How Israel supports bereaved Arab families

Alaa Slalha, the coordinator for minority rehabilitation in the Department of Families and Commemoration, discusses the critical work helping fallen soldiers’ loved ones.

By Yaakov Lappin, JNS

As Israel marks Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism, a Defense Ministry department has been working year-round to provide critical support for members of minority groups who have lost loved ones.

Alaa Slalha, the national coordinator for minority rehabilitation in the ministry’s Department of Families and Commemoration, told JNS ahead of Memorial Day that embracing Arabic-speaking bereaved families with support is a critical mission that both assists the families and builds national resilience.

Slalha, who previously served in the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, has been working in the Defense Ministry for 18 years, spending much of that time as a social worker and rehabilitation staffer in the department’s Tiberias District and working with families from the Arabic-speaking sector. Slalha, a member of Israel’s Druze community, took up his current position some six months ago.

“We have a very diverse population that includes Druze and Circassians, who are subject to a mandatory military draft, and volunteers from the Bedouin, Muslim and Christian communities,” he said.

“We view the provision of exemplary service to these families as well as creating an accessible service as being of the utmost importance,” Slalha said. “Of course, language is something that is very important. When working with the bereaved families it is essential to be familiar with aspects such as culture, language and customs. This very much helps to bring people together.”

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The Department for Families and Commemoration sends social work students—both Jews and members of Arabic-speaking groups, to bereaved families from a range of Arabic-speaking backgrounds—as part of furthering the goal of diverse communities, united by grief, becoming familiar with one another culturally.

The department also works with the Yad Labanim organization that commemorates fallen soldiers and cares for their families, and with officers from the Israel Defense Forces who support bereaved families.

Druze, Circassian, Jews, Bedouin and Christians

“The Defense Ministry wants to provide, first and foremost, an exemplary and equitable service for all families. We see that it is important to have the service adapted to the population and not to try and adapt the population to the service, because ultimately the soldiers who went into battle fought side-by-side [regardless of their background],” said Slalha.

“We want to serve their families in the same way whether they are Druze, Jews, Bedouin, Christian or Circassian,” he said.

New families recently “adopted” by the department include relatives of Christian Arab Israel Police officer Amir Khoury, who was shot dead while taking on an armed Palestinian terrorist in Bnei Brak on March 29, 2022. Slalha has personally cared for Khoury’s family.

“A family going through such a crisis—losing its son—can be crushed. It has to be embraced with support,” Slalha explained.

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An Israeli Druze Border Police officer, Yazan Falah, was killed in a Hadera terrorist attack on March 27, 2022, while Bedouin Israel Border Police officer Asil Suaed was killed in a Feb. 13, 2023, stabbing terror attack at the Shuafat checkpoint.

All of their families are now under the care of Slalha’s department.

Holidays are especially difficult for bereaved families, he said, as they serve as painful reminders that their loved one is missing.

To help them cope, bereaved families from Haifa and Tiberius recently met, enabling a connection that mutually strengthens them, said Slalha.

“They don’t even need to speak. As soon as they’re together, they’re already making connections. This is a very important activity for us in the department,” he said.

Aryeh Mualem, head of the Department of Families and Commemoration, issues greetings to minority families on their holidays such as the Druze pilgrimage festival of Ziyarat al-Nabi Shu’ayb (April 25-28) and the Druze and Muslim Eid al-Fitr celebrations, which took place this past weekend, Slalha said this is no trivial gesture. “It is very important for the families, because ultimately, it’s the human, personal connection. We try to do this in the most sensitive way possible.”

Joint cooking programs for Bedouin families, and a workshop on religious identity for Druze families, are other examples of programs held to support the bereaved.

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Meetings bringing together Druze, Jewish and Bedouin bereaved families have also been held, creating powerful and moving connections.

Groups of families also organize living-room coffee meetings to come together.

While the Israeli people focus its attention on fallen soldiers during Memorial Day, for such families, every day is filled with painful challenges, Slalha said.

“They are all accompanied by their loss, and we see it as we accompany them all year around,” he added. “It’s the same pain.”

The department sends commemoration workers in its northern district—members of the Druze and Bedouin communities, to work in Jewish military cemeteries.

“It is a debt we feel towards these families whose whole world has crumbled,” said Slalha.