Israel Remembrance Day: Politics, bereavement threaten to clash

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: There is a connection between calls for politicians to not attend ceremonies, reservists' threats, and the new law.

 GRIEVING AT THE Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem last year. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
GRIEVING AT THE Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem last year.

Gadi Meinfeld served as a combat medic in the Givati Special Engineering Company in 1990. On November 26, 1990, he and eight other soldiers set an ambush in the Mount Dov area, on the border with Lebanon. A firefight developed with a terrorist cell, and one of the soldiers was hit. As a medic, Gadi began to treat him, but, as one of the more experienced soldiers, he eventually rejoined the battle and left two others to guard the wounded soldier. The decision was fateful. Five more soldiers were hit, including Gadi. It was the dead of night. The soldiers who had stayed behind did not advance due to enemy fire. Gadi bled for an hour and a half before he was evacuated, and by then it was too late.

Gadi died at age 19. He left behind parents, Orna and Yossi, an older brother and a younger brother.

Orna was 43 at the time. She is turning 76 in three months. And this year is the first time ever that she wants politicians to stay away from the annual ceremony at the Beersheba Military Cemetery on Remembrance Day.

“I was eight months old when the state was founded. I grew up with it; I experienced everything. And today, to see what is happening... where a bereaved father says that he will put a black sheet over his son’s grave... Is this not absurd? It is shameful!” Orna says.

“I was eight months old when the state was founded. I grew up with it; I experienced everything. And today, to see what is happening... where a bereaved father says that he will put a black sheet over his son’s grave... Is this not absurd? It is shameful!”

Orna Meinfeld

The solution, simply put, is for politicians not to come.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah, on January 20, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah, on January 20, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“Where you are not wanted, just don’t come.... Why do they want to make it worse? There are rightists and leftists at the cemetery... there will be commotions.... When the siren goes off, do we want eggs flying over our heads? Or whistles blowing? At the holiest place in the country? On the holiest day?!”

Orna is especially opposed to National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s scheduled appearance at the Beersheba Military Cemetery. He has nothing to do there, Orna says, and there are enough other people to send.

“A person who did no service, did not wear a uniform for a day, who never stood in an honor guard for fallen comrades – what does he have to look for in a military cemetery? To come make the parents angry?

“It hurts me to say this; it really does, but I am speaking from the depth of my heart,” Orna adds.

“Every year, there were politicians. I can’t tell you that they finished their speeches without putting in a [controversial] word or two, but that was okay; we swallowed it. But look what is happening in this country today, God help us.

“At this holy place everything needs to be holy, just as these children were pure and holy.... [We need] only to hear the birdsong and the siren, that’s it, and not to desecrate this place, for heaven’s sake. Is it that hard to understand? When you are told not to come, don’t come!”

For Marina Kaydan, mother of Gal Kaydan, who, as a commander in the Artillery Corps, was killed in a terrorist attack at the Ariel junction on March 17, 2019, the issue is so raw that she preferred to answer in writing. Kaydan, also from the Beersheba area, opposed Ben-Gvir’s scheduled attendance.

“We as a family always separate between politics and grief. We made sure of this from the moment the harbingers knocked on our door. We are not a political family and were not involved in politics. Our opposition is to a minister who was an intelligence target and a terrorist. From our perspective, it is degrading that such a person is coming to the cemetery in Beersheba. During the shiva [seven days of mourning] we asked the politicians not to come, and they respected this,” Marina writes.

“Gal, our son, was a charming child. Gal was a gifted musician, an excellent student and an outstanding family member. Despite all of his skills, Gal was placed in a combat unit, where he decided to excel and do the best he could. Gal served as a commander and fell in a terrorist attack at the Ariel junction. We remember Gal with infinite love and longing,” she adds.

A HEART-WRENCHING public discussion broke out in the past few weeks. Thousands of bereaved families, critical of the makeup of the government, its proposed judicial reforms or of the tension in Israeli society that deepened under its watch, have requested that politicians minimize their presence at memorial services on Remembrance Day this Tuesday. Some families called on them not to come at all; others said they should attend but should suffice with laying a wreath; yet others have called for politicians to come in pairs, one from the coalition and one from the opposition.

Some politicians, such as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, rejected the requests, saying that the politicians were representing the state, and that not attending was akin to not flying the Israeli flag. Others supported the calls that politicians come in pairs. Yet other politicians, such as Yesh Atid’s Orna Barbivay, called on Israel’s leaders to respect the requests, and said that they themselves would not attend.

But everyone – families, politicians and likely millions of Israelis along with them – shares the concern that the tension and social upheaval of recent months will spill over in military ceremonies on Remembrance Day on Tuesday, and lead to ugly scenes in front of the families who made the ultimate sacrifice, and over the graves of the fallen soldiers themselves.

