Israel’s Memorial Day: A day of mourning and militarism

Today is not only a day of sadness for fallen Israeli soldiers, it’s also one of public declarations that all those bloody conflicts were righteous and necessary – just like the current ones and those that lie ahead. 

Maybe in another country, a country that goes to war once in a generation or longer, Memorial Day can be a day strictly of sadness for the soldiers who were killed, and can even be a day to look back and ask: Was that war, or the one before it, really necessary? Did some of these soldiers we’re mourning, did this family’s son, really have to die like that, before his time?

But in Israel, where Memorial Day began last evening and ends this evening, the opposite happens: It is the one day of the year where it’s absolutely forbidden to question the justice of any war or clash in which any Israeli soldier ever died. On Israel’s Memorial Day, every war, every operation, every hostile encounter in this country’s history is implicitly declared to have been unavoidable, an unquestionable act of national self-defense. On Memorial Day, even Israel’s most controversial wars, those that are by now often described publicly as wars of choice, of missed opportunities, of aggression – the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982-85 Lebanon War, the late-1980s first Intifada, and the hundreds of attacks and counter-attacks of this occupation and that war of attrition – are implicitly declared to have been morally pure, and all the soldiers who were killed in them died for the most glorious possible cause. On Memorial Day, each and every one of this country’s thousands of bloody fights was a fight for its existence, freedom and security, as the nation’s leaders, followed by the media, solemnly intone.

But what else are they going to say? That some of these fallen soldiers, or a lot of these fallen soldiers, died in vain? That the government, backed by the public, sent them into wars that shouldn’t have been fought, or exposed them to guerrilla attack by acts of aggression? Obviously, no government or army leader wants to say that – on Memorial Day or any other day – and the great majority of the public doesn’t want to hear that, and I imagine that very few families of fallen soldiers want to hear it, either. (Although some do.)

So Memorial Day is a day when every military move the Israeli government and Israeli army ever made was as righteous and necessary as World War II. And what is the inevitable conclusion from this? That whatever war or occupation Israeli soldiers are involved in now is righteous and necessary, and the next one will be, too. From President Shimon Peres’ Memorial Day address:

The fighting spirit of the IDF’s soldiers and commanders, their bravery and faith in their mission, together with their devotion to moral values, guarantee that the IDF will always prevail. We know this. Our enemies have tested it. They should not err again.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

[The Jewish people] have always had to fight for our liberty and our existence. The haters of Israel deported us, persecuted us and wished to erase the memory of Israel. Today, too, there are those who threaten to destroy us. They have not succeeded; they will never succeed. We do not wish to fight, but if forced, we will wield our sword and step out into the battlefield.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz:

The land is rife with turmoil, and a storm is brewing beneath the surface, full of dangers and developing threats. … Tonight, while we soberly gaze at our enemies, and the steel of the IDF and its soldiers, forged in the flames of unity, I say to you: Our people’s defensive wall is always ready. Our sword is sharper than ever. Our deadly flame can reach any distance. Those who need to, know that there is no place, and no target too far away for the long arms of the IDF to reach. I know that when we will once again be needed, we will be prepared, as always, and readier than ever. We will continue our struggle to guarantee the safety of the people of Israel.

So Memorial Day in Israel is not just about sadness over the soldiers who were killed, it’s also a day of militarism, a somber day when Israel’s past, present and future battles are sanctified with heroes’ blood.

Every country should have a Memorial Day to remember its soldiers who died, and to comfort their families. But in a country like this one, which is very simply addicted to fighting enemies, Memorial Day, while rightly remembering the fallen soldiers and comforting their families, also inevitably becomes a banner day for aggression and a black day for peace.

There is another way. Last night at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, thousands of Israelis and 44 Palestinians – 65 others who wanted to come were denied entry – gathered for an alternative Memorial Day ceremony organized by Combatants for Peace. From the address by former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg:

Memorial Day is the result of wars. Wars don’t happen by themselves. Anyone who wants to escape the cycle of war and reach a different place must respect the other side’s victims. The margins have begun moving toward the center. What this means is that Israelis and Palestinians together want to remember their dead and stop the killing. There are thousands more like these throughout the country, if not tens of thousands, who want to look into the heart of things rather than at their demagogic wrapping.