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In April, IDF Manpower Division chief Gen. Elazar Stern was roundly criticized when he proposed reviving the practice of differentiating between various categories of casualties in uniform. Granting all the sensitivities involved, Stern deserves a hearing, not a silencing.
Not every soldier injured or killed while in uniform or while technically a soldier can be considered to have been wounded or fallen in military service, Stern dared suggest. He informed participants at a closed conference on commemoration that a possible distinction is being considered between soldiers whose death or injuries arose from their service and those whose misfortune was "exceedingly removed from any military framework."
The issue came up most dramatically last August in case of Eden Natan Zada, the Jewish terrorist who carried out an attack on a bus in Shfaram, killing four Arab Israelis. Then, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz blocked Zada's burial in a military cemetery, saying "We cannot allow a murderer to be buried next to fallen soldiers." At the same time, Mofaz said that Zada's parents, who were unaware of their son's intentions, should be given every assistance necessary.
Stern's remarks, however, caused a powerful backlash, leading Mofaz to quickly distance himself from Stern's proposal. But was Stern indeed so outrageously out-of-line?
Stern had appointed a team "to examine criteria for extreme cases in which casualties result from circumstances of turpitude or from circumstances outside military service and not connected to it in any way."
In a letter sent to officers to clarify his stance, Stern wrote: "Cemeteries were and are the holy of holies of Israeli society... [I]n extreme circumstances in which there are cases of death with disgrace, or in circumstances of death and injury which took place outside of operations or in circumstances which are not connected to them, such as during desertions, it is appropriate to rethink recognition of them as fallen soldiers."
Stern also pointed out that as the defense budget shrinks, bereaved families who paid the highest price to defend the State of Israel must be taken care of, and hinted that without some kind of distinction, those entitled to compensation could be harmed.
Before 1987, distinctions like those Stern proposes were the IDF's norm. A soldier who deserted and was injured while committing a crime was not, for instance, recognized as disabled in action. The same with a soldier on leave who, unrelated to travel to or from his base, became intoxicated and crashed his car.
Since the policy changed, any death or injury of a soldier was treated equally. As a result a Ramle monument for the city's fallen included the name of a soldier who burned his girlfriend to death and then committed suicide.
Military investigators are now looking into the case of an officer killed recently in circumstances that suggest that he was engaged in committing grand larceny. No one can deny his family's grief, yet it is reasonable to ask whether that grief belongs in the personal or the collective realm.
As a society, which truly cherishes those who sacrificed life and limb for its survival, can we avoid even posing the question of whether absolute equivalence in all cases does not devalue the supreme sacrifice? Are we not trivializing and cheapening the debt we owe those who literally gave us independence?
These are legitimate questions and Stern certainly should not have been berated for raising them. If anything he deserves a serious and unbiased hearing.
These issues Stern has returned to the fore are not new. They have been hot potatoes willingly dropped by civilian and military higher-ups for nearly two decades. It is not necessarily the case that the pre-1987 regulations should be restored unamended. Yet neither should it be assumed that current situation is warranted or acceptable.
No one can or should deny the grief of a bereaved family, regardless of the circumstances of that family's terrible loss. But the state has a duty to draw a line for collective commemoration, with all its moral, national and financial implications, in an appropriate place that does honor to the tens of thousands of soldiers whose sacrifice must be the heart and soul of today's national event. It is time, perhaps, to bravely address, not evade, this difficult and emotional dilemma.