Re-Membering: Moral Complexity as the Antidote to Moral Confusion

While I was in Israel for a month to celebrate Pesach with my daughter, Nomi, who’s studying in Jerusalem, I had the added gift of being there for what some call the modern Jewish calendar’s three High Holy Days — Yom Hashoah v’HaGevurah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut. On each of these days everyone goes to a tekes, or ceremony, whether it’s an official one at the Kotel or Rabin Square, or a smaller, community-based one. Israel does commemorative rituals well; they’re evocative, dignified, and brief. Some also are controversial. But it’s not their content that’s so troubling, it’s the behavior of those who feel it is.

This Yom HaZikaron, Israel mourned the 23,544 soldiers lost in battles to establish and defend the State, and it mourned victims of terrorism. Few people can help being touched personally by Yom HaZikaron. Most have lost a relative, friend, or member of their unit. Empty streets and shuttered cafes mirror the inward-turning that grips the country on this solemn day, as families gather and people visit those mourning loved ones.

On the eve of Yom HaZikaron, we watched the broadcast of the official ceremony at the Kotel from our apartment in Tel Aviv. Then we hailed a taxi and drove through the darkened boulevards to a tekes at the Tel Aviv basketball stadium cosponsored by Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle Families Forum. Combatants for Peace unites former Israeli soldiers and former Palestinian militants who have put down their weapons, disavowed violence, and committed to building collaborative steps toward reconciliation. The Parents Circle Families Forum represents more than 600 Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost close members in the prolonged conflict. This would be the organizations’ 12th joint Yom HaZikaron ceremony, where they mourn their loved ones and rededicate their memories to the pursuit of peace.

Unsure of what to expect, we imagined that this gathering, and the others like it throughout the country, would draw a small crowd. But when our taxi came to a halt half a mile from the stadium in the traffic trying to get to the parking lot, we realized that we were part of something much larger.

We soon realized we also were part of something deeply contentious.

Escorting more than 4,000 of us into the arena were volunteers shielding us from the aggressive taunts of protesters registering their disgust with the very idea of such a ceremony. Whores. Nazis. Amalek. We were spared no profanity by those convinced that our coming together with the “enemy” to honor each other’s losses and seek an end to the suffering would undermine, if not completely defile, the memories of Israelis who made the ultimate sacrifice for our continued safety and wellbeing.

Israeli organizers welcoming the standing-room-only crowd were followed by Arab leaders who livestreamed their greetings from Ramallah and Beit Jalla. More than 200 Palestinians in the West Bank who wanted to join the tekes were denied permits to enter Israel by the IDF as a consequence of the terrorist attack a week earlier in Tel Aviv. That had been committed by a man who had been granted a similar one-day permit. The military didn’t feel it could distribute those permits and ensure the public’s safety while the investigation into that attack was ongoing. So, in addition to groups watching from every corner of the globe, including North and South America, Europe and South Africa, Palestinians in the West Bank joined us virtually.

We heard haunting music by well-known artists in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, including a moving performance by a mothers’ chorus. We heard poignant poetry and personal stories. There was no suggestion of any moral equivalency between the murder of innocent civilians and the deaths of those caught in the crossfires as the army defended itself from attacks. There was no diminishing of the passion for a free, safe, thriving State of Israel, even as there was recognition of the Palestinians’ desire to live freely and with dignity, too.

An Israeli daughter spared no details or emotions when she told the story of her father being axed to death by Palestinian terrorists in 2013. A Palestinian father described the death of his son, who was walking home from school in the West Bank when he was caught up in a skirmish between the IDF and Palestinian protesters. Roni Hirshinzon, an Israeli founder of the bereaved families group, told how he lost one son, Amir, a soldier, in a terrorist attack, and another, Elad, to suicide, after his best friend — another soldier — was killed.

What united these families wasn’t the effort to prove the primacy or legitimacy of their suffering. Rather, they shared the strength to refuse to allow their pain to harden their hearts and cement hatred and enmity. They shared the courageous conviction that their pain be used to create a new reality — one of hope and possibility.

In a genius twist, the tekes concluded with a rendition of Chad Gadya — the rhythmic final song from the Pesach seder, which ends with the slaughtering of the Angel of Death.

As people exited the arena, protesters erupted even more intensely. They wished cancer upon bereaved parents. They prayed we all would be blown up by a suicide bomber. Police restrained some of them from getting physical.

Walking home through the still, silent city, proud to have stood with these brave families, we wondered: Does acknowledging the losses sustained by our — in this case — former enemies compromise the legacy of our own? Do these alternative gatherings on Yom HaZikaron tarnish the memories of fallen IDF soldiers and victims of terrorism?

