Amid a sharp controversy over the participation of ministers and MKs in memorial ceremonies, the nation will mark Remembrance Day beginning Monday night with the sounding of a siren at 8:00 p.m., followed immediately by the national memorial ceremony at the Western Wall, with President Isaac Herzog, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi in attendance.
Some 24,213 pre-state fighters and IDF soldiers have died in battles since 1860, according to an announcement by Israel’s Defense Ministry on Friday. There were 59 soldiers who died in the past year, and an additional 86 disabled veterans died as a result of wounds sustained during their military service, the ministry said.
Remembrance Day also commemorates victims of terror. Some 4,255 people have been killed since 1951, and of them, 31 were killed during the past year, according to the Defense Ministry.
Remembrance Day this year comes amidst months of social turmoil over the government’s proposed judicial reforms, and thousands of bereaved families requested last week that politicians refrain from attending ceremonies at military cemeteries this year due to possible protests and commotion.
Gallant refused the requests, arguing that ministers and Knesset members represented the state and their presence had symbolic value. However, a number of ministers announced on Sunday that they would respect the families’ wishes.
Housing and Construction Minister MK Yitzhak Goldknopf and Culture and Sports Deputy Minister Yaakov Tessler from the United Torah Judaism were the first to cancel their participation, in the Kiryat Gat and Be’er Tuviya military cemeteries respectively.
In a letter to the head of the Kiryat Gat branch of Yad Labanim, an organization of bereaved families that is responsible for the ceremonies at the military ceremonies, Goldknopf wrote that while he had a strong desire to attend the ceremony, he did not want to cause “discomfort.” The housing and construction minister wrote that instead, he would go to the Western Wall to read Psalms in honor of the fallen soldiers.
Likud MK Boaz Bismuth will attend the Kiryat Gat ceremony instead of Goldknopf, Walla reported.
The chairman of the Yad Labanim organization, Eli Ben-Shem, told Army Radio that he “very much appreciated” Goldknopf and Tessler’s decision. Ben-Shem criticized Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for insisting on ministers attending the ceremonies and warned that commotions could occur especially at cemeteries where ministers who did not serve in the IDF are scheduled to speak.
Minister within the Education Ministry Haim Biton, a member of the Shas party, also announced that he would be canceling his participation in the Remembrance Day ceremony in Rehovot. Health Minister and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel of Shas, who served in the IDF, will replace him, according to Army Radio.
National Diplomacy Minister Galit Distal-Atbaryan from the Likud also announced that she would not attend the ceremony in Nes Tziona that she was scheduled to attend, saying that “facing bereaved families I lower my head unequivocally,” and that “their request is an order for me.”
Miriam Peretz, an educator who lost two sons during their military service and recipient of the Israel Prize for life achievement, also called on politicians to respect the wishes of the bereaved families.
Ben-Gvir continues plan to attend ceremonies
The bereaved families are “searching for some kind of mental peace in an abnormal emotional storm” on Remembrance Day, Peretz said in an interview on KAN radio.
“We will make it through Remembrance Day peacefully if we exhibit restraint, patience and human sensitivity,” she repeated, adding that “the world won’t end if someone doesn’t speak, because you cannot get in the way of a bereaved parent,” she said.
Out of the ministers and MKs who are scheduled to attend the ceremonies, bereaved families especially opposed National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s scheduled appearance at the Beersheba military cemetery. Some 23 bereaved families whose loved ones are buried in the Beersheba cemetery put out a statement last week saying that the “draft evader, Kahanist, person who was convicted of supporting a terror organization and incitement to racism” should not attend.
Some politicians pushed back on the decisions to avoid the military cemeteries, especially by haredi ministers and MKs.
National Unity MK Matan Kahana called on Goldknopf to reverse his decision and offered to go to the ceremony with him in order to display unity. Former Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked also responded, saying that the “exclusion of haredim from the cemeteries on Remembrance Day is a mistake,” and that it was “our duty, especially on the national days, to find common ground.”
“There are 364 days for divisiveness,” Shaked added.
Through Ben-Shem’s efforts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition head Yair Lapid, Gallant and National Unity head Benny Gantz issued on Friday a rare joint statement calling on all Israelis to “leave the controversy this Remembrance Day outside of the military cemeteries.”
“This is a day for silencing out controversy, all of us, and making room for pain and memory,” said the Israeli leaders. “The holiness of the fallen and the respect that we feel for the bereaved families connects us together – over the graves of our loved ones, we’re all brothers. We’re all one nation,” they said.
Over 115 heads of local authorities also issued a joint statement on Friday calling for respect for Remembrance Day.
“On Remembrance Day, in the cemeteries and ceremonies throughout the country, we will sanctify the fallen whose deaths granted us our lives in the land of Israel,” said Center for Local Government head Haim Bivas. “We will rally around the bereaved families and give them all the respect they deserve.”
Halevi made a similar request in a letter published on Sunday morning.
“It’s on us to respect the cemeteries and not to turn them into arenas of debate,” said Halevi. “Restraint and silence have a deafening power, and paying respects for our fallen loved ones isn’t possible with the noise of argument.”
Michael Starr contributed to this report