After Knesset balks, IDF to directly integrate military burials

Ya’alon to put Jews and non-Jews in different rows of same section, after bill to bury soldiers together shelved due to religious MK opposition

Soldiers and citizens standing near the graves of fallen IDF soldiers as the two-minute-siren marking Memorial Day is sounded across the country, in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl during Memorial Day in 2013 (photo credit: Gili Yaair/Flash90)
Soldiers and citizens standing near the graves of fallen IDF soldiers as the two-minute-siren marking Memorial Day is sounded across the country, in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl during Memorial Day in 2013 (photo credit: Gili Yaair/Flash90)

The military will pass new guidelines mandating integrated burial for Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers, bypassing the Knesset after growing opposition to new rules caused the bill’s sponsor to pull the proposal.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud) came to an agreement with MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) that the Israel Defense Forces would create the new rules for military cemetries, after Stern saw a bloc of religious lawmakers threaten to sink his legislation.

The agreement reportedly will have Ya’alon, who opposed the bill, order directly that non-Jewish IDF soldiers be buried in the same plot as Jewish soldiers, but in a separate row, Maariv reported.

The original bill allowed for the burial of Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers right next to each other, but religious MKs objected to this as being against Jewish Law, which mandates separate burial areas for Jews and non-Jews.

While the bill initially enjoyed a large number of cosponsors — 26 MKs when it was proposed two weeks ago —  a growing groundswell of opposition quickly emerged, chiefly from religiously observant groups.

The legislation sponsored by Stern, an observant Jew and former IDF major-general, sought to correct a “warped situation” in which soldiers “who fight shoulder to shoulder” are subjected to different burial treatment if they fall, according to former IDF chief of staff MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima), who was a cosigner on the bill.

Stern’s bill did not deal with all non-Jewish soldiers, but only with those who are eligible for immigration under the Law of Return — that is, non-Jewish family members of Jews, chiefly from the former Soviet Union. It stated that “any soldier who dies, including a soldier eligible for rights under Article 4(a) of the Law of Return, and whose relatives choose to bury him in a military cemetery, shall be buried in the plot and row, and directly alongside, the soldiers already buried in that plot.”

Other religious groups, including Muslims and Druze, have their own burial grounds.

A source in the Jewish Home party last week insisted Stern was trying to solve a problem that didn’t exist.

“The situation today is fine. The non-Jewish soldiers are not outside the fence; they’re not buried in unkempt plots,” the source insisted. “They’re buried in adjacent plots that are identical.”

“Nobody doubts the [non-Jewish] soldiers’ sacrifice,” a Jewish Home official said, echoing comments (Hebrew) by Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan, also of Jewish Home.

“But halachically, you can’t bury them together,” the official added.

A few families of fallen soldiers have also expressed opposition to the bill.

David Einhorn, father of Yonatan who was killed in the Second Lebanon War in August, 2006, warned that “I won’t bury my son Yonatan” against the strictures of Jewish law.

The families of fallen soldiers “respect and cherish the sacrifice of the [non-Jewish] soldiers,”but the bill would “lead to the opposite situation from today, with a ‘general’ plot for everybody and a separate side-plot for religious soldiers” whose families seek to bury their fallen in keeping with halacha, Einhorn told Army Radio on Sunday.

The proposal came in response to the uproar that ensued after IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz mistakenly passed over the grave of Yevgeny Tolotzki, a young soldier who died in basic training on February 17, during an April Memorial Day ceremony meant to honor the IDF’s most recent fallen soldier. Gantz failed to notice Tolotzki’s grave, which was located in a non-Jewish plot in the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery, and placed a ceremonial Israeli flag on the grave of another soldier in the Jewish plot.

The IDF apologized for the misstep and promised to correct its procedures to ensure it did not recur. At the time, Stern called on the chief of staff to immediately “find an appropriate way to repair the damage.”

On Thursday, Stern offered his response to the criticism that his bill stood in violation of Jewish law.

In a letter to MKs, obtained Thursday by The Times of Israel (read the Hebrew original here), Stern offers a series of Jewish textual sources suggesting that the burial of Jews and non-Jews together could be permissible.

“I am trying to present to you, members of Knesset, a different Judaism, a Judaism that does not hate the stranger, but brings him closer through an understanding of his uniqueness and [spiritual] stature,” Stern wrote.

Ron Friedman contributed to this report.

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