The next week, Yoaz Hendel, an Israeli military historian and journalist, published a provocative op ed in criticizing these ceremonies as morally confused. “…[A] healthy society has no need to acknowledge its enemy’s disaster, their suffering. Without that loss, we would not exist…The alternative Memorial Day ceremony is therefore, in my opinion, a case of moral confusion. We cannot sustain a society, educate children in school, and order 18 year olds to enlist into the army out of a statement that everyone is right: The winner and the loser, we and the Palestinians, the IDF and its enemy… A healthy society mourns its dead and its soldiers and not the other side, regardless of the lightness or severity of the actions committed by the dead on the other side. Justice and truth are always subjective, but a state cannot be sustained without them, especially here. The thought that truth is by your side and that your way is the right way is simplistic but necessary. And yes, this justice is based on the belief that we are better, we are more ethical, more enlightened and more advanced. A light unto the nations.”

Hendel, too, expressed irritation at the vitriol of the protesters, saying, “…anyone whose entire identity focuses on hating Arabs and leftists, is a threat to our future. Only a person who has not fought or carried a stretcher alongside a person with different views is capable of calling leftists “traitors” or religious people “Hezbollah.””

But he concluded by asserting, “A leader’s job… is to develop a healthy society that believes in its rightness, mourns its dead and celebrates its victories. A leader’s job is to set red lines, to protect the little that we have. Whoever is afraid should not be a leader.”

Separating the remembrance of fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism from building bridges with Palestinians obviously keeps the emotional and psychic burdens of the conflict cleaner and easier to bear. But I disagree that these ceremonies are a reflection of betrayal or moral confusion.

Judaism mandates that we mark the suffering of our enemies even as we lament our own or celebrate our triumphs. We remove wine from our seder cups to diminish our joy as we recount the plagues that secured our freedom but devastated the Egyptians. The shofar sounds echo the wailing of Sisera’s mother; Sisera was a Canaanite general killed by Yael after losing a battle against the Israelites. Zaka volunteers collect body parts of both victims and terrorists after suicide bombings to ensure respect for all human life, no matter whose.

We’ve never feared complexity. We’re known as Yisrael, wrestlers with God — with faith, with morality, and with justice. Our willingness to step into places that lack clarity and embrace struggle is core to our history and our destiny.

Moral introspection doesn’t make us weaker. It makes us stronger. It also doesn’t make us less of a light unto the nations. It makes us more of one. Imagine how different the world would be if nations and leaders were more, not less, mindful of their actions and those actions’ consequences.

Insisting that our narrative is irrefutable flies in the face of our 2,000+ year talmudic tradition of discussion, argumentation, and debate, including the preservation of minority opinions. Our belief that truth is contextual and evolving belies the legitimacy of insisting on the incontestable correctness of our positions.

A leader isn’t someone who charts a course and sticks to it no matter what, deaf and blind to the realities around them. A leader is responsive to circumstances, and leads accordingly. “The righteous bloom like a date-palm; they thrive like a cedar in Lebanon” (Tehillim), meaning they know when to bend and when to stand firm. “A leader is one who turns his enemy into his friend” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan), and “A hero is one who conquers his instincts” (Pirkei Avot) — in this case, instincts to hate, to deny, or to justify at all costs.

In Judaism, remembrance isn’t just about recollecting facts or events; it always has a redemptive purpose. Our re-membering together with our former enemies at the tekes in Tel Aviv was a form of tikkun, of healing of self and of the world. To remember means to reconnect ourselves to the members of the human family of which we, and all others, are a part.

These ceremonies are planned with bereaved families. Who are we to dictate or judge how they mourn their dead, much less hurl insults and threats at them? Maybe sitting with bereaved Palestinians doesn’t sully the memories of fallen Israelis but ennobles them, preventing their deaths from being meaningless as the conflict rages on. By changing that reality to one of empathy and hope, it can provide significance to those deaths, helping as they did to enable this fellowship to emerge.

For others, it’s too complicated, too painful. And that’s ok. Mourn, and let mourn.

Condemning those who wish to engage with Palestinians on Yom HaZikaron to help end cycles of hatred and violence risks the unity and future of our nation in more serious ways than any risks undertaken by sitting together with grieving families from the other side of the security fence who similarly, and desperately, want peace.

The moral confusion wasn’t inside the arena that night. But it was on full display amongst the protesters outside.


About the Author
Rabbi Adina Lewittes is the founder of Sha’ar Communities, a network of different gateways into Jewish life that promotes an innovative approach to Jewish engagement and identity building in northern New Jersey and beyond. She speaks and writes frequently on topics relating to the changing landscape of Jewish identity and on Jewish leadership.