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The Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony

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Tamar Almog,

​​​​​​​Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony 2018, Yehoshua Gardens, Park Hayarkon, Tel Aviv
Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony 2018, Yehoshua Gardens, Park Hayarkon, Tel Aviv Photo: Tatyana Gitlitz-CFP

I want to start from the end, which is also a beginning. The Memorial Day Ceremony that is the subject of this text traditionally ends with a choir of Jewish and Palestinian women from Israel singing a special version of “Chad Gadya” in Hebrew and Arabic. “Chad Gadya” is a folk song in Aramaic and Hebrew, sung at the end of the Jewish Passover feast. It depicts a cycle of violence: the baby goat is eaten by the cat, who is bitten by the dog, who is hit by the stick which is burned by the fire, and so on. Israeli musician Chava Alberstein changed the end of the song, asking when this madness, this horrible cycle will end. Breaking out of and creating an alternative to the vicious cycle of violence is at the heart of the ceremony I am writing about.

Tamar Almog is a project manager in the RLS Israel Office, which has supported the Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony since 2011.

I am a Jewish Israeli of Ashkenazi origin. I was born and raised in Tel Aviv to a middle-class family, and for the last 20 years I’ve been a political activist on the Left. This constitutes my perspective and the starting point for writing this text.

The Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony was initiated by Buma Inbar, a Jewish Israeli and humanitarian activist as he calls himself, and the father of Yotam Inbar who was killed in Lebanon in 1995 during his army service. The first ceremony took place in 2006, in a small hall of a fringe theatre in Tel Aviv. Since 2008 the ceremony has been organized by two organizations: Combatants for Peace (CFP), an organization founded by Israeli and Palestinian ex-combatants who engage in non-violent co-resistance to the occupation and build activist communities of Palestinians and Israelis, and the Parents Circle—Families Forum (PCFF), an Israeli-Palestinian organization of families who have lost an immediate family member to the conflict. PCFF was established in 1995 and engages in educational and public outreach activities. Its members oppose the occupation and believe that attaining reconciliation between the people of both nations is a prerequisite for turning a future peace treaty into sustainable peace.

In the first ceremony, in this small dark theatre hall on the eve of Memorial Day back in 2006, a few dozen Israelis and Palestinians gathered to collaboratively challenge mainstream national commemorations by participating in a different kind of ceremony in which Israelis and Palestinians share the loss, pain, grief, and also the realization that war is not a decree of destiny but a political choice, and that it is our obligation to non-violently struggle for a just and equitable future. I was in the audience, grateful that other people imagined and made this event happen. It was a rare moment in my life in which I felt this is exactly where I want to be, with these people, crossing boundaries, defying the norms I grew up with, participating in the moulding of a new way of being that is both highly personal and deeply political.

Since then, the ceremony has been held every year, attracting more and more people, moving to larger venues and a livestream, thus reaching more and more people in Israel, Palestine, and around the world. About 9,000 people attended the 2019 ceremony and more than 30,000 watched it online. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the 2020 ceremony was held online, and about 200,000 spectators watched it (many of them from outside Israel and Palestine).

In its structure, the ceremony is like many other national, local, and private ceremonies held throughout Israel on Memorial Day, comprised of speeches and musical pieces. However, it is different in fundamental ways—it is co-facilitated by a Jewish and a Palestinian, speakers are mostly bereaved Jewish Israelis and Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it is held in Hebrew and Arabic, with translation, speakers talk about their loss and grief, but also about the journey from being overwhelmed by anger, hatred, and revenge, to joint Jewish-Palestinian non-violent activism, and speakers voice political criticism.

Being born and raised in Israel, Memorial Day and Memorial Day ceremonies have been an integral part of my yearly calendar. In the Jewish tradition, a day spans from evening to evening. Thus, the “Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of the Wars of Israel and Victims of Actions of Terrorism”, as it is formally called, starts in the evening with shops and entertainment venues (restaurants, cafés, cinemas, etc.) closing down, radio stations playing melancholic music, TV channels broadcasting documentaries about fallen soldiers and telling stories of heroism and grief. At 20:00, a one-minute siren is heard and the whole country (or at least Jewish localities) pause—people drop what they are doing and stand up, cars and public transportation stop, and for one whole minute—with the piercing sound of the siren in our ears—we suspend our mundane routine. The following morning another, longer, siren is heard, and Memorial Day ceremonies are held in military and civil cemeteries, in schools and even kindergartens, in public and private institutions and squares. In the evening, Memorial Day ends and Independence Day begins. This temporal proximity and the national ceremony marking the transition from grief to joy and combining military and civil elements symbolizes and nurtures the ethos of sacrificing one’s life for one’s country.

