Ben Gvir to speak at Memorial Day event, promises to avoid sensitive topics – report

Some bereaved families call for far-right minister to steer clear of Beersheba ceremony, but he insists ‘dozens’ of families asked him to attend; event security to be bolstered

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has reportedly promised to avoid bringing up contentious topics during an address this week at a Memorial Day event in Beersheba, amid high societal tensions over the hardline coalition’s judicial overhaul bid, and despite calls from bereaved families for the controversial far-right politician to stay away.

Memorial Day, commemorating Israel’s war dead, is one of the few national, non-religious holidays, during which large swaths of the Israeli public typically visit the graves of loved ones and comrades. Government ministers have always attended national events and wreath-laying ceremonies across the country on Memorial Day. But this year, amid deep divisions, speculation has been growing that ministers from the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be heckled and face protests while participating in the Memorial Day ceremonies.

While small-scale protests are a common occurrence at events commemorating Israel’s fallen soldiers, often by bereaved families, the prospect of the political battle over proposed changes to the judiciary spilling into cemeteries and wreath-laying ceremonies has sparked concerns that the moves could offend families and harm the sanctity of the day.

Ben Gvir himself never served in the military, having been rejected by the army for extremist activities in his youth.

On Saturday, Channel 12 reported that Ben Gvir claimed to have been asked by “dozens” of families to attend the event in Beersheba on Tuesday, and vowed to avoid touching on controversial topics in his speech, particularly those related to the judicial overhaul plans, which have been temporarily paused

Citing a source close to Ben Gvir, Channel 12 said that the far-right minister hoped to “embrace” the bereaved families, including those who called for his exclusion from the event.

An Israeli soldier places flowers and candles on graves of fallen soldiers at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, May 3, 2022, ahead of Memorial Day. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Many bereaved families have called for Ben Gvir not to attend the ceremony in the southern city, while others have said they will visit the graves of their loved ones in the days before Memorial Day, to avoid government ministers at commemoration events.

The chairman of Yad Labanim, Eli Ben-Shem, said last week that thousands of parents of fallen soldiers had demanded that politicians not attend or speak at Memorial Day ceremonies at military cemeteries. Ben-Shem warned that verbal and even physical confrontations could break out at military cemeteries if government ministers and MKs — particularly those who did not serve in the IDF — attend Memorial Day events at the sensitive sites.

Earlier Saturday, Carmi Gillon, a former director of the Shin Bet security agency,  warned against the prospect of bereaved families being forcibly removed from military cemeteries if they protest the presence of ministers.

Channel 12 said that security forces were being bolstered to ensure security both inside and outside the Beersheba military cemetery where Ben Gvir is set to speak on Tuesday.

Liron Hacmon, who lost her brother in 1982 after he was killed fighting in the First Lebanon War, addressed the crowd gathered in Beersheba for weekly anti-government protests on Saturday night, calling on Ben Gvir to stay away.

Directing her comments at the minister, Hacmon asked whether he was “comfortable with the fact many families won’t attend the cemetery this year on Memorial Day, just because you’re coming?”

“Is it right that someone who didn’t serve in the army, someone who called a disgraceful terrorist a ‘hero,’ someone who spoke at the memorial for [racist Rabbi Meir] Kahane, a man who headed a terrorist organization, someone with eight criminal convictions, should give a speech in the military cemetery on Memorial Day? Is there no shame?” asked Hacmon.

Until recently, Ben Gvir’s home contained a framed portrait of Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish extremist responsible for the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinian Muslim worshippers in the West Bank city of Hebron. Ben Gvir previously described Goldstein as a “hero,” but has since renounced the comments.

On Friday, in a rare show of unity in recent months, Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, and National Unity party head Benny Gantz, signed a joint statement urging Israelis to put aside their deep divisions in honor of Memorial Day.

In addition, a group representing reservist soldiers who oppose the government’s judicial overhaul called on its activists not to demonstrate against the contentious remake during Memorial Day.

In a television interview aired Saturday night, former chief of staff under a previous Netanyahu government Gadi Eisenkot, now a key figure in the National Unity party, told Channel 12 that the participation of government ministers who did not serve in the IDF in memorial day events was “very problematic.”

Gadi Eizenkot speaks at the launch of the National Unity Party, August 14, 2022. (Elad Malka)

One such example is Construction and Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldkknopf, head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, who has reportedly been asked by bereaved families to avoid appearing at Memorial Day events.

Eisenkot said that such ministers could attend Memorial Day events “but shouldn’t speak.”

He said he hoped Ben Gvir “has good advisers around him who will tell him to attend” but not address the commemoration in Beersheba. “Take part, lay a wreath of flowers… but don’t speak.”

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