Israeli Memorial Day is one of the only days in the calendar where Israelis get together and stop arguing, just long enough to hold ceremonies commemorating the fallen, who have sacrificed everything for their country. The idea that it should be observed before the celebration of Independence Day is a beautiful concept (that being that before we celebrate independence, we remember those who gave it to us), and last week’s observance of Yom HaShoah helps put Yom HaZikaron into perspective. Many lone soldiers or former lone soldiers like myself remember, for example, Michael Levin, Sean Carmeli, or Max Steinberg on Yom HaZikaron. Israelis all have relatives or loved ones who fell in the line of duty, which is why Israel’s Memorial Day is not characterized by cookouts or the sale of mattresses, as it is so famously celebrated in the United States.
I say all that because I am about to have all the guns pointed at me. I’m going to say something that I think is so important, but I know will annoy all the right people, so I’m going to do it anyway.
The push to include victims of terror in our Yom HaZikaron services is well-meaning, but ultimately destructive.
Now, I’m not the first to say this. I’ve seen others make a stink about this before. But if nothing else, I want to reach a new audience. Hopefully, this will change some minds.
For as long as I can remember, Yom HaZikaron was only about soldiers. The official title was Yom HaZikaron L’Chalalei Tzahal. Now, the mourning of terror victims has crept its way into the liturgy. Thanks to a rule change that apparently happened in 1997, it is also the day we memorialize those who were killed in terror attacks. This year, the widow of Ari Fuld will be lighting one of the torches at Mt. Herzl, the military cemetery of the IDF. Don’t take this the wrong way; Ari Fuld’s murder was an outrage, and his bravery during his final moments would certainly warrant an honorable mention among Israel’s fallen soldiers, nor is any of this to speak ill of Ari Fuld’s family, especially not Mrs. Fuld. I suspect that this change was made because someone thought it was a good idea, and nobody wanted to die on the hill of saying “no” to remembering victims of terror. Of course, being “that guy” is my raison d’etre, so I will gladly address the problems with this change.
The first is that fallen soldiers and terror victims are two fundamentally different groups of people. A victim of terror was an unsuspecting civilian. They are victims of wanton murder and pure evil. Soldiers who die on the field of battle are not the same. Soldiers are heroes who go to dangerous situations in the hopes of keeping Israel safe and secure. Those heroes who die on the field of battle are not victims, at least not in the same way. Certainly, the victims of the Holocaust were not soldiers. They did not have a State of Israel. They were, for the most part, rounded up and killed by German soldiers. Or starved to death. A Jew who is murdered by a terrorist on a highway in Judea and Samaria is in many ways much more similar to a Holocaust victim, both in the context of their death and the greater history of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the three boys who were kidnapped in 2014 share a lot more in common with other Jewish victims of antisemitism than they do with the soldiers who fought in the war that resulted. When a soldier dies, it is with a gun in his hand and a mission on his mind. A soldier dies the death a Jew could have only dreamed of for over 2,000 years. In this way, a soldier who dies on the field of battle is the alternative vision for the Jewish people that stands in direct contrast to Yom HaShoah, and that is not by accident. Commemorating our fallen victims of terror in this way muddies that message and takes away from the symbolism.
A second problem is that the sacrifices we ask a soldier to make are, by definition, different than the sacrifices we ask a civilian to make. The state is designed to protect its citizens. A good government would never ask a random citizen to make the ultimate sacrifice. That is why a government would create an army and conscript soldiers. Sometimes, soldiers must make those sacrifices, and while we long for a day when that never has to happen, the army, in its very existence, explicitly demands that soldiers be ready to sacrifice their lives for their country. It’s right in the oath we all took as part of our swearing-in ceremonies. When Hamas fires rockets at Sderot, our civilians hide in bunkers and our soldiers go to their stations. This is the direct result of the vow our soldiers take upon themselves in their service. It is on Yom HaZikaron where we remember those who ultimately fulfilled their vow. Because of this, commemorating our fallen civilians on Yom HaZikaron doesn’t make much sense.
Another reason is that in equating fallen soldiers and terror victims, we are making it harder to send our soldiers to battle. There is a need for an army to exist, and there is also a need for an army to have soldiers, who can be killed by bullets, explosions, or knife attacks. It is the army’s job to keep our citizens safe from terror attacks, and that will sometimes mean putting a soldier in harm’s way in order for that to happen. It is a very reasonable thing for an army to post its soldiers in places in order to bolster security. Aside from teaching soldiers how to fend for themselves and giving them better equipment, what else can a country do to make its soldiers safer? Request of our enemies not to be so adversarial? See how well that goes. Our soldiers must remember to be brave, and part of that includes not thinking of themselves as these Jews with trembling knees, as Menachem Begin once said. Our mental image on Yom HaZikaron should be of Roi Klein jumping on a grenade while reciting Shema, not of the civilians in a Sbarro’s being blown to pieces. The former elicits the feeling of sacrifice, while the second elicits the feeling of justified victimhood. Nothing wrong with the latter feeling, but that isn’t the theme of the day, and our politicians and citizens need to be reminded of that as well.
Additionally, there are over 4,000 victims of terror in the history of the Jewish State, whose memorial gets lost every year anyways because we tend to think of the soldiers first and foremost. Those terror victims deserve to be remembered. Why are we unceremoniously lumping them together with the fallen soldiers? It’s disrespectful.
And for those of you who still aren’t convinced, remember that one of the ways we in Israel have distinguished ourselves from our enemies is our commitment to separating soldiers and civilians. It’s a tired cliché at this point, but our rockets protect our schools, and their schools protect their rockets. Our commitment to this distinction and this conservation of human life extends to sending the enemy civilians our battle plans so they know to evacuate themselves. Why would we want that not to characterize our Memorial Day services as well? Why not keep that distinction?
I would love for victims of terror to get their own day. Maybe we can add them to our Tisha B’Av services, or we could make Ari Fuld’s yahrzeit a national day of commemoration as well. But we need to make Yom HaZikaron exclusively about fallen soldiers again.