Israel came to a standstill on Wednesday morning with a two-minute memorial siren at 11 a.m. commemorating 23,928 fallen soldiers and terror victims, including 43 soldiers and civilians killed since last Memorial Day.
During the siren, traffic around the country came to an abrupt halt, as Israelis stopped driving to stand beside their cars and people at home bowed their heads in somber silence.
At 11:02 a.m., the official commemoration ceremony began at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl with a prayer for the dead by IDF Chief Rabbi Brig. Gen. Eyal Karim.
Israel’s Memorial Day is marked annually with candle-lighting ceremonies, melancholy music on the radio, and newspaper features and TV programs about those who died. This year sees a return of Israelis visiting the country’s 52 military cemeteries and hundreds of smaller military sections in civilian cemeteries nationwide after they were closed during last year’s commemorations due to coronavirus restrictions.
The Wednesday morning official ceremony was joined by families of the fallen, soldiers from across the army’s units and divisions, as well as the nation’s leaders, President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chief rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, Supreme Court chief justice Esther Hayut, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and Mossad head Yossi Cohen.
The prime minister delivered his main Memorial Day address at the ceremony.
“Together we stand, united and hurting, alongside all of Israel’s citizens,” said Netanyahu. “We have raised excellent sons and daughters, who for 73 years have been risking their lives to protect Israel’s independence. Seventy-three years of grief, 73 years of revival.”
“Each one of us remembers the moment when they received the news about their fallen loved ones,” added the premier, who lost his brother Yoni in Operation Entebbe in 1976. “When my brother died, I didn’t know whether and how I would get back on my feet. I felt like someone who lost an organ — a hand, a leg, a heart.”
Appearing to hint at recent tensions with Iran and the series of attacks on Tehran’s nuclear facilities and ships that have been blamed on Israel, Netanyahu added: “We should never remain complacent in the face of threats of war and annihilation by those who seek our demise.”
A separate official ceremony honoring the 4,176 people who died in acts of terror will begin at 1 p.m. at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Since last Memorial Day, 112 new names were added to the roster of those who died defending the country since 1860. Forty-three were IDF soldiers, police officers, and civilians, and 69 were disabled veterans who passed away due to complications of injuries sustained during their service.
The figures include all soldiers and police who died during their service over the past year, including as a result of accidents, suicide, or illness.
In a stark reminder of the toll of Israel’s wars, a former soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder set himself on fire on Monday outside the Defense Ministry’s rehabilitation center, setting off a national reckoning. Itzik Saidyan, 26, remains in critical condition.
About a hundred demonstrators came to spend the siren at the exact spot where Saidyan set himself alight, carrying signs that said: “This is where Itzik Saidyan set himself on fire because he could no longer stand the unreceptiveness.”
Memorial Day is one of Israel’s few national, non-religious holidays, during which large swaths of the Israeli public typically visit the graves of loved ones and comrades.
Unlike last year, when the pandemic saw all Memorial Day ceremonies held without audiences and smaller events planned for municipal cemeteries across the country were canceled, this year’s events will be held under few health restrictions.
The general public has nonetheless been encouraged to visit the graves of fallen soldiers earlier this week to avoid crowding on Memorial Day itself when close relatives visit.
On Wednesday, ministers approved removing some Memorial Day rules, including allowing relatives of the fallen who do not have the Green Pass to attend ceremonies. The Green Pass is given to those who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from the coronavirus, granting them entry to public venues not open to others.
The new measures include raising the number of people allowed to gather outdoors from 50 to 100. The current limit of 20 people indoors remains in place.
The Memorial Day events officially began at the Yad LaBanim center in Jerusalem on Tuesday afternoon, with Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin and Chief Justice Hayut in attendance.
Speaking at the ceremony, Netanyahu said Israel will make “every effort” to return its captives, which include two civilians and the bodies of two IDF soldiers believed to be held by the Hamas terror group in Gaza.
“This is a sacred mission that we’re not letting go of,” he said.
Speaking at the official state ceremony held at the Western Wall, President Reuven Rivlin said the message of the day was that citizens of the Jewish state must not take it for granted.
“From here, I want to speak to you, the commanders, the soldiers, those soon to enlist, the young generation. I grew up as a child at a time when we did not have a state. For me, for those of my generation, the State of Israel is not something to be taken for granted. This strong and powerful country you see was established by the heroism and dedication of young people of your age,” Rivlin said.
The commemoration day, established in 1951 by then-prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion, was set for the 4th of Iyar on the Jewish calendar, the day before Independence Day, which begins immediately after Memorial Day.
At 7:45 p.m. Wednesday evening, Memorial Day will end with the national torch-lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl that will usher in Israel’s 73th Independence Day.