Leaders plead for Memorial Day unity to replace protests as nation remembers fallen


Israelis stood in silence to remember the nation’s fallen soldiers and terror victims Monday evening, as Israel’s leaders asked activists and others protesting the government to stand down, given speculation that a bruising political battle engulfing the country could distract from the solemn day’s commemorations.

Memorial Day commenced at 8 p.m. with a one-minute siren that blared across the country, kicking off ceremonies nationwide.

At the main state ceremony in the Old City of Jerusalem, President Isaac Herzog pleaded for unity.

“This year, more than ever before, this sound calls on us, in the heart of the stillness that cries out: all of us, together! Their sacrifice has not been in vain,” Herzog said, standing in front of the Western Wall.

Speaking after Herzog, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said politics should take a back seat on Memorial Day.

“Tomorrow, we will stand in the cemeteries by the side of the [bereaved] families. I hope that on this day, which is above all, we will be faithful to our heritage and devote ourselves exclusively to solitude with the memory of the fallen and with our pain over their passing. Above all, and beyond all controversy,” said Halevi after him.

The run-up to Memorial Day has been fraught with concerns that deep divisions exposed by the government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary could overshadow the day’s rites, when the nation stops to remember the 28,468 killed in service to the state or the pre-state Jewish community since 1860, which also includes 4,255 victims of terror.

People stand still on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway as a siren blares across Israel, marking Memorial Day to commemorate fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terror, April 24, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Many of the coalition’s members will be participating in Memorial Day ceremonies on Tuesday, though some bereaved relatives have declared that they would be staying away from their loved ones’ graves in protest. Some visited the graves of loved ones on Monday instead of Tuesday.

A number of ministers and lawmakers have canceled their planned appearances at memorial events. But others — most notably far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — have insisted on attending ceremonies where they will likely face some form of protest from some relatives of the fallen.

In his remarks, Halevi praised the long Jewish tradition of argumentativeness, but noted that disagreements do not have to lead to rifts.

“Controversy is, perhaps, the most beautiful gift the Jewish people gave to humanity. The people of Israel have been carrying Hillel and Shammai for about 2,000 years,” Halevi said, referring to two schools of Jewish thought.

“In the Gemara, it is said that although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel were divided, they did not refrain from marrying each other. To teach you, that affection and deep friendship are needed to fulfill the saying: ‘Truth and peace loved.’”

The biblical Hebrew expression is typically used as a concluding line when calling for compromise, positive communication, or mutual understanding, even if the dispute remains.

“Out of our responsibility to protect the memory of the fallen, tomorrow we will keep the affairs of the hour outside the cemeteries,” Halevi said, referring to the judicial overhaul. “We will allow families, commanders, and soldiers to… honor the memory of the fallen.”

Among the events taking place Monday evening was a joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony in Tel Aviv attended by thousands, including hundreds of bereaved families from both sides of the conflict. In attendance were over 150 Palestinians who had lost family members as a result of the conflict and were allowed to receive entry permits to travel from the West Bank, after the High Court of Justice ordered a reluctant Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to let them in.

The ceremony has been controversial since its inception, particularly among the Israeli public, with critics accusing it of legitimizing terrorism and equating Israel’s fallen soldiers to those who attacked them. Supporters say however that it represents an effort by those who have lost the most in the conflict to give meaning to the deaths of their loved ones by turning away from violence.

Just hours before Memorial Day commenced, a terror ramming near the Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market brought Israeli-Palestinian tensions at the root of the conflict back to the fore. Five people were injured, one seriously, and the driver, an East Jerusalem Palestinian, was shot and killed by a bystander.

Speaking at a ceremony ahead of Memorial Day not far from where the attack took place, Netanyahu said it “reminds us that the Land of Israel and the State of Israel were acquired through many tribulations.”

Israeli police examine the scene of a car ramming attack, in Jerusalem, April 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

He too called for unity amid unprecedented national divides sparked by his hardline government’s effort to radically overhaul the judiciary.

“We say to the people of Israel, we are ‘united under the stretcher’; our sons and our daughters continue to carry the stretcher, the burden of responsibility for the fate of our nation,” Netanyahu said.

The prime minister did not address the Western Wall ceremony later in the day, as longstanding tradition has barred lawmakers from speaking at the event in order to prevent its politicization.

But ahead of the holiday, he and other politicians issued several calls for protests to remain outside the cemetery gates. On Friday, Netanyahu and his defense chief Yoav Gallant joined opposition leader Yair Lapid and former defense minister Benny Gantz in a rare joint call for demonstrations to pause for Memorial Day.

President Isaac Herzog marks the beginning of Israel’s Memorial Day, at a ceremony at the Western Wall on April 24, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

At the ceremony, Herzog issued an emotional appeal for Israelis to focus on the collective aspect of their mourning.

“May we let that feeling of longing envelop us together,” he said. “May we let that sound of our collective pain ring loudly on this Memorial Day, free of discord, as we cry for our sons and daughters.”

“We must do everything, everything, to safeguard this shared home. To argue and disagree, like always, with all the fervor and passion, but to love one another as sisters and brothers, for we are one people!”

IDF chief of Staff Herzi Halevi speaks at the Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall on April 24, 2023. (Screenshot/ YouTube)

On Tuesday morning, a two-minute siren will sound at 11 a.m. ahead of national memorial ceremonies at Israel’s 52 military cemeteries. The main daytime ceremony will be held at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, attended by Herzog and Netanyahu, and accompanied by an Air Force flyby.

More memorial events will be held later in the day, giving way in the evening to the festivities of Israel’s 75th Independence Day. The abrupt switch from national grief to jubilation may be jarring for some, but it is viewed by many as celebrating the state and its achievements while remembering the sacrifices that made them possible.

Fifty-nine soldiers were killed during their military service since last year’s Memorial Day, according to figures released by the Defense Ministry on Friday.

Memorial candles near graves of fallen soldiers on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on April 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Another 86 disabled veterans died due to complications from injuries sustained during their service. The numbers brought the total tally to 24,213 people who have died during service to the country since 1860.

According to the National Insurance Institute, 4,255 people have been killed in anti-Israel terror attacks since 1851, including 31 who died over the past year. Of the total victims, 740 were minors, 120 were Israelis killed abroad, and 135 were foreign nationals killed in terror attacks directed against Israelis.