Yom HaZikaron / Memorial Day

- by Alexander Jones, Green Olive VP - 

April 28, 2020, the annual Memorial Day in Israel. Usually big crowds form across the country to commemorate those killed in war and terror attacks. But as with so many other large gatherings, this year's version looked very different. The TV footage of a sparsely filled Western Wall Plaza in dark Jerusalem was quite unlike the images of previous editions.

I last attended a memorial ceremony two years ago with a big group of friends in Tel Aviv. It was the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Service, organised by the Parents Circle Families Forum and Combatants For Peace, two organisations who bring Arabs and Jews together and try to provide a sense of comfort in the shared experience of grief. As my friends and I walked towards the outdoor memorial venue, a mob over a hundred strong began singing. Waving oversized Israeli flags. And lighting fires. Odd behaviour for mourners.

It was a group of protesters who object to commemorating the dead of the 'enemy' the same day as they honour fallen family and friends from their own side. They were loud, aggressive and intimidating. They cut off the main path between the entry and the stage. Police were in the vicinity but didn't seem too bothered. Several of our friends decided against continuing, and instead returned home. Those of us who remained were not a small group, and we didn't have any kids or elderly folk with us, so we decided to walk on through the crowd at a steady pace. The protestors engaged us. I was spat on. A friend of mine was hit around the head with a flag pole.

To this day, I struggle to believe that there are people for whom this protest is more important than commemorating their loved ones. To actively go out and disrupt someone else's memorial means you also boycott your own. That someone could prefer to spread hate rather than love is one thing, but to do that at the expense of celebrating the life of someone dear to you who was killed, still boggles the mind.

A bit shaken, and constantly distracted by the noisy nearby protesters, we were otherwise unharmed and were able to join the moving ceremony. 'Israel Prize' winner David Grossman said, "Israel may be a fortress, but it is not yet a home" and The Angelsey performed their song, 'My Baby Boy Is in the Army'. What stays with me most though were the digital appearances of several West Bank Palestinians. Permits had initially been approved for a few dozen Palestinian mourners to cross checkpoints and speak at the event, but the decision was unexpectedly reversed and they were rejected at the last minute. The pettiness of the act was upsetting, but helped me understand how sensitive Memorial Day is for Israelis. It is not an exaggeration to say that every Israeli knows someone who has been killed while on active service and while the vast majority of Israelis are of course distressed by the death of a Palestinian, people still tend to see deaths on either side as separate and incomparable events. Certainly not events to be commemorated together.

For this year's version of the memorial everyone would be appearing digitally. Corona has a funny way of equalising us all, and for once the Palestinian and Israeli speakers were both prevented from making a physical appearance. I myself was banished to the attic to watch the ceremony online. Despite being in a house full of progressive, liberal, Israeli Jews, this was one step too far for them. It was a lonely feeling sitting up there listening to mourners describe what happened to their lost loved ones and my mind began wandering. I contemplated the peace movement here in general.

I'd only been in the country a few months before I started to recognise the same faces at many of the events I went to. In this bustling country of many millions, how was it possible that I was bumping into the same people all the time? I soon realised that the progressive bubble I was immersing myself in was very, very small. The tiny size of the minority who believed peace was possible often depressed me. And so it was last night, as I recognised a few faces in the Zoom mosaic of images showing dozens of faces watching the ceremony from home.

But just then, the host announced that there were 170000 people watching online at that moment. They've since updated that number to upwards of 200000 unique views. There is no way the regular event, with traffic jams, intimidating counter-protestors and all, could have achieved this. In fact, this is probably the largest ever peace related gathering. It was a number boosted by international viewers (many from American Jewish communities) which is a timely reminder for peace activists here, who may feel they're battling uphill against a stubborn local majority, that hope for peace remains alive abroad.

This year I was brought to tears by the Rana Choir, a joint Arab-Jewish women's chorus in Jaffa, who gave a rendition of the song 'Chad Gadya'. Traditionally sung in Aramaic and some Hebrew by Jews at Passover, Israeli singer Chava Alberstein had made a version of the song popular in 1989 which was eventually banned by the Israeli military radio. Sung in Arabic and Hebrew by the choir in 2020, it remained as poignant as ever.

How long will the cycle of horror last ?
Hunter and hunted, beater and beaten
When will this madness stop ?
And what has changed for you. what has changed ?
https://lyricstranslate.com/en/chad-gadya-lyrics.html
How long will the cycle of horror last?
Hunter and hunted, beater and beaten.
When will this madness stop?
And what has changed for you.
What has changed ?



How long will the cycle of horror last ?
Hunter and hunted, beater and beaten
When will this madness stop ?
https://lyricstranslate.com/en/chad-gadya-lyrics.html
How long will the cycle of horror last ?
Hunter and hunted, beater and beaten
When will this madness stop ?
https://lyricstranslate.com/en/chad-gadya-lyrics.html

Corona presents so many obstacles. It can feel very hard to come together with other people. But equally, it presents so many opportunities. Events like the Joint Memorial Day Ceremony are a powerful reminder of what can be achieved not despite, but because, of these restrictions.

Frankly, the general peace building community isn't very good at its job. Despite endless programmes, organisations and initiatives we're about as far from peace now as ever before. But that is no reason to give up. In fact, it's a permanent reminder to redouble our efforts. To innovate. Because if you're not part of the solution you are part of the problem.

Most of all its a reminder to celebrate the brave souls who can look a suffering 'enemy' in the eye and see a fellow human being.

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