Israeli lawmakers skip Memorial Day ceremonies out of respect for bereaved families – but which bereaved families?

Fearing disruption and protests, numerous coalition lawmakers announced they will not attend this year’s solemn Memorial Day events.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

Memorial Day in Israel is traditionally a somber occasion. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis gather in military cemeteries across the country to commemorate soldiers who have fallen in Israel’s wars and military operations.

But this year, numerous government ministers and MKs have declined to participate in the ceremonies, citing concerns that their presence may spark protests from bereaved families who are vehemently opposed to judicial reform.

Some families have demanded that lawmakers who did not serve in the IDF not attend ceremonies. They’ve also argued that politicians who criticized reservists for their refusal to serve, as part of a protest against the reforms, should be excluded from official events.

‘Politicization’ is threatening us: Likud minister

It appears that lawmakers are listening to these demands, as all politicians from the United Torah Judaism (UJT) party – an ultra-Orthodox group whose members eschew military service in favor of study in yeshivas – will skip this year’s Memorial Day events.

Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf (UTJ) said in a statement that he was told his presence at a military cemetery in Kiryat Gat might “cause discomfort” to grieving families.

“This is not true, but I would prefer not to hurt their feelings,” Goldknopf said. “I do not, God forbid, want to act as a catalyst for disrupting this special and meaningful day.”

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His party mate, Ya’akov Tessler, also announced he would skip a Memorial Day event. Shas MK Haim Biton, who did not serve in the army, said he was dropping out of a ceremony in Rehovot.

Information Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan (Likud) said she would not attend a ceremony in Ness Ziona due to opposition from bereaved families.

The families reportedly objected to her presence because she said she “despised” reservist pilots who threatened not to serve because they were opposed to the overhaul of the judicial system. She later apologized for her comments.

“The fact that a person like me can no longer come to the cemetery on Memorial Day is further evidence of the politicization of everything, a politicization that is slowly but surely sawing the branch we all sit on,” Distel Atbaryan wrote on Twitter.

She added that she “bows” her head in front of the bereaved families and respects their wishes.

Likud MK May Golan said she would not attend an event where she was previously scheduled to appear, citing logistical issues, although her announcement came shortly after public criticism regarding her allegedly fraudulent exemption from the army.

Golan, who is secular, claimed to be religious in order to avoid army service. In a lengthy statement, she explained that she was born into an impoverished family and dropped out of school at age 15 in order to work, and that she could not serve in the army because she was the sole breadwinner in her household.

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At the end of the statement, Golan added she had been exploring her religious observance just before her recruitment, implying that she had been genuinely religious when she received the exemption.

Opposition MK: Government is legal, respect is paramount

MK Matan Kahana of the National Unity party told Israel National News that he was opposed to the exclusion of elected government officials in the ceremonies.

“I think these ceremonies should be statesmanlike. For 74 years the ministers of Israel have honored the fallen in the official ceremonies in the military cemeteries and I think that’s how it should be,” Kahana said.

“I think this day should be a day in which all the political debates are left out and I hope it will pass with the respect it deserves.”

The lawmaker added that respect for the democratic process and officials who were chosen by the majority of citizens is critical.

“Each of these ministers, if he had come to a cemetery, should have been respected as a representative of the government of Israel. We have one government, a government that was elected in legal elections, established by law,” Kahana said.

“Whether it fulfills its role well or not is a matter of opinion, but in the end we only have one government, even the [ultra-Orthodox] ministers and those who did not serve in the army are ministers in the Israeli government and they should be respected as such.”

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Are bereaved families a monolith?

One issue that hasn’t been widely discussed in Hebrew-language media reports is that many of the families of fallen soldiers voted for the current coalition and are not opposed to the presence of their elected officials at the ceremonies.

Earlier in April, members of the Choosing Life NGO, an umbrella group representing the bereaved families of IDF soldiers killed in the line of duty and civilians murdered in terror attacks, met with President Isaac Herzog and expressed their support for judicial reform.

The families told Herzog that changes to Israel’s judicial system are crucial for ensuring national security and that the reform could serve as a “great opportunity” for preventing future terror attacks.

It’s not clear who is making the demands regarding the exclusion of specific ministers, as bereaved families hold differing political views. The umbrella groups representing these families have only said that politics should be left out of the ceremonies but have not called for particular lawmakers not to attend events in military cemeteries.