Memorial Day 2011 - Tomer Appelbaum
Soldiers standing at attention in the Mount Herzl Military cemetery in Jerusalem on Memorial Day 2011. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz announced last night that he was setting up a team that would reexamine the wording for the yizkor prayer for the fallen in Israel's wars. The decision follows a week of intense public debate which followed a Haaretz report that Gantz had approved changing the prayer from "May the people of Israel remember" to "May God remember."

Haaretz reported last week that the official response of the secretariat of the General Staff, which operates out of the chief of staff's bureau, that the change is in effect. News of this intensified an existing dispute between bereaved parents, commanders and rabbis over the appropriate wording for the prayer.

The original was not a religious prayer, but what Berl Katznelson composed, which was "May the people of Israel remember." In 1967, following pressure by the then-chief IDF rabbi, Maj. Gen. Shlomo Goren, an order was issued which changed the wording to "May God remember."

In practice, there has been a "parallel reality" in ceremonies. The order initiated by Goren is not carried out and in every ceremony the version used is the one decided upon by the master of ceremonies or the commanders. In recent years, and in view of the increase in the number of religious bereaved parents - and at times also because of the involvement of IDF rabbis - in some of the ceremonies the "May God remember" version was used, which irked secular bereaved parents.

The response of the secretariat was given on June 12 to journalist Menashe Raz, who took part in the Memorial Day ceremony at the Palmahim Air Force base and was angered by the use of the "May God remember" version. Raz sent a letter to the chief of staff demanding that the original version, "May the people of Israel remember," be restored. In the letter which answered Raz, the secretariat said that "according to the chief of staff's order ... the wording for the opening of yizkor to which the IDF is committed is 'Yizkor Elokim' ['May God remember'] and therefore this is the version read in ceremonies."

Military sources told Haaretz yesterday that the chief of staff did not change the wording since he took command, and there has been no discussion on the matter during his tenure so far. The same sources said that the version "May God remember" has been based on orders since 1967, even if these have not been enforced, and the response by the secretariat reflected the existing situation.

Since the story broke there has been public criticism of the army in the press, and also directly of the chief of staff, even though Gantz was not involved in the response to Raz. Many bereaved parents have contacted the chief of staff's bureau and expressed their ire, while a public protest was organized on Facebook, with tens of thousands signing joining in a demand to restore the version "May the people of Israel remember."

Due to the sensitivity of the issue and the tensions between religious and secular, there is uncertainty at the army whether the IDF should intervene directly in the debate. Last night, following deliberations, Gantz decided to set up a team to look into the matter and issued a statement through the IDF spokesman.