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Apartheid in death

Brothers in arms who fight together and fall together shouldn't be separated in burial, regardless of Jewish law

Custom has it that on Remembrance Day, the IDF Chief of Staff places a flag at Mt. Herzl’s military cemetery on the grave of the last soldier to have been buried there.

However, three years ago, Yevgeny Tolochko, who made Aliyah with his parents when he was just six years old, was not so honored. Lt. Gen. Benny Ganz could be forgiven for not having known that Tolochko had been buried in a side section of the cemetery as someone whose Jewish status was in doubt.

As a consequence, Lt. Col. (res.) Shlomo Nitzani, whose Jewishness was impeccable, received the honour. After the ugly truth was revealed by Israel Radio’s Carmela Menashe, there was a public outcry and Ganz went to visit Yevgeny’s family to express his regret for the upset that they had been caused. However, apologies are not sufficient.

Subsequently, there were calls for the IDF to end its apartheid burial discrimination policy. However, Orthodox rabbinic authorities contended that it was forbidden to bury non-Jews next to Jews, citing halachic sources, such as that in Sanhedrin 47a stating that “one should not bury a wicked person next to a righteous person.”

Needless to say, coalition politics are more important than principle, and attempts to pass legislation to ensure that brothers in arms would not be separated in death failed to achieve the necessary support.
However, in the land of “Yisrabloff” (Israel-bluff), there is always a solution. Israel’s Minister of Defense has just signed a new regulation that will enable fallen soldiers whose Jewish status is in doubt to be buried alongside their brothers in arms, provided that a 4-cubit (2-meter) gap is left between their graves.

There are already those in the ultra-Orthodox world who are protesting that this directive is “an affront to the sanctity of burial” and a “breach of the status quo on religious matters.”

Once again religion, which ought to serve as a means to unite people, is being used to divide them. The Mishna teaches us that only one person was made when the world was created, “so that no one would say to another person, ‘My father was greater than yours'” (Sanhedrin 4:5).

Next time a brave young man throws himself on a hand grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers, he may well want to ask himself whether four cubits will separate him from his comrades in arms, or whether he will be considered sufficiently worthy to be buried alongside them without discrimination and without reservation.

About the Author
Rabbi Boyden was educated and received his rabbinical ordination in London, England. Having served as the rabbi of Cheshire Reform Congregation for thirteen years, he made aliyah with his family in 1985. He has established Reform congregations in Ra'anana and Hod Hasharon and previously served as director of the Israel Reform Movement's Beit Din.
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