On Tuesday night in Tel Aviv, Israelis and Palestinians held their fourteenth consecutive joint Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) ceremony in what has become one of the most polarizing events in Israel. It is an event opposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who in his capacity as defense minister denied entry permits to Palestinians wishing to attend but was overruled by Israel’s High Court. It is also an event opposed by many – if not most – Israeli Jews.
The opposition to a joint memorial ceremony marking the most solemn day on Israel’s calendar is easy to understand. Yom Hazikaron is dedicated to the memories of Israeli soldiers who were killed defending their homeland and Israeli civilians who were killed in terrorist attacks, with those numbers standing respectively at 23,741 and 3,150. It is a reminder of how perilous Israel’s existence was in its early years, and how vigilant Israel must remain today. Unlike Memorial Day in the U.S., Israelis do not celebrate it as a day off filled with barbecues to mark the unofficial start to summer, and the idea that it should be expanded to incorporate Palestinians who died while trying to kill Israelis is for many beyond the pale. Many Israelis see it as an insult to the memories of those who gave their lives in service of the state and as a further provocation in implying that there is equivalence between Israel’s fallen heroes and those who were responsible for their deaths.
There is something particularly jarring about it this year in particular coming right on the heels of the most sustained rocket fire on Israel from Gaza since Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and the deaths of four Israelis. And indeed, the opposition to the ceremony organized by Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle Families Forum came this year in the form of denunciations by politicians and efforts to disrupt the event, with five protestors arrested for attempting to cross police barriers and throwing trash at participants.
I’m not sure that I would be comfortable participating in a joint Yom Hazikaron ceremony were I an Israeli. This is an instance where particularism feels altogether appropriate given the circumstances. Israelis should be able to remember their dead and mourn as a society without turning it into a larger statement on the universal tragedy of war and expressing a common humanity. This is all the more so given that Israelis are not living in a post-conflict reconciliation period and Israel is not a place where the fallen are removed from most people’s direct experience; Israelis still routinely die in the service of the state and even more commonly are killed in terrorist attacks. Moreover, Israelis have a personal connection to military experience that only a fraction of Americans – and an even tinier fraction of American Jews – will ever have. I do not for a moment judge Israelis who don’t want to participate in a shared Israeli-Palestinian memorial service, or who are repulsed by the fact that it even exists.
But there is a powerful reason for Israelis – and particularly right-wing Israelis – who find the entire enterprise offensive and inappropriate to nonetheless be grateful that the joint ceremony happens every year and is in fact growing in size. One of the fundamental differences in worldview between those on the right and those on the left is what precisely drives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the left, it is largely a question of circumstances, namely the occupation and the growing settlement enterprise, and ameliorating and then reversing these circumstances will eventually lead to a peace agreement and the end of the conflict. For the right, it is largely a question of ideology, namely the refusal of Palestinians to accept Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist as a Jewish state, and thus the conflict will continue indefinitely until Palestinians en masse acknowledge Israelis’ rights and connection to their historic homeland.
This diagnosis of the problem has led Israelis to make Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a core demand, and encourages the view that the conflict is not about Israel’s presence in the West Bank but about basic recognition. As Netanyahu said in his 2016 United Nations General Assembly speech, “this remains the true core of the conflict, the persistent Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish state in any boundary.” Once this recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the Jewish narrative happens, the right views all of the other issues receding into the background and being easily solved.
The joint Yom Hazikaron ceremony is the starkest example of precisely what the right-wing wants to see happen. Set aside for a moment the Israelis who are involved and toward whom other Israelis’ ire is directed; the Palestinians who apply for permits to come to the Jewish state and mourn their dead in the first modern-day Jewish city alongside Israeli dead on the day that Israel has set aside as its national memorial day are providing the recognition that Israelis so crave. They are legitimizing Israel, its right to exist, its right to defend itself, and its right to do so in the historic Jewish homeland. They are memorializing the IDF soldiers whom the overwhelming majority of Palestinians see as invaders and military occupiers, and instead accepting them on Israeli terms as defenders of the Israeli state and as guarantors of Jewish rights. The Palestinians who participate are going against the recidivist elements in their own camp, spurning the powerful forces in Palestinian society pushing for anti-normalization, and not conditioning recognition of Israel or its own narratives on any larger political objective. They are modeling the exact mindset that Netanyahu and many Israelis have identified as the one thing that Palestinians must do in order for peace to flourish, and rejecting the single thing that Netanyahu and many Israelis have identified as the biggest obstacle. Shouldn’t everyone be cheering this on as precisely the type of movement that needs to grow and be nurtured rather than tar it as a disgraceful affront? Shouldn’t the Israelis who have engaged with these Palestinians be celebrated for their success in engaging the other side in Israel’s core narrative rather than demonized as Nazis and traitors?
I understand the anger and the discomfort from the Israeli side. But if you take a step back, you will see that a joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony is precisely the recognition that Israel wants. Today, as we celebrate Israel’s independence, it should be a reminder that Zionism’s ultimate success is not national self-determination and sovereignty in the historic Jewish homeland, but will come when that self-determination and sovereignty is accepted and recognized by all.