I was in my late 20s before I started questioning the story I’d been told on each Memorial Day. I began to see the traditional events as a powerful mechanism for shaping a national narrative that only honours “our” fallen while preparing society for future victims and strengthening a militarized worldview in Israeli culture. As I became more politically aware and active, I couldn’t participate in such ceremonies anymore. It took another 20 years before the first Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony was conceived, which I have attended almost every year since.

I don’t think there is one aspect or characteristic of the Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony that has not been questioned, contested, debated, and criticized among the members of CFP and PCFF and in public discourse. Should this ceremony take place on the national (Jewish Israeli) Memorial Day, or should another date be chosen? Where is the right place to hold the ceremony? Why hold a ceremony at all, and in the format of state choreographed ceremonies? Doesn’t this joint ceremony create a false symmetry between occupier (Jewish Israelis) and occupied (Palestinians)? Should Palestinians participate, or should this be an all-Jewish Israeli event? These represent genuine dilemmas without clear answers, but some arguments can be made as part of an ongoing essential discussion.

If this event seeks to challenge state choreographed ceremonies and their message and offer an alternative way of commemorating, then yes, it should be held on the eve of Memorial Day and in a central, accessible city such as Tel Aviv in order to reach the mainstream (mostly Jewish) Israeli audience.

Chen Alon, one of CFP’s founders and for many years the Ceremony’s director, calls it “trespassing”, stating that Memorial Day ceremonies do not belong only to the mainstream and the dominant ideology. Moti Fogel was one of the speakers at the 2011 Ceremony and voiced his objection to all ceremonies, including this one. Moti’s brother, his wife, and three children were killed in their beds by Palestinians on March 2011 in the Israeli settlement of Itamar in the West Bank. Two months later, when speaking in that year’s ceremony, Moti expressed his objection not only to any kind of memorial ceremony but to very idea of a collective memorial day. His grief, he said, is private. The use of the memory of the dead to justify war and more deaths is not more objectionable than using their memory to promote peace, regardless of political positions. It is a cynical use and a too-easy escape from the wordless sorrow of death.  The most correct moment on Memorial Day is the siren—the stopping of all talk and activity. If this ceremony seeks to close the cycle of grief and memory with reconciliation and peace, this cannot be done now and we cannot go home feeling good about ourselves.

Chen Alon says that personal narratives are infused with the national, collective narratives and that the Ceremony answers the need to connect to one’s own national identity while doing it through the humane universal component, thus counteracting the narrative of sacrificing one’s life for one’s country and preparing the young generation for the next war.

Does this joint ceremony imply symmetry between the Jewish occupier and the Palestinian occupied? Organizers acknowledge that the ceremony is held in the context of a blatantly asymmetric unjust reality, with endless mechanisms of oppression created by the occupation, and constantly reflect on the expressions and implications of this asymmetry. The ceremony is held in Tel Aviv and addresses first of all the broader Jewish public precisely because Israel is understood to be the stronger party, with the power and the obligation to generate change. Palestinian members of the organizations holding the event are asked to join their Jewish partners and participate in this outreach.

Ceremonies, and this one is no exception, are by their nature collective events, and thus raise the question of who is left out. In this case, and generally speaking, these are the Palestinian citizens of Israel. In recent years there have been some initiatives to hold joint events of a different nature on Memorial Day, to which Palestinian citizens of Israel can also connect. 

Memorial days tend to be perceived as sacred rituals to be followed to the letter. For this reason, any alternative commemoration is perceived as breaking taboos, a provocation at best and betrayal at worst. In the context of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli occupation, the Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony is perceived as an inconceivable joining with the enemy.

Like most Palestinians seeking to enter Israel, Palestinians from the West Bank who wish to attend the ceremony require an entry permit issued by the Israeli Civil Administration (a military body governing the Palestinians in the West Bank). Each year, organizers begin the process of requesting such permits weeks in advance (and are criticized by some for collaborating with the occupation authorities). Traditionally, like a ritual within a ritual, all requests are refused and only after a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court and some media coverage—and at the very last minute—are some of the requests granted. Palestinian speakers are recorded in advance so that, if they cannot be on stage, their videos can at least be screened in the main hall.