This, many agree, is something that would symbolize that Israeli cohesiveness is deeply broken, perhaps beyond repair.

As these words were being written on Thursday, the issue was still up in the air.

An old phenomenon in Israel

The phenomenon of bereaved parents opposing politicians’ participation in Israeli memorial services is not new, and began after the Yom Kippur War, according to Prof. Udi Lebel of Bar-Ilan’s BESA Center and School of Communication, who for many years has been researching the politics of bereavement in Israel. Lebel wrote about the beginning of the phenomenon of bereaved families’ political activism in a number of papers on the Yom Kippur War, and mainly in a book that he coedited, The 1973 Yom Kippur War and the Reshaping of Israeli Civil-Military Relations.

According to Lebel, the Yom Kippur War was the first instance in which bereaved families did not accept the fact that government representatives would speak at the cemeteries. This was not spontaneous, Lebel says, but planned in advance. Bereaved family members held signs reading “You have no place here”, “Killers of our sons” and “Government of mayhem,” and did not allow ministers to speak or finish a sentence.

The families felt that the government was responsible for the failures that led to the deaths of their sons, and that it had not taken proper responsibility, Lebel explains.

“There is a paradox in Israeli bereavement: The military cemeteries and fallen soldiers are what frame those who speak next to them [at memorial ceremonies] as stately,” Lebel says. “It is he [the politician] who relies on their national ‘capital’. And the families were enraged by those government representatives who came to exploit this,” he says.

But since then, military ceremonies were rarely disturbed, Lebel says.

“True, we are a very political society, in which bereaved parents’ involvement in politics is very legitimate. But keeping Remembrance Day and the military cemeteries outside of politics was maintained almost religiously,” he says.

The only exception for this was during the First Lebanon War in the early ’80s. This was the first time that a broad anti-war movement formed in Israel, but bereaved families coordinated in advance that like-minded politicians attend their sons’ funerals, Lebel adds. During the following years, there were disruptions at memorial services, such as at a speech by Ariel Sharon, the defense minister during the war, but this occurred at a monument in Latrun – and not at an actual cemetery, he says.

This was true on both sides of the political divide, he adds. The bereaved families who protested at the cemeteries [during the Yom Kippur War] over the attendance of Mapai ministers were not necessarily from the Right or Left. It is true that in the ’80s and ’90s the political activism of the bereaved parents was mostly from the Left, but that was also because the IDF’s combat units at the time were mostly comprised of middle-class secular citizens who were closer to the Left, Lebel explains.

THE MAKEUP of the government and the judicial reforms are not the only reasons for the tension ahead of Remembrance Day. There is the harsh criticism from cabinet ministers and coalition MKs of threats of key reservists, especially pilots and special intelligence unit members, to cease volunteering for reserve duty if the reforms go through. Add to this the discussions between top ministers in the past week over a new conscription law that would lower the exemption age of haredi men, which critics are calling “the draft evasion law,” and we have the perfect storm.

There is a connection between the calls for politicians not attend the ceremonies, the threats of reservists who oppose the judicial reforms, and the new law, Lebel says.

“The people’s army is not the Fire and Rescue Services. A firefighter must put out a fire even if he is ethically opposed to the reason it erupted. That is his profession. But a reservist in the people’s army – you cannot force him to train with full devotion if he feels that he does not identify with the state and its leaders. That is why the government, all governments, always tries to adapt itself as best as it can, ethically and morally, to the spirit of the people,” Lebel says, adding that, in his opinion, “the current government has given up on this.

“This is why it proposed the new law that, alongside the exemption for haredi citizens, also grants high financial benefits to the reservists. They are seemingly counting on the fact that preparedness for future refusal will decline based on financial incentive.... This is no longer an army of the people. It is a manipulation to make refusal unworthwhile,” he says.

These factors are also part of why bereaved families feel so upset this year, he says.

Distinguished political sociology and public policy Prof. Yagil Levy of the Open University, whose main research interest is in the theoretical and empirical aspects of civil-military relations, also draws a link between the bereaved family’s opposition to politicians attending ceremonies and the reservists’ refusals, in that both stem from a feeling that the state has violated its “unwritten contract” with its citizens.

“The [unwritten] contract establishes the conditions under which the youngsters are willing to sacrifice [their lives]. If the contract is violated, sacrifice is no longer a given either. Death cannot be reversed, but certainly [bereaved families can] prevent the appearance of those that they view as breaking the contract,” Levy says.

Whether or not politicians eventually choose to attend the ceremonies, the tension exists. This has weighed on many bereaved families, for whom every day is Remembrance Day. The inflammable tension, the distrust and the public debate have already exacted a toll.

Terrible scenes may break out on Tuesday. But even if they don’t, it is clear that the issues at hand transcend the question of how best to commemorate fallen soldiers, and will continue to plague a heavily divided Israel.•