Rabin memorial event Nov. 12, 2011 (Daniel Bar On)
Rabin memorial event in Tel Aviv, Nov. 12, 2011. Photo by Daniel Bar On
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Israel Defense Forces soldiers were forbidden by the army to attend last Saturday's rally in memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. This is the first time soldiers have been barred from attending the annual event, held in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square.

The decision to prohibit soldiers from attending the memorial rally stems from the fact that in previous years the event was organized by a state-sponsored body, the Rabin Center. This year, it was organized by a private group.

The order not to attend the rally was issued by the Education Corps with the approval of the chief education officer, Brig. Gen. Eli Shermeister. However, it was not distributed to all IDF units, so many soldiers did attend the rally, having no idea they were forbidden to do so. Most of those who did receive the order were youth movement members serving in the Education Corps itself.

Since the Rabin Center was established by legislation and is funded by the government, the rallies it organized over the previous 15 years were defined as state events. Therefore, the IDF did not object to soldiers' participation, even though the rallies were dominated by left-wing parties and movements that gave them a clear political character.

This year, however, the Rabin family decided that the center would not organize the rally. Therefore, a private group called the Fourth of November was established to do so. Since it no was no longer under the auspices of a state agency, the IDF defined this year's rally as a political event, meaning soldiers were barred from participating.

"I don't understand this order," said one soldier who did attend the rally. "I've attended the rally regularly for several years now, and in my view, it's a national event. I know there are many who see it as, and make it into, a political event, but for me, it's about a prime minister of the State of Israel who was murdered, and that isn't political."

The army had a similar debate over soldiers participating in this summer's socioeconomic protest, especially after reservists showed up in uniform at the tent on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard that served as the protest headquarters. But in the end, it decided that since this protest wasn't blatantly political, it would not forbid soldiers to participate as long as they did so in their spare time and in civilian dress.

The IDF Spokesman's Office said that, "as a rule, army orders forbid IDF soldiers to participate in demonstrations and rallies that have any kind of political character. Because this wasn't a state event, and to remove any doubts about the matter, this order was reviewed for members of the youth groups who serve in the [Education] Corps. The presence or absence of members of the Rabin family has no relevance to the decision; only the nature of the rally does. It should be stressed that no disciplinary steps were taken against soldiers who attended the rally, to the extent that there were any."

But Hemi Sal, the rally's organizer, termed the decision "absurd," saying, "All the organizations that produced the rally until now have been private, nor was there any government funding. That was true of the first organization, Shalom Haver; and of the organization to establish the Rabin Center, which followed it; and of the Fourth of November organization, which organized this year's rally. Why hasn't the army forbidden its soldiers to participate in the rally until now?

"And if the army forbids soldiers to attend a rally in Rabin's memory, it should take a thorough look at how many soldiers have attended political demonstrations by the right in recent years," he added. "If they're going to start enforcing the ban on soldiers attending such events, they shouldn't begin with an event in memory of a murdered prime minister."