Finding a venue for the constantly growing audience and finding musicians that will perform in the event is truly challenging. Speakers and facilitators can also face criticism and are sometimes warned that participation will “mark” them. Each year, a demonstration against the ceremony is held in front of the venue. While criticism of the ceremony and protests against it are of course legitimate, in recent years these demonstrations have grown not only in quantity but also in the quality of verbal and physical violence—yelling, cursing, spitting, and sometimes throwing objects and even physically attacking attendees. The police enforce strict security regulations, trying with partial success to prevent such acts of violence from counter-protesters. Even harsher is the incitement on social media in the weeks leading up to the event, with death threats targeting speakers and audience alike, and employing sexually abusive language that I don’t care to repeat here.

Right-wing Israeli politicians contribute their share to the delegitimization of the ceremony. In 2018, for example, Avigdor Lieberman, Minister of Defence at the time, declared that he would bar the participation of 110 Palestinians in the ceremony whose entry had already been approved by Israeli authorities. To justify his decision, he tweeted that it was not a memorial ceremony but a demonstration of bad taste and insensitivity that harms the bereaved families who are most precious to us. This comment was publicly criticized by bereaved family members who resented Lieberman’s presumption that he could dictate what constitutes the right or wrong way to commemorate. One of them was Hagai Yoel, whose brother was killed while serving in the West Bank. Hagai did not identify with the ceremony until he heard about attendees being attacked by protestors. Four years later, speaking on stage in the 2020 ceremony, he protested against the Minister of Defence’s belief that he could tell him how to remember his brother, and expressed his refusal to be considered a traitor for objecting to the occupation.

Despite these obstacles and attacks, and while constantly tackling them and addressing the genuine dilemmas that forever accompany this ceremony, the Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony continues to be held each year for the last 15 years, attracting more and more people. Year after year bereaved Israelis and Palestinians stand on stage and tell the stories of their transformative journey.

Ben Kfir, a Jewish Israeli whose daughter was killed in a terror attack, vividly described the feeling of anger that overwhelmed him during the 2013 ceremony: “I was angry at the whole world”, he said: the Palestinians, the Israeli army and security forces, the politicians, God, and himself, for not being able to protect his child. He laid wide awake at night, plotting his revenge. When he realized that this would not bring back his daughter no matter how many Palestinians he killed, he lost the will to live, disconnected, and contemplated taking his own life. Almost despite himself, he attended a meeting of the Bereaved Families’ Forum. It marked a turning point: he found new meaning to his life in connecting to and acting together with bereaved Palestinian families.

Yasmin Ishtaye, a young Palestinian woman with a severe seeing disability whom I have known for many years, told her story at the 2015 ceremony. Her father was shot to death by an Israeli settler when she was 16. The settler was convicted, but ran away and disappeared before his prison sentence could be executed. Seeing that justice had not been done arose feelings of anger and hatred towards Jews. During the mourning days, a small group of Israelis came to pay their respects and convey their condolences. This was the first time Yasmin met Israelis who were not soldiers or settlers, yet she didn’t want to have anything to do with them. But they gently insisted, and slowly a deep and long-lasting relationship developed between this activist group (whom I joined much later) and the whole family. This marked a turning point in Yasmin’s journey, ultimately leading her to stand on stage, at the age of 27, and tell her story, and later to join the Bereaved Families’ Forum.

Bassam Aramin is one of the Palestinian founders of Combatants for Peace. His daughter was killed when she was ten years old, shot by an Israeli border policeman just outside her school.  Rami Elhanan is a leading figure in the Bereaved Families’ Forum. His daughter was killed in a suicide bombing attack in the centre of Jerusalem when she was 14.  Rami is sharp and crystal-clear in his criticism of the Israeli regime and society. Bassam says it’s not a competition of whose pain is greater, but a joint struggle to prevent further pain. The story of their special friendship is told in the documentary Within the Eye of the Storm, and both were immensely proud of their sons, Arab and Yigal, when they stood together on stage in the 2016 ceremony.

These are but a few examples of the many stories told by speakers through the years—stories of their journeys from anger, hatred, and revenge to connecting and sharing beyond the national divide; from grief and often loss of the will to live to joint activism that gives their lives meaning, and from mainstream acceptance to a critical position towards Israel’s policies and practices.

Above and beyond the dilemmas and criticisms that accompany this ceremony, some of which I share, I think that in a very deep way this ceremony does present an alternative. The debate it arouses is in itself shaking the monolithic perception on how a memorial ceremony should look: a memorial ceremony should be joint, loss and grief should be on the same stage—it’s not a zero-sum game. Talking about the occupation and its injustice should be part of the practice of remembering, grief, and bereavement. Chen Alon, one of CFP’s founders and for many years the ceremony’s director, explains that one of the roles of this ceremony is to embody the vision, the way we see our future. The ceremony presents an alternative to the despair and the loss of direction and shows people that there is hope in Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.