Should Israelis share their Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, with the Palestinians?
That’s an idea that has gained ground in recent years as some on the left believe that it’s time for the Jewish state to stop acting as if mourning for those lost during the course of the war on its existence is purely a Jewish matter. Groups like the New Israel Fund believe that the conflict is a source of mutual sorrow, and that holding commemorations that honor the memory of both Israeli and Arab casualties is necessary in order to promote coexistence and the possibility of peace.
That sounds very high-minded, and some Israelis agree. At least in principle, every life lost is a tragedy. While peace is something that all decent people ardently desire, this is a terrible idea. Firstly, it is not rooted in genuine dialogue or reciprocity. But most of all, there is a difference between those who perished in the effort to defend the existence of their country and its citizens, and those who lost their lives while seeking to kill Jewish men, women and children in the name of an anti-Semitic cause.
It needs to be understood that Israel’s Memorial Day is nothing like the three-day weekend at the end of May in the United States, which is supposed to honor those who died fighting for America and its ideals.
When Israelis pause to observe Yom Hazikaron this week, it will not be a “holiday” that kicks off the summer season a few weeks before the calendar does (and offers good mattress sales). It was originally observed in the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War, as a day for mourning and reflection. It has been generations since America took part in an armed conflict where the casualties affected families throughout a broad cross-section of society.
Israelis are not so lucky. Given the ongoing war to destroy the one Jewish state on the planet being waged by Arab and Muslim states, and by terror organizations throughout the region, they have not known a single day of peace in the nation’s 74 years. The vast majority of Israeli citizens are required to perform military or national service. And in a small country, the 25,000-plus soldiers and civilians killed in combat or in terrorist attacks affect almost every family and community. Most Israelis know someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one under these circumstances.
Yom Hazikaron, which, with perfect symbolism, is followed immediately afterward by Yom Ha’atzmaut—Israel’s Independence Day—is therefore not just a day of national mourning. It is a deeply personal experience, as well as one that reminds them of the price that has been paid for their country’s survival. And so the idea of turning it into a joint expression of grief for all those who died in the war between Arabs and Jews over the Zionist idea in the last century is something that rubs many Israelis, in addition to Jewish families in the Diaspora who have lost loved ones, the wrong way.
Treating those who died to save Israel and those who died trying to destroy it as merely two sides of the same coin is as egregious as it is immoral.
Even if this were solely a day for mourning civilians killed in conflicts, the case for treating Jewish and Arab victims as existing on the same moral plane doesn’t work because Israeli military actions are not intended to kill civilians, though sadly, that is sometimes what happens. Palestinian terror groups routinely hide behind non-combatants and actively seek their deaths for political purposes. Unlike the Israelis, Palestinian terror groups deliberately seek to kill Israelis and rarely attack soldiers. There is simply no moral equivalence between Jewish and Arab casualties even if all such deaths are regrettable.
Looking beyond these obvious points, there is something particularly irritating about those who ask Israelis to share their Memorial Day while refusing to countenance the idea that the most sacred site in Judaism ought to be shared.
In recent weeks, as Muslims celebrated Ramadan after the Jewish observance of Passover, the dispute over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount once again made its way into the news. It’s the one place in Jerusalem where freedom of worship for all religions is not guaranteed. Despite it being the site of the two ancient biblical temples, Jewish entry to the sacred plateau is highly restricted and Jewish prayer there forbidden.
Throughout the last century, Palestinian Arab leaders have used the myth of a Jewish plan to blow up the mosques that were built over the place where the temples stood in order to foment violence. Muslims deny the historical Jewish origins of the site and treat even visits from Jews as an insult to Islam and a justification for more terror.
Recently, that meant that Arabs were allowed by the Muslim authorities to use the mosques to store rocks in order to stage riots and throw them at Jews praying at the Western Wall below the mount. When Israeli police were forced to enter the area to quell the violence, predictably, they were accused of being in the wrong.
The denial of Jewish rights to the area was enabled by a terrible mistake made by then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in June 1967, who allowed the Muslim Waqf to retain control of the site after the Six-Day War. In recent years, growing numbers of Jews have sought to assert their right to visit the Temple Mount and have called for a reassessment of Dayan’s blunder. However, fear of stirring up more Palestinian anger or of embarrassing the Jordanian government, which retains influence over the Mount, has led Israeli authorities to stick to the prayer ban and, as what happened recently, go so far as to prohibit Jewish visits altogether.
This preservation of the so-called “status quo” in Jerusalem, which is demanded by foreign governments like that of the United States, is considered more important than freedom of worship. As long as it is merely Jews who are being denied rights, exceptions to principles can always be found.
Leftists who seek to promote coexistence with the Palestinians have no problem with this discrimination against Jews. Indeed, they are quick to brand any Jew who seeks to pray or even visit the Temple Mount as a radical troublemaker who is no better than a terrorist. They regard the assertion of Jewish rights over the holy places or to live and build over the green line in Judea and Samaria as unacceptable.
What they fail to realize is that by going along with Arab denials of rights to Jews, they are actually encouraging intransigence and promoting endless war. Treating the Temple Mount as a “no-go zone” for Jews is granting an undeserved legitimacy to Palestinian bigotry that is rooted in a belief that Jews have no rights on the land. After all, it isn’t just the mount that Palestinians wish to deny to the Jews but their state itself.
This exposes so-called peace activists’ commitment to dialogue as both hypocritical and meaningless. Their idea of coexistence consists of Arabs who denounce Israel sitting down to talk with Jews who agree with them. That is not so much a conversation as it is enabling Palestinian fantasies that keep alive their hopes of destroying Israel.
When Muslims are willing to share the Temple Mount with the Jews—or even to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders may be drawn— then it will be appropriate to talk about sharing a Memorial Day or a realistic vision of peace. Until that happens, those who seek to hold such joint ceremonies, despite their avowed good intentions, don’t get to claim the moral high ground.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.