Last Monday morning, as Israelis woke to the radio news, a shudder ran through the country. You could almost feel the quake, as we heard that an IDF officer had been killed and another soldier had been wounded in a mission in Gaza overnight.
Here in Israel, we know the drill well: You hear that a soldier has been killed. You quickly do an inventory: Where are your soldier sons and daughters? Their friends? Your nephews? You wait for the name to be released, dreading that it will be someone you know.
Soon, the name is announced, with the soldier’s age and home town. Photos begin to be posted on social media – a beautiful boy with a broad smile – and virtual memorial candles are lit, accompanied by his name. Next, memories begin to appear, as family members, friends from high school, and neighbors begin to reminisce. In the evening, images, interviews, and footage of the funeral floods the television news. Finally, the next morning, the soldier’s photo appears in the dreaded square box on the front page of the newspaper, accompanied by a story about his accomplishments and the circumstances of his death.
With each memory shared, you feel a greater sense of loss. Someone’s child/ boyfriend/ husband/ father died in defense of your country, and took a part of you with him.
But this time, it was different. The officer who was killed when his mission went awry served in a special forces unit. He was identified only as Lt. Col. Mem (the Hebrew letter “M”). His place of residence was not released and no photos of him were shared. All that the censors allowed to be told initially was that he was 41 years old and left behind a wife and two children.
Some of us found out more. An Israeli politician shared a photo of Mem and his two children, blurring all their faces, and hinted at the segment of Israeli society from which he hailed. A featured blog post on the Times of Israel, quickly deleted, inadvertently revealed information about Mem’s community that was not supposed to have been disclosed. Here in Israel, we heard that his name and home town were circulating on WhatsApp and in the foreign press. But since the censors warned that state security or the security of Mem’s family would be compromised if his identity was disclosed, we refrained from looking for them.
With no photos and no details, we were deprived of our catharsis.
Prime Minister Netanyahu called Mem a “glorious fighter” and said that Israel owes him an enormous debt, adding “the day will come when we can tell of all his valor.” But according to then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman, that day will be “in many years to come.” Until then, Mem’s contribution to Israel’s security will remain confidential.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett eulogized Mem, saying that he will go down in the annals of history as one of Israel’s greatest heroes, alongside Yoni Netanyahu and Roi Klein. But we can all envision Yoni Netanyahu’s rugged good looks and know about his role in the rescue at Entebbe in detail; we can picture Roi Klein’s warm eyes and shining smile, and know that he valiantly jumped on a grenade while proclaiming “Shema Yisrael,” in order to save his soldiers in the battle of Bint Jbeil.
About Mem, we were told next to nothing.
And that lack of knowledge was haunting. Parents of soldiers thought of their own Mems and Gimels and Dalets and Heys – the sons and daughters they may deposit at bus stops on Sunday mornings without knowing where they are headed. They thought of their children who at the tender age of 18 or 19 can share the events of their daily lives only with colleagues with equal security clearance. They thought of their children who devote long hours to the security of their country, and will say “Um, how can I say this?” or “I wish I could tell you,” when recounting their week at the Shabbat table. They thought about their children who are in secret elite units, who won’t speak about their service if there’s a mobile phone in proximity, or who might be behind enemy lines without their families knowing — whether before, during, or after the experience. What if something would — God forbid — happen to their children and they would never know what their children had done?
Even those of us whose children are not in secret units thought of what our children refrain from telling us, in their attempts to shield us from pain and worry: the hardships of training, the horrors of combat. How much of their experiences do we not know?
And as we thought of the cones of silence in our own lives, we thought about what this extreme void of information will mean for Mem’s family. How hard will it be for his wife to know that her husband was a hero who valiantly put the safety of his forces above his own life, when she knows little more about his service, his contribution to the state, or the circumstances of his death? What will it mean for his two young children, who will grow up knowing that their father was a hero, but little more? What kind of hole will that leave in their lives?
On Monday afternoon, just before the barrage of Hamas rockets and missiles began raining down on Israel, and phones, computers, and televisions throughout the country started flashing red alerts as the residents of the south ran for their security rooms and Iron Dome interceptors began whizzing through the sky, Lt. Col. Mem was laid to rest. The video footage from his funeral eerily shows headless soldiers, pallbearers filmed from the waist down, the backs of heads and shoulders of mourners gathered around the graveside, and excerpts of a eulogy in which Mem’s name has been studiously edited out each time it was said.
We salute you, Lt. Col. Mem, for your contribution to our security. We will remember the little we know about you, and are pained a bit more by your loss because of all that we may never know.
May your memory be a blessing.