Monday night, the eve of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Day of Commemoration for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror, I realized that I have finally crossed over a political line. Once crossed, it’s almost impossible to go back. And now, on the other side of that line, although today is a very sad day, full of loss and mourning, I feel just the tiniest bit more hopeful.
As they do every year, the civil defense sirens sounded last night at 8 p.m. to mark the start of the commemoration. Then the official ceremonies began, with speeches by the prime minister, the president and other dignitaries and officials, along with full military honor guards. But the ceremony was strange this year, since, due to coronavirus restrictions, it was all prerecorded, and other than the soldiers, few were actually on site.
At 8:30 p.m., the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Memorial Day Ceremony began live streaming and I, together with an estimated 200,000 other people around the world, watched.
The ceremony, which has been taking place every year since 2006, was organized by the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a grassroots organization of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families that work together for reconciliation, and Combatants for Peace, a group of Palestinians and Israelis who have taken an active part, some as militia, some as combatants, others as soldiers, in the cycles of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The first conference was attended by 50 people. By 2017, 4,000 people attended, and hundreds were unable to get into the venue. By 2018, the number had grown to 7,000.
Last year, the event drew 10,000 participants. The vast majority of the participants were Israeli, at least in part because Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza need special permits to enter Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has regularly denounced the event, and last year he ordered that the permits for the dozens of West Bank Palestinians who were planning on attending be rescinded. The High Court of Justice overturned his decision.
This year’s ceremony followed the usual format. It was emceed by an Israeli and a Palestinian, although this year the Israeli was in a studio in Tel Aviv and the Palestinian spoke from Ramallah, on the West Bank.
United Nations Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov sent a video expressing support for the ceremony, saying that the bereaved parents participating serve as a source of inspiration and hope.
There were musical interludes, including a performance by Ahinoam Nini (Noa), and Israeli and Palestinian speakers.
Israeli Haggai Yoel, who lost his brother, Ayal, in Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin in 2002, declared, “I refuse to be considered a traitor, just because I oppose the occupation. I refuse to be censored, just because I believe that peace is necessary.”
Yusra Mahfoud, from the El Aroub refugee camp, near Hebron, spoke about her son, Alaa, who was shot by soldiers when he was 14. “My meetings with bereaved parents from the other side taught me that their pain is identical to my pain, and my will to take revenge was transformed into the understanding that it is better to work for peace, and not for continued violence.”
Turning to Israeli mothers, she continued, “The loss is the same loss and the pain is the same pain. Today, more than ever, we see how important it is to work together. Let us educate our children to avoid violence and to work for peace–and in this way, we will put an end to the spilling of blood.”
Yom Hazikaron, Israeli Memorial Day, is a sacred and painful day here because nearly every Israeli has lost someone in the conflict. Memorial Day is the day to grieve collectively. And so, even though I’ve been involved in peace and dialogue groups for years and a member of a joint Palestinian-Israeli group that drew up plans for sustainable solutions to the conflict in Jerusalem, it took me several years before I was able to attend these ceremonies.
It took me even longer to share the pain of loss. In many ways, sharing pain seems to be a radical, dangerous act. If we focus solely on our own hurt, we may not have to ask why we were hurt. But if you accept “the other’s” pain, you start to think that pain might not be necessary for either side.
Yaqoub Rabi, whose wife, Aisha, was killed in 2018 when a rock struck her in the head while she was driving with her husband and nine-year-old daughter in the West Bank, said, “I am not a man of conflict. I have never taken part in the struggle, and even today, after paying such a high price, I will not let the anger in me lead me to seek revenge.”
He continued, “I want to convey to Israeli society and the world a message stemming from my deep, bleeding wound: This conflict has taken victims from all of us, and it does not distinguish between combatants and civilians, between men and women, between adults and children. So I say to you: Enough hatred and resentment. Let’s live in peace and love because we [Palestinians], just like you, love life and are doing our best just to get by.”
It was his soft voice, breaking at times as he struggled to hold back tears, that pulled me irrevocably across the very clear line that politically divides “us” from “them.”
Politically, for me, “us” includes those who understand that empathy isn’t a zero-sum resource, who recognize that both sides have just claims and grievances, and who, above all, are looking for non-violent ways to put an end to the violence. “Them” are those who believe that only we are deserving of empathy, who think that only we are right, and who believe that violence is the only option.
“Us and them” isn’t about Palestinians and Jews. I am a proud Jew, but I am not in the same camp as the Jewish teens who have been indicted for the murder of Aisha Rabi and the activists who protested their arrest. Or the Jewish terrorists who were convicted of fire-bombing the home of the Dawabsahe family in the West Bank village of Duma, killing three, including a one-year-old infant, and leaving a four-year-old with burns over 80 percent of his body. Or the Jewish terrorists who kidnapped 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, beat him, and then burned him alive.
The Palestinian who today, of all days, tried to kill an innocent Jewish woman in the city of Kfar Saba, and the people who support him are not in my camp, either.
Another us-and-them-line was defined last night, too. The ceremony was co-sponsored by more than 40 American Jewish organizations, including the Union of Reform Judaism, which is the largest Jewish organization in the United States, as well as the New Israel Fund, Ameinu, J-Street, and Trua. By breaking with some of the mainstream American Jewish organizations, they are recognizing that our political camps could be better defined by the expressions of our values and commitments, not by our nationalities or ethnicities.
I am not comfortable with some of the positions expressed by some in my “us” camp. That is the reality of any kind of political belonging. There’s still a lot to be worked out.
When commemorating soldiers and victims of terror we say, “In their death, they willed us life.” Today, I think that can finally mean something.