Cast aglow by numerous incandescent spotlights below a crescent moon, the Western Wall last night once again served as center stage, as hundreds of soldiers and Jews from across the globe gathered before it to honor the country’s fallen on the eve of Remembrance Day.
As soldiers, past and present, surrounded the Wall amid several vertical Israeli flags, one was lowered to half mast as a haunting air raid siren followed by a muffled trumpet playing taps signaled the beginning of Israel’s national day of mourning.
Behind metal partitions, a cross section of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and secular Jews stood side by side as the nation’s leaders commemorated the dead.
“It feels good to look around and see the continuity of the Jewish people,” said Shmuel Eliwatt, of Beit Shemesh, who attended the ceremony with his wife, Miriam.
“Just looking around, we were noticing religious and nonreligious people and the next generation of Jews, and I feel like God is looking down and seeing this microcosm of people and is pleased to see everyone represented to help remember those who sacrificed themselves to build this country.”
During the ceremony, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz spoke of his memories of friends killed in battle, “who built Israel’s security, brick by brick.”
“I remember them, and direct my gaze to those who continue their path,” said Gantz. “Our forces – whom I meet in the fields, at drills, at the tense moments before operations, and the satisfying moments that follow them – they are a living example that the mission in which your loved ones fell is in the most secure hands.”
Calling for national solidarity to be based around support for the IDF, Gantz recalled the profound sense of unity and empowerment that defined his service.
“When our forces came back from dangerous classified missions, the whole of the Israeli nation knew that these are our forces who came back,” he said.
“They were sent on their mission by their commanders, but also by the whole nation – [people] of all shades, who raised them with love and sent them to protect the country.”
The chief of staff continued that this national solidarity is the most powerful form of support a soldier could hope for.
“As a soldier who marched on enemy soil, I remember the concern and love, and the whole country supporting us, and waiting for us to return safely,” he said.
Now, too, he continued, as citizens go about their daily lives, “Our forces are heading out to their next mission and coming back from yesterday’s mission,” Gantz continued. “They do this with bravery, daring, and quiet.”
Turning his attention to the regional security situation, the chief of staff said the relative security quiet is “deceptive,” adding that “a spark can lead to a fire.”
“Here, this evening, we vow to stand against any conflagration and carry out any mission on behalf of Israel’s security,” he said.
“This is the supreme directive that we demand from ourselves. I can’t promise that all of our forces will return safely, but they will be well trained and equipped with the best resources. But that’s not sufficient; the support of the nation is also needed.”
Noting that “appreciation is the most precious weapon they can carry,” Gantz added that “we’ll do all that we can to be loyal to the path of the fallen, on behalf of future generations.”
Earlier on Sunday, in a directive sent by Gantz to all soldiers and commanders, he called on the armed forces to face threats both near and far with confidence.
“In the face of the upheavals of the Middle East, we must continue to act with confidence and determination against any challenge that comes to our doorstep,” he said. “Against any threat, known or new, near or far, the IDF will always be ready to be called upon, ready for the next mission.
Ganz continued: “Our forces on land, sea, and air will continue to always act in light of the legacy left by the fallen in their deaths, a legacy of a sense of mission, and belief in the justice of our path, a legacy of love of the homeland and guaranteeing its safety.”
On Remembrance Day, he said, fallen soldiers paint a mosaic of “the people’s army that recruited them, and which recruited us to serve the State of Israel, to take part in the safeguarding of its security.
“With the dedication and determination they showed, the IDF’s fallen have left us with a path to march down, a decree to live by,” Ganz continued. “The mission of defense passes from one generation to the next. We will guarantee the continuation of our existence as a free people in our land.”
Indeed, one active soldier, a captain missing his left cheekbone following combat in Gaza in 2009, said that despite his injury he continues to lead his Paratroop Brigade unit to ensure Israel remains a free nation.
“It’s a special day,” he said, requesting anonymity due to his current service. “I know soldiers who have died in war with me and my commanders, and we must pause to think about them. To remember them.”
Asked why he continues to fight despite his wound and the loss he has endured, the captain said the answer is twofold.
“First, I have the experience to help save lives and prevent more families from mourning such loss,” he said. “Second, before I was wounded it was my dream to be a captain, and to lead a company is an honor.”
Kasaey Damoza Franzman, who made aliya from Ethiopia, said she was grieving the loss of three high-school friends killed in combat.
“Today is really, really emotional for me,” she said. “I’m just thinking about the parents of my friends. If it’s hard on me, how must it feel for them?” Meanwhile, Emmett Levin, a 19-year-old Toronto native, said he made aliya to become a lone soldier in October, despite the risks.
“I think mostly of the families that have lost [sons], and of my family and what they would experience if something happens to me,” he said. “But seeing these families here reminds me how important it is for me to do my part.”
Following the 45-minute ceremony, Hani, a 19-year-old Orthodox woman, plaintively summarized Israel’s existential crisis.
“This is my country, and we’ve had many people killed, but this is our life,” she said. “We would not be standing here tonight if it were not for the soldiers’ sacrifice, so we must honor them and continue to fight in their place.”