The Guardian / April 24, 2023
Politicians and protesters urged to stay away from events honouring those killed serving in armed forces and in terrorist attacks.
Israel’s memorial day, in which those killed serving in the armed forces as well as terrorist attacks are honoured, is usually quiet and sombre; then, at sunset, independence day celebrations and fireworks begin.
But this year, as the country readies for the consecutive holidays, Israelis find themselves grappling with an unprecedented political crisis that has divided society and cast a shadow over what are supposed to be displays of national unity. A car ramming carried out by a Palestinian suspect with a Jerusalem residency on a busy street in the city on Monday afternoon, which injured five, added to the tensions.
Three ministers appointed by the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on his return to office at the end of last year at the head of a coalition of far-right and religious parties have pulled out of participating in memorial day ceremonies at military cemeteries on Monday. The decision came after pleas from bereaved families who feared this year’s events will be hijacked by politicians – or the 16-week-old protest movement against the government’s controversial plans for the judiciary.
Miri Regev, the minister in charge of the main event at Mount Herzl, Israel’s main military cemetery, has instructed organizers to switch to broadcasting a recording of the dress rehearsal if the live event is disrupted by demonstrations.
A plan to send the extremist national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, as the government’s representative at a ceremony in the southern town of Beersheba, has also drawn ire from some members of the community, who point out the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) exempted him from military service as a teenager owing to his far-right activities.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid announced last week he is boycotting the Mount Herzl ceremony, addressing the government in a statement: “You have torn Israeli society apart, and no phoney fireworks performance can cover that up.”
Eli Ben-Shem, the chair of Yad Labanim, which commemorates Israel’s war dead and offers relatives support, told Israel’s Channel 12 on Sunday that the organization had received hundreds of phone calls from families asking that politicians stay away from the Mount Herzl event. He himself lost his son in a military helicopter crash during the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, in 1997.
“I’m concerned for the dignity of the fallen, worried about what could happen on Memorial Day with people standing there at the gravesites, cursing and shouting at one another. The State of Israel has managed to reach a ceasefire with Hamas,” he said, referring to the Palestinian militant group in control of the blockaded Gaza Strip. “Can’t we make a ceasefire among ourselves?”
Heightened tensions and ugly rhetoric on a day that is supposed to supersede politics are not new: in 2022, some bereaved families, as well as Netanyahu’s Likud party, demanded that cabinet members in the short-lived “government of change” stay away from memorial day ceremonies, accusing the broad coalition of supporting terrorism.
But the new government’s plan to introduce a judicial overhaul, which critics say is a transparent power grab, has sparked the biggest protest movement in the country’s history, exposing deep rifts in Israel society over identity and belonging.
Last month, the prime minister was forced to freeze the legislation until the Knesset’s summer session, and it may yet be kicked into the long grass. But the protests have continued unabated, and are expected at at least four different sites on Monday, as enough people question the democratic values of the country their loved ones died for.
Every year since 2006, an alternative memorial day ceremony known as the joint memorial day has been held for both Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members and friends in the decades-old conflict.
Peace activist Rami Elhanan of the Parents Circle – Families Forum, who lost his 14-year-old daughter in a suicide bombing in 1997, said the numbers were growing each year.
“We can gather around this fire to get some encouragement and solidarity, to feel not all is lost.
“Most of the demonstrators are people who have woken up for the first time in their life and are realizing now the threat of polarization,” he said. “We were viewed as marginal for a long time. But many thousands are standing up now.”
Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian