in civilian cemeteries.”
Regarding the burial of soldiers of Jewish descent, Regev said that continuing to bury such soldiers separately from Jewish soldiers was not acceptable.
“The situation in which IDF soldiers of Jewish descent are buried behind some kind of fence is insufferable and cannot continue,” he said.