Non-Jewish soldiers may be buried with Jewish comrades

MK Elazar Stern, a former IDF major-general and observant Jew, seeks an end to separate burial plots in military cemeteries

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Illustrative photo of soldiers standing near the graves of fallen comrades at the Mount Herzl military cemetery, Jerusalem, ahead of Memorial Day, 2012. (photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of soldiers standing near the graves of fallen comrades at the Mount Herzl military cemetery, Jerusalem, ahead of Memorial Day, 2012. (photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is set to vote Sunday on a bill that would enable the burial of non-Jewish soldiers alongside their Jewish comrades.

The bill comes in response to the uproar that ensued after IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz mistakenly passed over the grave of Yevgeny Tolotzki, a young soldier who died in basic training on February 17, during an April Memorial Day ceremony. Gantz failed to notice Tolotzki’s grave, which was placed in a plot set apart from the main section of the cemetery, in an area reserved for non-Jews.

The IDF apologized for the misstep and promised to expand the ceremony, in which the chief of staff honors the last soldier to die in uniform, to include all sections of the cemetery.

At the time, MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) criticized Gantz’s skipping of Tolotzki’s grave and called on the chief of staff to immediately “find an appropriate way to repair the damage.”

The latest bill, number 1154/19 (Hebrew), proposes a simple, sweeping response: to enable the burial of non-Jewish soldiers alongside those of Jewish soldiers. Stern is the bill’s chief sponsor.

The bill consists of a one-sentence amendment to the 1950 Military Cemeteries Law, stating that “Any soldier who dies, including a soldier eligible for rights under Article 4(a) of the Law of Return, and whose relatives choose to bury him in a military cemetery, shall be buried in the plot and row, and directly alongside, the soldiers already buried in that plot.”

The key phrase is the one that includes soldiers eligible for immigration rights under Article 4(a) of the Law of Return; that is, non-Jewish family members of Jews. In effect, the bill enables the burial of soldiers belonging to the 300,000-strong population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union — who came to Israel as family members of immigrating Jews even though they are not halachically Jewish — alongside Jewish soldiers.

Elazar Stern (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Hatnua MK Elazar Stern (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Jewish law requires that Jews be buried separately from non-Jews, a fact that has led to resistance against the bill on the part of some religious MKs.

MK Eli Ben Dahan, deputy minister for religious services, came out against the bill Thursday.

“Bereaved mothers have asked me to oppose this bill, explaining that if the bill passes, they will be forced to remove their sons and daughters from their graves,” Ben Dahan wrote in a Facebook statement (link in Hebrew).

“The burial of soldiers is currently being handled properly by the Military Rabbinate, which buries both Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers with respect,” Ben Dahan said. “The [non-Jewish] soldiers’ contribution to the state, and their sacrifice, are indisputable, but the current situation is the correct one in terms of Jewish law, and it should remain as it is,” he urged.

Other lawmakers spoke out in support of the bill.

“This bill will correct a warped situation,” said MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima), a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff. “IDF soldiers are equal in their lives, and sadly also in their deaths. Those who fight shoulder to shoulder must also go to their eternal rest in the same way, shoulder to shoulder,” Mofaz said in a statement Thursday.

Stern, a retired IDF major-general and an observant Orthodox Jew, insists the bill has the support of many modern Orthodox rabbis, and argues that Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers can be buried alongside one another according to Jewish law.

The legislation already has an unusually large number of sponsors — 26 MKs from both coalition and opposition — and sources familiar with the bill claim it will easily pass the ministerial committee, garnering the governmental support critical for a bill to survive a series of committee debates and three readings in the plenum.

Other religious groups, including Muslims and Druze, have their own burial grounds.

Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.

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