Religious phrases okayed on army headstones, including appeal for divine vengeance

Policy change announced by defense minister follows outrage over denial of request by slain Haredi soldier’s family to add ‘God will avenge his blood’ to his epitaph

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

The grave of Yisrael Yudkin who was killed in battle in the Gaza Strip, pictured in Jerusalem on June 23, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)
The grave of Yisrael Yudkin who was killed in battle in the Gaza Strip, pictured in Jerusalem on June 23, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)

Military headstones of soldiers who fell in battle may contain the phrase “God will avenge his/her death” or an acronym of it, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant declared Tuesday after an outcry over his ministry’s initial refusal to permit the epitaph.

The announcement of the policy change followed indignation from the Haredi family of Cpt. Yisrael Yudkin, who fell in Gaza on May 22, along with prominent politicians and others over the refusal.

Gallant referred the matter to a ministerial committee on commemoration-related matters, which recommended adding to the list of permitted terms and honorifics on military headstones the phrase Hashem Yikom Damo/Dama, a standard formulation in religious circles for Jews who were killed or otherwise lost their lives at the hands of others in connection with their faith. The acronym with the Hebrew letters Hey Yud Daled is also used, which in English is sometimes denoted as HY”D, H.Y.D or HYD.

The family was told the reason for the denial of their request to add the phrase was procedural and not about the content itself, according Dubi Yudkin, one of Yisrael Yukin’s siblings.

“They said it wasn’t on the list and that only what’s on the list can go on the headstone,” he told Channel 14 last month.

Another addition to the list is Zichrono/Zichrona l’Vracha, meaning “of blessed memory,” a Defense Ministry spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday. The ministry will write new regulations and bring them to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for approval, the statement added.

Cpt. Israel Yudkin (Courtesy)

At least one other family, that of Staff Sgt. Eli Lahem HaCohen, who fell in 2003, intends to ask the ministry to add the words to his epitaph following the policy change, Yinon Magal, a journalist on Channel 14, wrote on X. Their request to add the phrase immediately after his death was also denied, the late soldier’s mother, Naza Lahem, wrote in an email to Magal.

Yigal Malka, a prominent right-wing activist, slammed the Defense Ministry’s years-long refusal as “a long and senseless struggle,” saying that “what remains of the army’s logic, HY”D, was buried deep, deep underground in this affair.”

For many Israelis, the initial refusal to add the acronym to Yudkin’s headstone underscored the need for the defense establishment to accommodate the needs of ultra-Orthodox and other observant troops amid demands for greater participation on their part in the burden of military and national service.

“Right now at the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, we are deliberating on how to make the Israel Defense Forces a place where Haredim will more easily integrate in the correct and respectful manner,” Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, chair of the Knesset’s Constitution Law and Justice Committee, said in a plenum speech last week. “There is no greater way of shooting ourselves in the foot than that miserable decision to come to a bereaved family and deny it the ability to place that quintessentially Jewish phrase on an epitaph.”

In a dramatic ruling last week, the High Court of Justice said there is no legal basis for the decades of draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men, stating explicitly that the government must “act to enforce the Law for Military Service on yeshiva students,” compelling state agencies to take active steps to draft such men into IDF service.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews block a highway during a protest against conscripting Haredi yeshiva students to the IDF, in Bnei Brak on June 20, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

This development triggered protests by Haredim and is threatening to destabilize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, which hinges on the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties and had been advancing legislation to continue the mass exemptions for yeshiva students.

Both opponents and advocates of drafting more ultra-Orthodox men recognize that doing so may require some adaptations — including controversial ones — to army procedures and culture, extending to Shabbat observance, gender separation and kosher certification.

Many Haredi community leaders, especially those from isolationist and very devout congregations, oppose army service by men from their communities, citing what they regard as its corruptive effects on their level of observance. They also view the study of the Torah as a noble mission whose contribution to the safety and prosperity of Jews is equal to or greater than military service.

Over three hundred soldiers have died in the ongoing ground campaign against Hamas, which was launched after the October 7 onslaught in which Palestinian terrorists killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 251 hostages. Multiple fatalities came from Haredi homes and some were members of special IDF units created to integrate highly devout soldiers into the army.

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