The Jewish state’s defenders, commemorated on Memorial Day Wednesday, include many non-Jews. So in towns and villages throughout the country, it wasn’t only Jews who made the agonizing pilgrimage to the country’s military cemeteries to pay their respects to their loved ones.
Some 600 fallen soldiers and terror victims have hailed from the Arab, Druze, Bedouin and Circassian communities.
The Druze, a breakaway sect from Islam, are the only minority that has taken upon itself Israel’s mandatory draft and serves in large numbers alongside Jewish soldiers in some of the IDF’s most elite units. Hundreds of Bedouin Arabs from the Negev also serve, many saying that they see in military service an opportunity to advance personally and to strengthen their community’s reputation among Israelis.
Two Muslim Arab brothers, Milad and Muhammad Atrash, made news in 2013 when they both opted to serve in the IDF despite not being required to do so under Israeli law and despite the disapproval of their neighbors.
“I want to enlist in the army so I can defend my village, my country,” Muhammad Atrash told the Mako news website.
Soldiers from many of these minority communities are highly regarded for their dedication and valor, and several have reached the upper echelons of the IDF. Yusef Mishleb became the first Druze to rise to the rank of major general in 2001, serving in a variety of positions including head of the Homefront Command until his retirement in 2008. Col. Ghassan Alian is currently the highest-ranking officer of the Druze community. Alian commands the storied Golani infantry brigade.
Druze have served as pilots, as warriors in the ultra-elite Sayeret Matkal, and in other top IDF combat units.
Tamir Nevuani was the first Druze to enter Sayeret Matkal, one of the world’s premier military units, in 2007. A year later, Nevuani died in a training exercise in southern Israel.
While minority soldiers serve in units throughout the army, some opt to serve in battalions with members of their own communities. The Herev Battalion is primarily made up of Druze soldiers, though other Arab and Muslim soldiers may also serve in the unit. Of the Bedouins who serve in the IDF, the majority are trackers, members of the Southern Command’s Desert Reconnaissance Battalion.
Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, head of the IDF Southern Command, praised the reconnaissance unit in 2013.
“Bedouin soldiers throughout the land of Israel are doing holy work,” Turgeman said at a award ceremony for distinguished service. “Your professional abilities and commitment… have prevented and foiled more than a few terror attacks.”
Bedouins and Druze also serve in other security forces, in the Israel Police, the Israeli Prisons Service and the Border Police.
President Reuven Rivlin, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, along with 15,000 others, took part in an event in September 2014 commemorating fallen soldiers from the Druze community. Gantz emphasized the importance of remembering the “partnership, friendship, respect and unity among Israeli society.”
In November, Druze police officer Zidan Saif was shot and killed when he attempted to stop two terrorists who had broken in to a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood and had begun murdering the congregants. Saif posthumously received the Medal of Distinguished Service, the third highest honor in the Israel Police, in December for his bravery.
A Jewish couple in New York even named their child in Saif’s memory.
A Bedouin soldier of the Desert Reconnaissance Battalion was critically wounded just a month later, on December 24, when Palestinians opened fire on an IDF patrol on the Gaza border.
In addition to minority security personnel who died or were injured this year, the government also recognized East Jerusalem teenager Muhammed Abu Khdeir as a terror victim.
Abu Khdeir was brutally murdered by Jewish Israelis in a revenge attack for the kidnapping and murder by Hamas-affiliated Palestinians of three Jewish teenagers last summer. In early July 2014, three men abducted the 16-year-old Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem and took him to the Jerusalem Forest, where they beat him with tire irons and — while he was unconscious — burned him to death.
Yom Hazikaron — the Hebrew term for Memorial Day — is observed throughout the country using the symbols, prayers and ceremonies of Jewish holidays, but perhaps more than any other day on the Jewish calendar, it is a day shared by the families of the fallen from all the diverse communities of the State of Israel.