A Female-free Ceremony on Israel’s Memorial Day

The solemn tribute to fallen soldiers at the Western Wall was moving - but where were the women?

Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Israeli soldiers observe minute of silence during Memorial Day service, May 4, 2014.Credit: AP
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Maybe my expectations when it came to female representation were unreasonably high as I tuned into the ceremony marking the opening of Israel's Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers.

After, all, the following day's Independence Day event was already officially billed as “a time for women.” - all of those honored with the job of lighting the torch in that festive ceremony would be female. Indeed, that event proved to be a true celebration of the accomplishments of women.

But that doesn't lessen the uneasy feeling I had when it came to solemn Memorial Day evening event at the Western Wall. As I watched, I was stunned to see a stage that was utterly “Woman-rein” - devoid of females completely. As far as I could tell, (and I would be happy to learn there were some that the cameras did not reveal) there was no participation by women in the ceremony whatsoever.

Even the honor guards from the various branches of the IDF - which normally showcase a diversity of race and gender worthy of a Benetton ad, was a homogeneous sea of male faces.

The only role held by a woman was brief, momentary, and silent - the widow of a fallen soldier handed the torch to President Shimon Peres who then lit the memorial flame. She then faded into the sea of women in the audience - the bereaved mothers, the widows, the sisters, all the women who lost loved ones in Israel’s wars and terrorist acts. The delineation was made clear - men led the mourning - women mourned. In the daytime ceremony on Monday, by contrast, while the line-up of speakers and dignitaries was also heavily male, female soldiers were front and center in the ceremony.

Even while I observed the evening event, I questioned my reaction. Was I being oversensitive? If I thought so, I was dispelled when other women I asked observed the same thing and my husband noticed before I said anything, joking that one of the female candidates to succeed Peres as president - Dalia Itzik, Adina Bar-Shalom or Dalia Dorner - needs to win so we can get a woman front and center.

At this early stage, I can only speculate as to why this came to be. (I’ve inquired as to the reason, will update with a response.) The ceremony did take place in the Western Wall plaza, run by the Western Wall Heritage Foundations, headed by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the Israeli government official in charge of the Wall who has not only done battle with the activist group Women of the Wall, but who has been criticized by even traditional women for refusing to take women’s needs into consideration when it comes to allocating prayer space at the holy site.

Presumably, the configuration of the Sunday evening ceremony was the result of negotiation between Rabinovich and the IDF. One would hope that if the IDF had a free hand, it would have looked differently.

Whatever the reason, the tableau at the Wall on Sunday sadly lessened whatever positive impact the ceremony taking place the next night with the female torch-lighters. If there has to be a separate “male-oriented” ceremony to counterbalance the “female” one, what does that say about where things stand right now? Is featuring women a one-time gimmick that is merely whitewashing a deteriorating situation in which to protect religious ‘sensitivities,’ women are increasingly being pushed off the stage and out of the public eye?

The message that is being sent from the national stage is important and has an impact on situations around the country. In the city of Safed, the city’s chief rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, reportedly lobbied against the inclusion of female singers during this year’s Memorial Day ceremony. This happened a week after he left a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony when girls took the stage to dance.

It also sends a message regarding the IDF leadership’s reaction to pressure from Orthodox quarters. In the wake of the controversial draft laws pushing the ultra-Orthodox men into army service, promises are being made to Haredi leaders regarding the army’s sensitivity to their desire to avoid contact with women during their service. While they continue to pay lip service to the importance of female service in the IDF, lobbying by conservative religious groups has led to the freezing of progress towards gender equality in the IDF, and torpedoed efforts to extend women’s IDF service, which would have increased the ability of women to serve in a greater number of roles.

The army is being forced to perform an unenviable balancing act between accommodating the reluctant ultra-Orthodox population it wants to recruit and the women soldiers who have faithfully and eagerly served it for decades. Hopefully the all-male Memorial Day eve ceremony isn’t an accurate reflection of which side it is leaning towards.