For bereaved families, it's a Memorial Day like no other, despite COVID-19

"I’m with his memory today, without a lot of people looking at me. I can hug his grave as much as I want."

Soldiers saluting graves ahead of Israel Memorial Day at Mount Hertzl (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Soldiers saluting graves ahead of Israel Memorial Day at Mount Hertzl
For the first time since the founding of the state, military cemeteries will be quiet on Remembrance Day. Their gates shuttered, keeping thousands of family members away from their loved ones, in an attempt to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
In total, 23,816 IDF soldiers, police officers, prison wardens, Shin Bet security service and Mossad agents have been killed since 1860 defending the pre-state Yishuv and Israel. That number also includes members of the pre-state militias and the Jewish Brigade, who served in the British army during World War II. This year alone, another 42 were added to the growing list of fallen.
While the Health Ministry barred families from cemeteries over concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, Yad Lebanim director Eli Ben-Shem warned last week of physical confrontations in the cemeteries.
In a letter to Netanyahu, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the head of the Families and Commemoration Department within the Defense Ministry Aryeh Moalem, Ben-Shem said that bereaved parents have threatened to commit suicide on the graves of their sons or daughters.
Nevertheless, the government stood their ground and urged family members to visit the 53 military cemeteries ahead of the day, in small groups, in order to adhere to Health Ministry regulations.
And many bereaved families have done just that.
Anat Ben Yaakov, who came to the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery north of Tel Aviv to pay her respects to her brother Aryeh Hayik who fell in battle 46 years ago when she was only six years old, was not upset at the government’s decision.
“All our lives we’ve remembered him, so this year is a little different. But I'm not mad at anyone, I understand the Defense Ministry. What the country gives us bereaved families, how they support us, there's no other country that does that.”
(Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
(Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Ben Yaakov told The Jerusalem Post that despite the criticism against the decision, she was grateful to be able to visit her brother’s grave in peace.
“Next year Remembrance Day will be like every other one. With thousands of people. And it’s actually nice to be here now, with the quiet. I don't need the pressure and noise. I’m with his memory today, without a lot of people looking at me. I can hug his grave as much as I want. It's more intimate and personal.”
It was quiet when the Post visited the Kiryat Shaul cemetery on Sunday morning, as dozens of family members quietly sat next to the plots. Walking through the rows upon rows of gravestones, some from the Yom Kippur War, some as recent as March 24, the only sounds were of birds chirping or of some families saying the Kaddish.
Shirli and Achicham Winestock brought their daughter Alma to visit the grave of their cousin Yossi who fell in Lebanon 25 years ago after his tank was hit by a rocket.
“We really wanted to come, and so we came today since we can't come on Remembrance Day,” Shirli told the Post through her face mask. “I understand the government’s decision, there is logic there, but the decision to not use force against those who want to come was also right.”
While she will not come on Remembrance Day, “everyone will make their own decisions, and will do so responsibly in a way that they don’t harm anyone. We aren’t judging them, we understand them. Most people won’t come but in my opinion, you can’t tell bereaved families what to do.”
Yossi told the Post that he is trying to see the glass half full as he was able to bring his youngest daughter to visit, a move he wouldn’t have done on every other Remembrance Day.
Nevertheless, “there’s something very meaningful about the amount of people who come on Remembrance Day...that we can’t even move because there are so many people. But we did the Passover seder alone and so we will do Remembrance Day alone.”
Nevertheless, the decision to shutter the gates angered many bereaved families and organizations who represent them who wondered why shopping centers like Ikea were allowed to open while immediate families were barred from honoring the fallen on such a sacred day.
“They opened places which are less important, like Ikea, but cemeteries they just wont open,” said Mati Maman, who along with his wife Vanessa and son Yakir, came to visit their uncle’s grave at Kiryat Shaul.
On every Remembrance Day the entire Maman family, along with throngs of other bereaved families, spends hours at the cemetery, taking part in the ceremonies honoring those who sacrificed their lives for the state.
But, “because all the brothers are old and part of the at-risk group, they can’t come visit this year so we decided to come ourselves and light a memorial candle,” Vanessa Maman told the Post. “It’s the first year they can’t come and it’s very difficult for them.”
While neither were upset at the government’s decision to prevent them from visiting on Remembrance Day, “I think it could have been possible to discuss the possibility of having only the immediate family come, in our case only the brothers and not the grandchildren, and ask that IDF troops and teenagers from various youth movements not to come,” she said.
(Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
(Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
“This year it’s different because on Remembrance Day itself there's more of a feeling of unity. The entire country is with the families, and now it's just like every other day where people come and honor the soldiers,” Mati said.
Echoing him, Vanessa said that it “felt like we came whenever, during any other day during the year. There are no ceremonies here honoring them.”
With a lockdown preventing intercity travel for both Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha’aztma’ut (Independence Day), the defense establishment is not expecting many people to come, but should they come, police officers will be standing at the gates of the cemeteries.  Though no force will be used against those wanting to enter.
“I think that some family members will come and I don't think we have to sanction them, we have to understand them,” Vanessa Maman said.
Maj. Moshe Kama, the head of the Kfir Brigade's casualty section, told the Post that while Remembrance Day may be different than in previous years, the IDF will not forget the bereaved families and has carried out a wide range of operations to honor the fallen.
“Since Thursday troops have been at the entrances to cemeteries, day and night, with water, flowers and everything bereaved families need,” he said.
Kama explained that the large majority of bereaved families have understood the decision taken by the government, especially since family members are growing in age and are at high risk of contracting the deadly virus.
“Remembrance day is special, especially that they can see the commanders visiting the cemeteries and visiting homes. But this year we will have video calls and phone calls in order to make sure that families are not alone this year,” he said.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi said Sunday that the decision to shutter the country's cemeteries in order to curb the spread of deadly coronavirus was a "hard, but justified decision."
"The decision to do so was a hard one to make. My heart is with the families of the fallen and I understand you but it’s justified and important to respect it" said Kochavi. "Distance does not prevent us from coming together with their memory and our sorrow and even during this unique time, everything is being done for you.”
“We have a deep commitment to the fallen and indeed, and despite all the restrictions, this year too, IDF commanders and soldiers will visit every plot and grave, place a flag of Israel decorated with a black ribbon, and salute your loved ones,” he said.
Due to the continued spread of the coronavirus, the Defense Ministry decided last month that the main ceremonies at the Western Wall Plaza (Remembrance Day eve) and Mount Herzl (Remembrance Day) will be held without an audience and instead will be broadcast live.
In addition, ceremonies at the 53 military cemeteries across the country will be canceled in their usual form and in their place IDF soldiers will hold a candlelight vigil as well as a salute by a commander and military cantor saying the Kaddish – traditional jewish mourning prayer. Troops will also place of Israeli flags, wreaths and candles on graves in accordance with the guidelines set by the health ministry.