Israel’s bereaved come to grips with Memorial Day restrictions

Bereaved families are slowly coming to terms with the decision to close military cemeteries on Memorial Day.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

The Israeli government announced Wednesday that all military ceremonies will be closed on Memorial Day next week, breaking the annual tradition of bereaved families gathering to visit the graves of their loved ones.

But after an outcry from the families, the government has promised that police will not use physical force to stop people from entering the cemeteries.

The Prime Minister’s office, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Defense encouraged families to visit the graves in the coming days ahead of Memorial Day.

Marina Levits, whose son Captain Dima Levits was killed in battle during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, said she understood the government’s decision. She spoke to Israel Hayom Wednesday while visiting Dima’s grave on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem.

“It’s the correct decision because there is no other option,” she said. “Human health is more precious than anything else.”

Rebecca Rothman also spoke to Israel Hayom on Mt. Herzl, where she was praying at the grave of her nephew, Major Ze’ev Ehrenfeld. He was killed in the line of duty in 2018.

“I fully understand the decision,” she said. “It is a very wise move because it is very dangerous in the current situation to have a memorial day here with many people.”

At Kiryat Shaul Military Cemetery, Jonathan Bashi visited the grave of his cousin Marco Vogra, who was killed in the Sinai Peninsula during the Yom Kippur war.

“I took the decision hard at first,” Bashi said. “It’s not easy, to put it mildly, but I’m finally starting to accept it. Marco was a new immigrant from Italy, and if I wasn’t here, there wouldn’t be anyone else to visit his grave. That’s why I drove here all the way from the Beit Shean Valley, to pay respects to my late cousin, may he rest in peace.”

“The nuclear families alone can visit the cemetery from this morning until Sunday night, whenever they wish, while observing the social distancing rules,” Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement. “It’s a painful decision, but it’s necessary.”

He added that the decision was made after discussions with Eli Ben Shem, Chair of Yad Labanim, an Israeli organization serving the families of fallen soldiers.

Ben Shem previously warned Prime Minister Netanyahu and Bennett about potential clashes between police and grieving families. He addressed the government in an open letter, writing, “following the directive by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett canceling the ceremonies and the order not to come to the military cemeteries on Memorial Day, we are receiving hundreds of messages from families who are not accepting it and are threatening to force their way in.”

“This was a very, very difficult decision, but it was necessary as every year almost 1.5 million people visit cemeteries, many of them elderly,” Bennett said to local media. “This would have been a coronavirus bomb.”

Israeli Kan News reported police are planning to set up roadblocks to prevent access to military cemeteries. But if families try to force their way in, police will not physically restrain them.

Although police officers would not enforce the closure, Bennett said, “We expect that people won’t come.”