Political Chaos Unsettles Israel as It Looks to Honor the Fallen and Its Independence
Every Memorial Day, thousands of families who have lost brothers, sisters and siblings to Israel’s endless wars and terrorist attacks gather to remember the dead, a commemoration that was to have been followed this year by a jubilant celebration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the country.
But Israel is deeply divided as never before, and what should have been a time of national contemplation and celebration is being overshadowed by protests and political chaos, which have rived the country for the past few months.
The minister overseeing the televised state ceremony for the country’s 75th Independence Day celebration, which will be marked from sundown Tuesday until sundown Wednesday, has instructed the event’s director to cut from a live broadcast to a prerecorded dress rehearsal in the event of a disruption by protesters. Yair Lapid, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, has announced that he will not attend.
And bereaved families are pleading for politicians to forgo the usual speeches that they deliver on Memorial Day at military cemeteries across the country, fearing angry outbursts at a time when Israelis are supposed to unite in honoring the dead.
Some families in the southern city of Beersheba are particularly incensed by the fact that Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right minister of national security who was rejected for military service on the grounds that he was too extreme, is the government representative assigned to speak at their cemetery.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to speak at Mount Herzl, the location of Israel’s main military cemetery, after a siren sounds at 11 a.m. Mr. Netanyahu is himself from a bereaved family: His brother was killed during an Israeli commando raid to rescue hostages from Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976 and is buried on the mount.
“I’m not speaking for one side or another,” said Sigalit Bezaleli, who has worked as an administrator for decades at Mount Herzl. “Whoever wants to come and honor us is welcome. The cemeteries are open to all.” But, she added, “I want our politicians to make a gesture and not to speak.”
Few people are as bound up in the tumult around Memorial Day as Ms. Bezaleli. In addition to her job at Mount Herzl — where the main Memorial Day commemoration on Tuesday morning will be followed that evening by the state ceremony ushering in the start of the Independence Day festivities with a flag parade, musical performances and fireworks — she has also lost a daughter in uniform.
In 2012, her daughter Hila Bezaleli, 20, an officer in the medical corps, was killed when a lighting rig crashed onto the stage while she was rehearsing for the independence eve ceremony. She lies buried just yards from her mother’s office.
Ms. Bezaleli said that she would stand, as she does every Memorial Day, by her daughter’s grave. But she said she did not want to hear politicians repeating clichés about the need to be unified — or Mr. Netanyahu being booed. “I don’t want to hear it,” she said. “Every year I listen, but this year, we are torn. The rift is so present, like it never was before.”
That impatience with politicians has become widespread across Israel in recent months after an effort by the government to overhaul the judiciary carved deep fissures in society.
Critics say the plan will weaken the country’s Supreme Court, remove protections for minorities and undermine the democratic character of the state. Supporters of the government sworn in late last year — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israel’s history — say the judicial plan is a necessary one that will give more power to voters and their elected representatives and curb the authorities of an unelected judiciary.
Many bereaved families, who hold a special status in this war-torn land, are wondering whether their sacrifices were worthwhile in what they see as a crumbling democracy.
Across the country, bereaved relatives are engaging in anguished discussions on WhatsApp messaging groups about plans for personal protests, including heckling politicians who attend the ceremonies or singing the national anthem while they speak, placing pro-democracy signs on the graves of their loved ones or boycotting official ceremonies altogether.
The raw emotions were on display last Monday when a shouting match broke out among participants in a Holocaust remembrance event at a Tel Aviv synagogue after some of them heckled a Netanyahu loyalist and lawmaker, Boaz Bismuth, chanting, “Shame!” and preventing him from speaking.
Other bereaved relatives, including those who support the government, are calling for the protesters to put their grievances aside on Memorial Day, arguing that politicians are not the enemy and that excluding them would only deepen the divide.
“A lot of bereaved families find comfort in having public figures come to be with them,” said Avichay Buaron, a hard-right lawmaker from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and a supporter of the government’s judicial plans.
Mr. Buaron, whose wife lost a brother in a terrorist attack, was speaking by phone on his way back from the funeral of Lucy Dee, a British-Israeli woman who was fatally shot in her car this month by suspected Palestinian assailants in the occupied West Bank. Two of her daughters, Maia, 20, and Rina, 15, were also killed in the attack, which shook the country.
Now, Mr. Buaron said, he feared that some opponents of the government were exploiting their bereavement and that of others ahead of Memorial Day. “Take politics out of it,” he said. “Bereavement is the holy of holies.”
Mr. Netanyahu appealed on Thursday in a video statement for Israel’s bereaved families to stand united on Memorial Day, then he signed an extraordinary joint document with opposition leaders calling for the public to leave all disputes outside the cemeteries. Representatives of bereaved families who met the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, and asked him at least to keep politicians — like Mr. Ben-Gvir — who have not performed military service away from the cemeteries said he rejected their requests. Mr. Gallant’s ministry declined to comment.
Most of Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up a fifth of the population, generally do not celebrate independence day. They refer to Israel’s establishment as the Nakba, or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment as a state. That anniversary is generally marked on May 15, the day after Israel’s declaration of independence according to the Gregorian calendar.
(Israel calculates the dates for its foundation and Memorial Day based on the Hebrew calendar, which can involve a difference of weeks with the Gregorian calendar.)
This year’s independence celebration will also be notable for a lack of foreign dignitaries. For Israel’s 60th anniversary, in 2008, the president at the time, Shimon Peres, organized a conference and invited heads of state, including President George W. Bush. There were similar plans for the 70th anniversary, but those were scrapped in a previous phase of political bickering.
Despite the internal strife over the judicial plan, which many here view as the most fundamental schism in the country since 1948, there are Israelis on both sides who say that there is also much to celebrate on Independence Day.
Some opponents of the judicial overhaul are proud that their protests have brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis out onto the streets for 16 consecutive weeks, resulting in the government delaying its legislation to allow time for negotiations with opposition parties. Protest organizers are planning a mass gathering and street party in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night.
“This year should be the ultimate demonstration of our independence and democracy,” said Nurit Guy, who lost her son, Shachar Guy, and an American volunteer soldier, Zvi Wolf, whom she had informally adopted, within a day of each other during the 1982 war in Lebanon. “It shows we have strength,” she said.
Supporters of the government also say that there is room for hope and that, ultimately, the fight was “within the family,” and not between foes. People on both sides repeated the phrase, “We have no other country,” echoing the lyrics of a resonant Israeli song.
“We work together, serve in the army together, travel on the same buses and eat in the same restaurants,” said Hagai Goldstein, an Orthodox software engineer from Gedera, in central Israel, who was visiting a museum on Mount Herzl that is dedicated to the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, on a recent weekday with his wife and three young children.
Despite having been branded by some of their detractors as anarchists and leftist traitors, the anti-government protesters have adopted patriotic props and symbols, re-appropriating the Israeli flag, long associated with right-wing activists, and singing the national anthem.
“There is something beautiful in the fact that everybody is draping themselves in the flag,” said Sherri Mandell, the mother of Koby Mandell, a boy who was killed at 13, along with a friend, in a Palestinian terrorist attack in 2001.
“They all want to protect the country. They just have different ideas of how to do it,” she said, adding: “Nobody’s burning the flag or stepping on the flag. There’s a respect for the country that they’ve built.”