Sirens to blare at 8 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. Tuesday

Israel readies to usher in Memorial Day ceremonies, under shadow of overhaul rifts

Disruption feared at events for 24,213 fallen troops and 4,255 terror victims, as some ministers cancel; bereaved relatives to stay away; Bennett: ‘Focus only on families’ pain’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

An Israeli soldier places flags on graves of fallen soldiers at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, April 23, 2023, ahead of Memorial Day. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An Israeli soldier places flags on graves of fallen soldiers at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, April 23, 2023, ahead of Memorial Day. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel was preparing Monday for a Memorial Day like no other, as fears of disruptions at ceremonies abounded ahead of the national day commemorating the country’s fallen IDF soldiers and terror victims.

Amid an unprecedented national rift over the government’s push to radically remake the justice system, some bereaved relatives have said they will stay away from their loved ones’ graves in protest of coalition representatives attending ceremonies at military cemeteries.

Some ministers and lawmakers have canceled their planned appearances at memorial events. But others — most notably far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — have insisted on attending ceremonies where they will likely face some form of protest from some relatives of the fallen.

Memorial Day is one of Israel’s few national, non-religious holidays. Large swaths of the Israeli public typically visit the graves of loved ones and comrades.

Memorial Day will commence at 8 p.m. Monday, when a one-minute siren will blare across the country kicking off ceremonies nationwide, including the main event at the Western Wall in Jerusalem attended by President Isaac Herzog, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi.

On Tuesday morning, a two-minute siren will sound at 11 a.m. ahead of national memorial ceremonies at Israel’s 52 military cemeteries. The main daytime ceremony will be held at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, attended by Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by an Air Force flyby.

More memorial events will be held later in the day, giving way in the evening to the festivities of Israel’s 75th Independence Day. The abrupt switch from national grief to jubilation may be jarring for some, but it is viewed by many as celebrating the state and its achievements while remembering the sacrifices that made them possible.

Family and friends visit graves of fallen Israeli soldiers at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv, on April 23, 2023, ahead of Memorial Day. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Fifty-nine soldiers were killed during their military service since last year’s Memorial Day, according to figures released by the Defense Ministry on Friday.

Another 86 disabled veterans died due to complications from injuries sustained during their service. The numbers brought the total tally to 24,213 people who have died during service to the country since 1860.

According to the National Insurance Institute, 4,255 people have been killed in anti-Israel terror attacks since 1851, including 31 who have died over the past year. Of the total victims, 740 were minors, 120 were Israelis killed abroad, and 135 were foreign nationals killed in terror attacks directed against Israelis.

A sign placed next to the grave of a fallen Israeli soldier at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv, saying the family will boycott a Memorial Day ceremony there due to the “wrongdoing of the criminal government,” on April 23, 2023. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Herzog has given a wide array of public statements and media interviews in recent days, repeatedly urging Israelis to keep the divisive and emotionally fraught debate over the now-paused judicial overhaul out of Memorial Day events.

Halevi has also asked Israelis to show respect and refrain from turning military cemeteries into a “scene of debate.” Netanyahu and Gallant — as well as the opposition’s Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz — have also urged Israelis to put aside their deep divisions for one day this week.

Additionally, a group representing reservist soldiers protesting against the overhaul called on its activists not to demonstrate against the sweeping reforms during Memorial Day.

The prospect of the political battle over proposed changes to the judiciary spilling into cemeteries and wreath-laying ceremonies on Memorial Day, which runs from Monday night until Tuesday night, has sparked concerns that strife, protests and politicized speeches could offend families and harm the sanctity of the day.

Israeli soldiers place flags on graves of fallen soldiers at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, April 23, 2023, ahead of Memorial Day. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Sunday, United Torah Judaism’s Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf and Culture and Sports Deputy Minister Ya’akov Tessler — neither of whom served in the IDF — announced their withdrawal from Memorial Day events at which they were slated to speak. Shas Minister Haim Biton also said he would skip a previously scheduled event.

Shortly afterward, Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan — who served in the military but has made incendiary comments that angered many veterans in recent months — also said she would not attend the ceremony at which she was slated to speak. Fellow Likud party minister May Golan has also canceled her participation in such an event.

Zvika Fogel, of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, said he would attend a Memorial Day event at the Rosh Pina Military Cemetery but would not give a speech.

But his party leader Ben Gvir — who famously was not drafted in the IDF due to his extremist activity as a teenager — reiterated Sunday that he would not heed the calls for him to skip a ceremony at the Beersheba Military Cemetery on Tuesday.

“I love the bereaved families. I will give a statesmanlike speech and embrace all the families, including those who do not love me,” Ben Gvir was quoted as saying by Hebrew media.

Itamar Ben Gvir seen with Likud MK May Golan in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on February 14, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

According to Hebrew media, Defense Ministry officials running the ceremonies have received instructions to immediately report to local police forces any “irregular incident” during the ceremony. The officials have also reportedly been told to “avoid any intervention that could harm the sensitive national occasion.”

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett — whose previous diverse coalition of right-wing, centrist, leftist and Islamist parties faced some disruptions to Memorial Day ceremonies last year by angry bereaved families — lamented in a media blitz Monday morning that the focus was on the ministers rather than on the fallen.

Bennett’s speech last year as premier was disrupted by several bereaved relatives. However, this year’s protests have been much more pronounced and have been voiced even before Memorial Day.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the Mount Herzl Memorial Day ceremony for terror victims on May 4, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Asked by Radio 103FM if he was “traumatized” by last year’s disruptions, Bennett said: “No, I’m not traumatized and I’m not eligible to be traumatized. Those who are traumatized are the families who lost their sons and daughters.

“I sadly have a long experience with being with families at very difficult moments. What I’ve learned over the years is that in the end, my job in such a situation is to listen, shut up and absorb the families’ pain. I focus only on the families’ pain. Even shouts for four, or even seven, minutes are simply nothing compared to the loss suffered by the families,” Bennett said.

“However, last year it wasn’t only families. It was revealed after the fact to have been Likud political activists, some paid,” he added. “I want to believe that was a one-time thing and that there isn’t a new political custom of sending political activists to funerals or memorial day [events].”

Bereaved families heckle former prime minister Naftali Bennett as he gets up to speak at the Mount Herzl Memorial Day ceremony for terror victims on May 4, 2022. (Screen capture/Twitter)

Bennett said that he believed it’s important for government representatives to come and speak at memorial ceremonies, since they represent the state rather than the government, but lauded the ministers who withdrew in order to lower the tensions.

“I don’t think it’s right to prevent politicians from arriving at cemeteries, but on the other hand, a minister is allowed and welcome to apply their common sense and sensitivity,” he said.

“I want to hope that over time, we will go back to a situation where Memorial Day is focused only on memorializing, and not these marginal issues of politics.”

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