For the first time in the history of the Jewish state, mourners did not descend en masse upon the country’s 53 military cemeteries on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. Instead, small ceremonies—with the president, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, and other soldiers and dignitaries wearing surgical masks—took place on Monday evening at the Western Wall and on Tuesday morning at the Mount Herzl national cemetery.
This was not by choice.
As was the case ahead of Passover and Holocaust Remembrance Day this month, the Israeli government—at the urging of the Health Ministry—imposed a ban on gatherings due to the fear of a spike in COVID-19 infections. To explain each such restriction, health officials pointed to the drastic increase in the number coronavirus patients who caught the disease during the Purim holiday on March 9-10.
In spite of widespread disappointment, most of the public was obedient. Many connected with family and friends virtually via the video conferencing app Zoom. Those among the more stringently Orthodox or less computer-literate remained removed and forced to celebrate, or grieve, on their own.
There have been others, however, who violated the rules. In Netivot, for example, two households hosted guests from another family for the Passover seder, which led to an additional 15 COVID-19 patients. Certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Elad and Modi’in Illit also saw an increase in infection after the seder. In response, the police and Israel Defense Forces dispatched officers to these areas to enforce closures, and distribute food and medicine to the needy and elderly to assist in keeping them indoors.
Yom Hazikaron presented a more delicate dilemma for the powers-that-be in Jerusalem. The annual ritual of visiting the graves of loved ones on this day has become sacred. Israel is a country in which mourning is literally—not metaphorically—universal. Indeed, every Israeli either is a member of the bereaved community or is personally acquainted with someone struck down in battle or slaughtered in a terrorist attack.
This makes sense, given the small size of the nation that has had to fight for its survival since before its establishment as a state 72 years ago.
According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “A total of 26,969 men, women and children have been killed in terrorist attacks and in defense of the Land of Israel since 1860, the year that the first Jewish settlers left the secure walls of Jerusalem to build new Jewish neighborhoods.”
It continued, “The number of Israel’s casualties of war stand at 23,816 as of April 2020. Since last Memorial Day, 75 new names were added to the roster of those who died defending the country. Of these, 42 deaths were members of the Defense Forces, with another 33 disabled persons dying as a result of injury in defense services. … Three names were also added to the list of civilian Israeli terror victims who perished in attacks in the past year, bringing the total to 3,153.”
The problem for the grieving mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, spouses and offspring this year was not so much that they were forbidden from being physically present at the gravesites or ceremonies in honor of their loved ones. One after the other of such mourners told interviewers this week that they do not need a particular date or siren to remind them of the person they lost. On the contrary, each said they live with their heartache and memories every day of the year.
The greater difficulty for them is the regulation barring visits from children, grandchildren and the comrades-in-arms of their fallen family members—something that helps them get through the awful 24 hours in question.
Herein lies the real reason that the government’s Yom Hazikaron decision was trickier than that relating to its Passover and Holocaust Remembrance Day closures: the first stage of the reopening of the economy.
It’s one thing to be locked down when there’s nowhere to go; it’s quite another to be told not to visit a cemetery when many industries are back in business.
Which brings us to Ikea, the Scandinavian furniture and housewares chain with six branches in Israel. In a move that ended up, unwittingly, being beneficial to all other shop owners, the government allowed the major outlet, which had closed its doors on March 15 and put its 1,750 employees on unpaid leave, to resume operations last week.
On April 22, mask-wearing shoppers (who must not have lost their income, like so many other Israelis now on the dole) flocked to Ikea in Netanya, Rishon Letzion and the Tel Aviv port, and stood in line, six feet apart from one another, to make up for lost time. Apparently, buying beds and silicone ice-cube trays are vital to anyone with discretionary funds and bouts of closure claustrophobia.
Good for them and for the workers back on the Ikea payroll.
But all hell broke loose among retailers, large and small, still prevented from following suit on health grounds. Their complaints, which were completely justified, centered on two points. The first was that they suffered far more extensive financial damage than Ikea, and that they are just as capable of creating a coronavirus-free environment in their businesses as the international giant.
The second involved a supposedly chummy connection between (now outgoing) Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, and Ikea Israel franchise owners Shulam Fisher and Matthew Bronfman. More generally, Fisher and Bronfman have donated millions of shekels in recent years to the Ger Chassidim, the sect of Orthodox Jews to which Litzman belongs. The conspiracy theory is that since Litzman effectively takes his orders from the Admor of Ger, the leader of the sect, he gave Ikea the go-ahead for considerations that had nothing to do with COVID-19.
Litzman denies the allegations. Whether or not he is being honest, the ruling that enabled Ikea to reopen applied to all furniture stores. The idea was that such shops would not draw unmanageable crowds. Nevertheless, the seemingly arbitrary nature of the coronavirus restrictions and subsequent easing of them has been enraging to all the people robbed of their livelihoods during the current crisis. What’s good for the goose ought to be good for the gander, after all.
Ironically, however, the scandal surrounding Ikea sparked the authorities to agree to the opening of all shops, including beauty parlors, nail salons and cosmetology clinics, other than those in enclosed malls. Had Ikea remained shut, the rest of the market most likely would be on hiatus for at least another two weeks as well.
And that brings us back to the bereaved families, some of whom responded to “Ikea-Gate” by organizing their own Memorial Day services—reciting Kaddish (the Jewish mourners’ prayer) and singing the national anthem, “Hatikvah”—in Ikea parking lots, of all places. This was an attempt to highlight the jarring dissonance of barring the bereaved from graveyards while permitting shoppers to crowd the aisles of Ikea. The fact that Ikea made a decision to shut down for the two days between the eve of Yom Hazikaron on Monday and the end of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) on Wednesday made no difference. Public protests are allowed, even under coronavirus rules, since they involve the civil right to express dissatisfaction with the government.
Speaking of which, Jerusalem’s greater worry is Yom Ha’atzmaut, when Israelis typically throw big bashes on the night that seals the end of Yom Hazikaron, and take to the parks and beaches for barbecues the following day. To force everyone to forego the usual festivities marking the joyous event of the birth of the Jewish state, the government imposed a strict, stay-at-home curfew from Tuesday afternoon until Wednesday night.
By next Memorial Day, when the pandemic is hopefully behind us, Israelis will be able to revert to the normal paradoxes inherent in the Jewish state, where lines at blood banks match those at Ikea. And where mourning the dead does not put a damper on celebrating life.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”