IDF reservists protesting overhaul urge activists not to demonstrate on Memorial Day

Soldiers’ commemoration organization calls on politicians not to attend events at military cemeteries; Gantz: We must put public debate aside, if only for one day

A woman sits next to a grave of fallen soldier in the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2023, ahead of Memorial Day next week. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A woman sits next to a grave of fallen soldier in the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2023, ahead of Memorial Day next week. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A group representing reservist soldiers protesting against the government’s judicial overhaul program has called on its activists not to demonstrate against the reforms on Israel’s Memorial Day next week.

“On the coming Memorial Day, we will not protest because our hearts will be with our brothers and sisters in arms who fell in battle, we will bow our heads for them, we will cry and hug the families,” the Brothers in Arms group said in a statement on social media.

“We call on all the brothers and sisters in arms to leave their protest shirts at home and not to come to the cemeteries with them,” the group added.

The statement by Brothers in Arms comes as tensions surrounding Memorial Day activities have risen, largely surrounding the government’s controversial judicial reforms which have deeply divided Israeli society.

This has led thousands of parents of fallen soldiers to demand that politicians not attend or speak at Memorial Day ceremonies at military cemeteries next Tuesday, the chairman of the Yad Labanim commemoration organization Eli Ben Shem has said.

On Wednesday, Ben Shem claimed 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.

Graves of fallen Israeli soldiers at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2023, ahead of Israeli Memorial Day next week. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I very much hope that they [the government] understand that these places are dynamite,” said Ben Shem on Kan Radio, in reference to military ceremonies on Memorial Day.

Referencing legislation recently proposed by the government which would grant ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students blanket exemptions from IDF service, Ben Shem said that having politicians who did not perform military service participate in Memorial Day services would be akin to “lighting a bonfire in a cemetery” and said such a situation should be avoided.

Ben Shem and others delivered the same message to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in a meeting on Tuesday, although Gallant reportedly rejected the request, as well as another proposal by Yad Labanim to draft talking points for politicians who do attend the ceremonies in order to avoid the politicization of the events.

Ben Shem said there were seven services where politicians who did not perform IDF service are scheduled to participate, including an event in Beersheba where the leader of the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit party Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister, is expected to speak.

Ben Gvir did not perform military service because the IDF declined to draft him due to his involvement in far-right, ultra-nationalist agitation as a youth before reaching the age of enlistment.

“They need to exercise common sense otherwise there will be a catastrophe. [The military] cemeteries are the holy of holies of the State of Israel, if we will see violence and shouting over the graves of our children — I would want to die,” said the Yad Labanim chairman, who is himself a bereaved father.

Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir attends a ceremony held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, as Israel marks annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. April 17, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Last week, Ben Shem stated that some 8,000 parents had contacted his organization and requested that politicians not attend the services. He noted that there was particularly strident opposition to Ben Gvir’s participation in the Beersheba ceremony

Also on Wednesday, opposition leader and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid announced he would not attend the traditional torch-lighting ceremony which ends Memorial Day and opens Independence Day, due to societal divisions he said the government has created due to its radical judicial overhaul program.

Lapid’s decision comes following reports on Tuesday that Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who is responsible for the ceremony, plans to cut the live broadcast of the event and switch to a rehearsal recording should the actual torch-lighting ceremony be interrupted by anti-government protestors.

In a message to Regev on Wednesday, Lapid tweeted that “my seat at the torch-lighting ceremony will be empty” and that she had left him “no choice” in the matter.

Opposition leader and head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I love the State of Israel from the bottom of my soul, but in three months you have divided Israeli society and no fake fireworks performance will cover that up. If the unity of the people was so important to you, you would not have dismantled our democracy and would instead have gone to work for Israeli citizens,” declared Lapid.

Earlier on Wednesday, Lapid said the major TV channels should not agree to Regev’s plan, insisting that the torch-lighting ceremony “is not a propaganda broadcast.”

During a press conference on Wednesday, Regev insisted that the broadcast would be only be interrupted if there were some kind of security incident, and called on Lapid and National Unity leader Benny Gantz to attend, saying she would “save a seat” for them and adding that she intended to call them about the matter as well.

“There is no right, left” at the torch-lighting event, the minister said. “They are all represented because the ceremony is above leaders and parties. It is a ceremony for the state and for all citizens, and I am aware of the debates and criticisms — but I ask everyone to put everything aside.”

In contrast to Lapid, and in an apparent rejection of the position of Yad Labanim and others, Gantz said it was incumbent on all political leaders to attend the state ceremonies on Memorial Day as part of their duty as elected officials.

“We public leaders have an obligation and a national responsibility to attend the ceremonies and fulfill our duty… [We must] do our best and attend, coalition alongside opposition, to show that we are all united on this day,” said Gantz.

Leader of the National Unity Party MK Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting of the National Unity Party at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2023. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

He said he respected and accepted criticism of bereaved families “with love” but insisted that the societal divisions needed to be put aside for Memorial Day.

“We should all enter the cemeteries for the Memorial Day ceremonies with our personal and national grief, and leave the public debate outside, if only for one day.”

Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter also pushed back against the idea of preventing politicians from speaking at Memorial Day services, saying he and others would attend “as publicly elected officials,” although he acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue and the current societal tensions.

“We are talking about state events that have a clear and recognized format, a tradition that has been in place for decades, and with all the difficulties and all the sensitivities we should not damage this tradition on Memorial Day or Independence Day,” Dichter said on Kan Radio.

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