Controversies surround Israel’s secular holidays

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By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM — For an American used to Memorial Day as a time for mega-store sales and picnics, the Israeli equivalent requires a significant reformatting of expectations.

The official number of those who died while serving in one or another security function or as a result of terror is close to 23,000, with about 3,700 of those due to terror. The date for beginning reckoning is the onset of modern migration to Israel, defined as 1860. The overwhelming majority died from the War of Independence in 1948 until last week, when Israel recorded the most recent casualty.
The number by itself is large. Compared to the present populations of Israel and the United States, it is as if one million Americans had died as a result of military service or terror. The total of Americans killed in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and 9-11 is a bit over one-half million.
The day to commemorate the Holocaust –a week ago–contributes to the mood. There is only a day or two of normal stimuli between several days of media programming about victims and survivors of the Holocaust to another several days about individuals who fell in the service of Israel or those killed by terrorism, those who remember them or continue to care for the wounded, and inquiries into operations that produced significant number of casualties, but whose details remain secret.
The candle that Varda lights in memory of two cousins also leads me to think about Stefan’s high school friend.

The most prominent left-of-center newspaper, Ha’aretz, and the most prominent right-of-center newspaper, Israel Hayom, feature Memorial Day activities on their front page and Internet sites, both with photos of military graves. The picture on page one of Israel Hayom is of a aged woman sitting alongside a military grave with her head bowed.
A media source associated with settlers, (Arutz Sheva) predicted that one million Israelis would visit the graves of fallen soldiers. Its Internet site shows a religious family alongside a military grave. .
Ha’aretz also has an item on one of its inner pages about efforts to promote understanding between Jews and Arabs. A picture shows Jewish and Arab women sitting alongside one another at the “Alternative Memorial Day,” meant to remember the losses of both communities. The text of the article deals mostly with the problems of organizations that have sought to create mutual understanding. Activists complain of growing resistance to meetings and a drying up of fundraising that come at least partly from opposition expressed by Palestinians who see accommodations between individuals contributing to the perpetuation of occupation.
Jews quarrel about who should be given priority in the commemorations. A week ago, we heard from representatives of North African communities that they also suffered from the Holocaust, but were not given their proper share of recognition, with survivors not provided the same compensation as Europeans. The run-up to Memorial Day includes a perennial dispute between organizations representing family members of soldiers and other security personnel, and those representing family members of those who died in terrorist incidents. Officials have coped with that dispute by the designation of the day, יום הזיכרון לחללי מערכות ישראל ולנפגעי פעולות האיבה‎ (Day to remember Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism), and separate ceremonies for each group. This year the organization representing fallen soldiers protested the government’s decision to award military medals to the families of the prison service personnel who died in last year’s forest fire on the Carmel.
The father of a terror victim complained that authorities give too much emphasis to soldiers, and should not have released the murderers of civilians in order to gain the freedom of the soldier Gilad Shalit.
We heard from an organization representing Ethiopian immigrants, asking for a prominent location to establish a memorial for those who died from hunger, disease, or banditry–perhaps one-half of those setting out–on difficult passages overland through Sudan from 1979 to 1985.
The day following Memorial Day in Independence Day, meant to be the most festive secular occasion on Israel’s calendar. Families can travel and celebrate without the constraints associated with a religious holiday. During the evening between Memorial Day and Independence Day are speeches, performances by prominent musical groups, and fireworks in virtually all city centers and the neighborhood parks of large cities.
The run-up to Independence Day is not without its problems. People begin to greet one another with חג שמח (Happy Holiday) even before Memorial Day, and during Memorial Day, despite that day’s aura of profound sadness.
Independence Day means family picnics, a flight of military aircraft going from one site to another throughout the country (a matter of minutes in this small place), military bases open to public visits, and awards of Israel Prizes to artists, academics, and deserving activists in an evening ceremony.
Joy is not without its politics. Ultra-Orthodox extremists refuse to recognize the official state commemorations of the Holocaust, Memorial Day, or Independence Day. While some join other Israelis in pausing during the morning sirens that mark Holocaust and Memorial Day, some protest by dancing during those two-minute periods.
The prominent public radio stations (Reshet Bet and Army Radio) cancelled plans to broadcast a Memorial Day event because the media personality who has been hosting it for several years announced that he would be heading a new political party.
One of the military units threatened to keep its popular base closed due to the Finance Ministry’s proposal to cut the IDF budget. Controversies about Israel Prizes (sometimes called Little Nobels) provide the theme of a delightful but painful film, הערת שוליים‎ (Footnote).

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