On May 7, 2019, in a yearly event that first took place in 2006, Israelis and Palestinians held a joint ceremony to commemorate loved ones who died in the conflict. What does this event say about Israel?
One fact that would undoubtedly be noted by critics of Israel is that the government tried to stop the event from happening by banning Palestinians from attending it. They would also note that some Jewish Israelis demonstrated against the event and shouted racist slogans.
These reactions to the event are disappointing, but not unexpected. Opponents of the event object to the fact that the ceremony mourned equally Israeli victims of terrorism and Palestinians who were either involved in terrorism or were the unintended victims of legitimate IDF operations against terrorists, seeming to imply an equivalence between the two sides. They also accuse one of the event organizers, Combatants for Peace, of allegedly supporting the so-called “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, even though the group takes no such position officially.
These are valid concerns, but I see the event as transcending these points. The event is about Israelis – Jews and Arabs – coming together with Palestinians and mourning the loss of life on both sides, and hoping for a better future when the conflict can be resolved without violence. There is no need to assume equivalence in order to mourn both sides. Even a terrorist who was killed is mourned by his or her family and is often at some level a victim, even if only a victim of brainwashing by a culture of hatred and a corrupt and deceitful Palestinian leadership. There is no doubt that the event’s participants do not all agree on the history of the conflict and on how to resolve it, but the fact that they are all committed to a non-violent resolution of the conflict is a huge step forward.
So the fact that some Israelis, perhaps even most Israelis, cannot get past the optics of the event and cannot support it, is certainly worth noting, but there is also a lot more about the event that is worth noting.
There is the fact that despite strong opposition to the event by many Israelis including the government, the event still took place, participants expressed themselves freely, there was media coverage, and the event participants were even protected by the Israeli police.
There is the fact that the High Court of Justice overruled the Defense Ministry and allowed Palestinians to attend the ceremony, showing that in Israel, the courts take seriously Israel’s role as a liberal democracy, even when the prime minister errs.
There is the fact the Israeli government complied with the High Court’s order to grant permits to 100 Palestinians, showing that in Israel, the independent legal system is respected by the executive branch, even if reluctantly.
There is the fact that Israeli police arrested protesters who caused disturbances and who threw objects at event participants, showing that Israeli police arrests those who break the law, not those who disagree with the government.
There is the fact that when a few dozen protesters yelled racist slogans against Arabs, they were unanimously denounced across the Israeli political spectrum, even by the far-right Otzma Yehudit party whose spokesperson said, “they should be saying ‘Death to terrorists’ and not ‘Death to Arabs’”.
There is the fact that despite the recent attack on Israeli civilians by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, using hundreds of rockets, and killing four Israelis, thousands of Israelis still came together with Palestinians to express their shared hope for a future of peace.
What the joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day event says about Israel is that seventy one years after achieving independence and fighting every day for its survival, Israel still is a strong and vibrant liberal democracy and a role model for the Middle East.
If I lived in Tel Aviv, I would probably have been at the joint ceremony. One of my friends who attended it said, “it’s likely naïve, but very well intentioned”. I am grateful for what the joint ceremony was trying to achieve, but most of all, I know that when the Palestinians are ready for peace, Israelis will be there waiting, just like they have been waiting for 71 years.