This year, amid the disruptions of the coronavirus, Yom HaZikaron was different. Traditions and events that have become an indelible part of national mourning – solemn ceremonies at cemeteries and at schools, public song gatherings – were cancelled, leaving many Israelis struggling to mark the day in a sufficiently meaningful way.
But Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, went through a more fundamental change two decades ago. Families of those killed in terror attacks successfully campaigned to have their loved ones added to the rolls of those commemorated. The day is now officially known as “Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism.”
The name is somewhat clunky, but not nearly as awkward and misguided as Israel’s attempt to conflate the commemoration of IDF soldiers and civilian victims of terrorism on the same day. The motivation behind the change to Yom HaZikaron is understandable, but it is ultimately misconceived, and ends up dishonoring both fallen soldiers and civilian terror victims.
There is no denying the pain the families of terror victims feel. It is impossible to fully dispel their grief, but symbolic frameworks and national recognition – such as Yom HaZikaron ceremonies and the memorial on Har Herzl – are important elements of alleviating the anguish to the extent that we can. Families of victims see their loved ones as casualties of the same persistent struggle that took the lives of soldiers on the banks of the Suez Canal, in the alleyways of Jerusalem, and in the outposts in southern Lebanon. “Our children went out from home to a battlefield without a combat vest, a helmet, or a weapon,” write three fathers of terror victims. “They were murdered in battle without any ability to defend themselves, school knapsacks on their backs and bus tickets in their hands. Are their deaths less important and meaningful than those of IDF soldiers?”
Who can argue with these fathers, who suffered indescribable loss to terrorists who saw themselves as soldiers in a holy war against the very existence of Israel and all of her citizens?
The loss of their children is certainly no less important, meaningful, or painful than the death of soldiers. But it is different in fundamental ways.
When a soldier puts on a uniform, he is consciously changing his status from a non-combatant to someone that can be legally targeted by similarly uniformed enemy combatants. His death is rarely a crime in a conventional war. Soldiers knowingly put themselves at risk to protect others, almost all of whom he does not know and will never meet. They confront bodily harm and death both to protect specific and tangible sites – civilian towns and military positions – and in pursuit of lofty ideals like freedom, national independence, and comradery. Their sacrifice is unique, and throughout history diverse cultures have recognized the essential importance of solemnly marking that sacrifice.
“One cannot compare someone who was a combat soldier to someone who was walking down the street and a scoundrel terrorist detonates an explosive that causes him to die,” argues Asa Kasher, Israel’s leading military ethicist and a bereaved parent himself. “He did not volunteer to be put in danger, he did not volunteer to serve, he was not in the framework of devoting all his time and his energy and his thoughts to the defense of the country and its citizens. He was in a different framework and therefore he deserves different treatment.”
Devoting Yom HaZikaron to both fallen soldiers and murdered civilians is not only strained and inappropriate, it also fails to honor both categories. Soldiers are not victims and should never be treated as such. They are heroes who stepped forward to participate in a dangerous task for the benefit of others, a price they knew they might have to pay. Civilians killed by terrorists are innocent victims, whose deaths were a crime and a moral outrage. Conflating the two minimizes the sacrifice of the former while obscuring the innocence of the latter.
Moreover, Israel itself isn’t entirely consistent in who is commemorated in its national day of grief. Civilians killed during war should be remembered if terror victims are, and Israel legal definition of “hostile acts” would appear to cover them. But Israel’s National Insurance Institute database for “victims of hostile acts” does not include them. It is hard to come up with a reason why four-year-old Daniel Tragerman, who was killed during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge by a Hamas rocket, isn’t in the database while those killed by Hamas explosives work by suicide bombers are.
If Israel does the right thing and refocuses Yom HaZikaron on its soldiers and security forces, that does not mean terror victims should fall out of national memory. There is a more appropriate solution. Jews have found repositories of national mourning in their pre-existing fast days. The fast of the 17th of Tammuz commemorates the breaking of the tablets by Moses, the cessation of daily sacrifices during the Baylonian siege of Jerusalem, the burning of the Torah by Apostomos, the erection of an idol in the Temple, and the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by the Romans in 69 CE. The 17th of Tammuz, or another Jewish day of mourning, could be expanded to include victims of terror.
This solution would be both a profound statement that ties the modern slaughter of innocent Jews with historical suffering, and a way of remembering innocent victims while ensuring that Israel appropriately honors the sacrifice of its soldiers.