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The Evolution of Israel’s Memorial Day–and Where It Should Go from Here

Posted on May 9 2011 12:50 pm
Carl in Jerusalem runs the popular Web site
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When I first arrived in Israel in 1991, the day before Independence Day was known as Yom HaZikaron l’Chalalei Tzahal (Memorial Day for IDF Casualties). Monday is Yom HaZikaron l’Chalalei Maarchot Yisrael v’Nifgaey Peulot Ha’Eiva (Memorial Day for Casualties of Israel’s Battles and Victims of Hostile [Terror] Attacks) in Israel. How we got from one to the other – and why we have battles every couple of years over expanding the day even more – is a lesson in well-intentioned inclusiveness gone awry. Unfortunately, it’s too late to step back.

The original Memorial Day remembered only the military casualties of Israel’s wars. That was – and largely continues to be – a traditional Memorial Day with graveside ceremonies, reading of thousands of names and tears and flowers.

The first breach in Memorial Day was in 1995. On January 22, 1995, two Palestinian terrorists detonated suicide bombs at the Beit Lid junction near Netanya on a Sunday morning when the area was full of soldiers and prison guards. 23 people were killed and 69 were wounded. Despite the fact that this was not technically an instance of combat deaths but a terror attack, the soldiers and prison guards were honored at that year’s Memorial Day. Civilians killed in the same attack were not so honored.

On February 4, 1997, two IDF helicopters crashed into each other over Israeli territory while ferrying soldiers to and from Lebanon; 73 young IDF soldiers were killed. Understandably, the families of the soldiers involved wanted their sons included in the IDF Memorial Day even though they were not technically combat deaths. And so they were.

In 2000, with the number of terror victims from Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority increasing, the government decided to add terror victims to the day’s events, and last year, for the first time, the terror victims were part of the official ceremonies.

Each of the expansions of Memorial Day was controversial, but in each case the goal was to make the Memorial Day more inclusive and meaningful to more people and to avoid the absurd situation where two people who died alongside one another are treated differently. By including terror victims, in particular, Memorial Day hit home for immigrants who did not serve in the IDF and whose children have not yet served in the IDF. But there are still many here who feel strongly that including non-combat or non-IDF casualties detracts from the soldiers’ memories. And like so many other things in this country, everyone feels passionately that they are correct.

This year, once again, there is a controversy. In December, there was a forest fire outside of Haifa. A bus carrying prison guards became trapped in the fire and more than 30 people were killed. They included prison guards, police officers and firefighters. In a bizarre result, the prison guards and the police officers were remembered at Memorial Day ceremonies today, because they fall under the Defense Ministry. The firefighters were not.

While there is no official ceremony to commemorate this specific group that lost their lives, the Prisons Service cadets and the police officers will be remembered at official events on Monday, although the three firefighters who died will not.

The Yad Labanim (Memorial for the Sons) organization, which honors the nation’s fallen soldiers, is against honoring the three firefighters as soldiers who fell in battle at a Remembrance Day ceremony, the organization’s head wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Saturday.

Eli Ben-Shem wrote in the letter that honoring the firefighters as soldiers fallen in battle would be “wrong, not only from a legal and moral standpoint, but would also lead to requests from many other groups in service of the state, including disabled veterans who died because of their handicaps and terror victims.”

Ben-Shem said this would create a situation where those who died defending the country would not receive the unique respect they deserve.

“We are like everyone else,” said Ganon, who also works within the Prisons Service. “In my opinion it does not matter what uniform he was wearing – he lost his life for this country.”

Maor and his colleagues were called in to help in the evacuation of the Damon Prison on December 2. While on their way to carry out the mission, the cadets’ bus became trapped by the swiftly moving flames.

The bus driver and three police officers were also killed.

The reality of living in this country is that people lose their lives – God forbid – just because they live here regardless of whether they wear an IDF uniform or any uniform at all. While there are grounds for distinguishing the Carmel fire group – which in all likelihood did not die at the hands of our enemies (arson has never been proven) – from the other groups recognized on Memorial Day, the idea that one person who died on that bus is recognized and another is not because he wore a different uniform is simply absurd. Recognition should depend on the circumstances of death and whether one died for or because of the country, and not on the uniform one wore. Separate ceremonies are fine, but recognition should be accorded to all.

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