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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.

 

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    COMMENTS

    1. Rom

      It amazes me how you people will exploit every chance, every loophole every tiny squeek to demonize israel.
      As if a nation becomes militaristic by itself. Wakes up in the morning and decides to sharpen swords and idolize soldiers.
      It’s the neccesity of life that made israel the spartan society it is today. It is being serrounded by tens of millions of people who want to destroy you who makes you like that. It’s the never ending occurance of the horrible dillema that some unlucky people get in the face of inhumane deathseekers: do i choose myself over my comrade? Do i choose my own survival right now over the eternal survival of my people and my ideals?
      That’s the stuff heroes are made of . And that’s what makes them worth idolizing.
      I wish it wasn’t like that. I wish we could all be Sweden or Norway or Switzerland. But we don’t always get what we want, and in the face of reality, i, as an israeli, can only react to it the way i can – with the values an humanity i was raised upon and the wisdom and strength i was blessed with and most of all, with the uncomprimising goal of ensuring the safety of the israeli nation. Why? Because history taught us we have no other choice.

      Reply to Comment
      • David T.

        “It is being serrounded by tens of millions of people who want to destroy you who makes you like that.”

        It doesn’t make you like that. It was needed to by like that to destroy Palestine and become surrounded by millions because they are kept expelled and denationalized to maintain the domination of this society.

        Reply to Comment
        • Shmuel

          Hey DavidT,

          Here is a chance for you to gain some perspective. But I doubt that you are up for it seeing that your posts make it appear that you are perpetually frothing from your mouth:

          http://www.arabisraeliconflict.info/arab-israel-facts/fact-9-palestinian-refugees

          “The Arab States do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.”
          – Alexander Galloway, director of UNRWA in Jordan, 1952”

          Reply to Comment
          • David T.

            Shmuel, your accusations of hatred or “frothing from your mouth” tell us more about yourself than about me.

            I don’t even see than you can counter my argument: “It was needed to by like that to destroy Palestine and become surrounded by millions because they are kept expelled and denationalized to maintain the domination of this society.”

            And your Hasbara article is quite laughable.

            1.) It suggest that Palestinian refugees could have been treated under UNHCR without mentioning that it was established later than UNRWA.
            2.) It reads that the definition of refugees is different without mentioning that it also applied to Jews and ONLY to Palestinians who live in countries where UNWRA provides help.
            3.) It suggests that repatriation equates with distruction. I would like to ask what distruction was cause by the “repatration” of Jews from all over the world.
            4.) It suggest that the refugees are held as “hostages” as if they weren’t allowed to return by Arab countries and not by Israel and that it is in the interest of the former that they are kept expelled and denationalized.
            5.) It suggests that only the descendants of Palestinian refugees qualify as refugees without mentioning that under the UNHCR even ascendents can qualify as such under family reunification.

            The simple truth is that the Apartheid state of Israel has to keep them expelled and denationalized to preserve a regime dominated by Zionists. And you suggest that Jews have a right to do this under the right of self determination. Did Nazis had a right to expell and denationalize others under the right of self determination and to preserve the German volkish character of their state, too?

            Reply to Comment
      • roisin

        Every child born in Israel is a future soldier. Israel is a military state by design

        Reply to Comment
    2. David

      Rom: “history taught us we have no other choice”.

      As Larry points out, it is exactly this falsehood that so many people cannot free themselves of.

      Golda/Dayan had a great choice before 1973. In 1982 Sharon “chose” to dragg us (me as a 21 year old) into Lebanon and for the last 45 years Israel has chosen to be an occupier of another people.

      Yes, this is not Scandinavia. But the Scandinavians had their own wars and moved beyond them to better ways. Of course, that requires realizing that there are many more choices than “We have no choice”.

      Reply to Comment
      • But David, Scandanavia was protected by NATO and the US. Recall when Ronald Reagan said he would visit SS soldier graves as they “died for their country.” Well, they did. Cultures use death to control the present, to shape its flow. We are afraid of each other, often with reason. So the general, above: “the steel of the IDF and its soldiers, forged in the flames of unity..” Flames of necessary, required unity. This process will always be with us. The question is whether we can afford to risk a secondary alternative in some cases, alternative such as the ex Knesset Speaker’s: 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.” I would say we cannot afford not to risk such. But I understand the fear this path invokes.

        Reply to Comment