The Shifting Expression of Israel's Grief, From National to Personal

Israeli society has changed over the years, and so too has the wording of letters sent to the bereaved families of Israel's fallen soldiers.

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In 1953, President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi wrote the following words for Memorial Day:

"Today, the entire House of Israel will remember its loyal sons without whose highest of sacrifices the State of Israel would not have arose [T]heir spirit of courage will guide the youth in their path to strengthen the foundations of the homeland, and in this we have some consolation."

The recipients of these words on the eve of Memorial Day were the families of Israel's fallen soldiers, five years after the establishment of the state. This was during the first years of a tradition begun by the Defense Ministry's Unit for the Commemoration of Soldiers: the mailing of letters to bereaved families, intimately and individually addressed to each one.

These letters have changed over the years, and in tracing the evolution of Israel's Memorial Day condolences, one gets a glimpse at the template of Israeli memory.

During the '50s and '60s, the letters mentioned the fighters "who gave their lives dying in defense of their homeland and people."

"The heroes a bold youth, adorned in courage and glory that willed with its death a life of freedom and independence for its people and sacred homeland," wrote Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in his letter to bereaved families in 1963.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, there was a shift in how the families were addressed. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol wrote to the bereaved families, "These sons of ours sacrificed their lives and their youth for the sake of their nation's freedom, for the sake of a peaceful and productive life on the land of our forefathers."

This was the first time that the word "peace" was used in a Memorial Day letter as a justification for the death of fallen sons and daughters. From then on, peace would be a common theme.

The defense establishment also began relating to bereaved families in a different manner beginning in the '70s. The letters that once began with the address "Dear brothers" shifted to an address of "Families of the fallen" or "The bereaved families." According to academic researchers, the reason for this transition is rooted in the changing nature of Israeli society.

"The language itself has much less pathos," says Maoz Azaryahu, a researcher from Haifa University. "The word 'heroes' has pretty much disappeared. We are a developed, Western society, and the language itself has changed. We are more ironic and subversive. We have given up on heroes and what are left are celebrities and victims. We are fans of victims."

Bereaved families' private acts of commemoration have also changed. During the War of Independence, on average one out of every three individuals who fell in battle were memorialized by a remembrance booklet published by their family. Most of these booklets were published as private initiatives organized by the families of the deceased. They emphasized heroism and bravery, and talked about how the fallen had fought as part of and on behalf of the nation.

Yet over the years, the commemoration of the fallen began taking on a greater sense of individualism. Little by little the heavy price paid by families of the deceased also received recognition from the defense establishment.

"The power of the holiday shouldn't minimize the depth of suffering both national and familial that comes with the remembrance of soldiers who have fallen during the wars," then Defense Minister Shimon Peres wrote to bereaved families in 1975.

During the '80s the bloody price of going to war, and of military operations, also began to receive recognition. The heads of state began to describe the reasons for heading to war and even describe the negotiations carried out with other countries over the years to serve as a semblance of hope for an end to the wars. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said in his letter from 1987, "There is nothing more important than the sanctity of life." Later on he wrote, "Our greatest obligation is to do everything so that parents will no longer have to stand by their children's graves and children won't walk behind their fathers' coffins."

Also in the '80s, for the first time, other reasons for bereavement were also recognized, such as training and weapons accidents and even traffic accidents.

"This letter to the families can be read like a defense statement," says Udi Lebel, chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology department at Ariel University. "The moment that death is illegitimate every death must be investigated, and this letter clearly must explain why in this era a death occurred."

Among bereaved families, the fault line can be seen during the First Lebanon War that began in 1982. Research done by Masters student Noa Amit in August 1995 reveals that this was the first time that Israelis stridently protested their sons' deaths in wartime. Thus, we see letters like one from the mother of Noam Eshkol, a member of Kibbutz Netzer Sereni who fell in Lebanon in 1983. "Give me back my son, a burn sacrifice for naught," wrote Eshkol's mother. "Cursed is Lebanon! Cursed is our presence there!" wrote the father of fallen soldier Eitan Tal from Kibbutz Yiftah in a book published in memory of his fallen son.

However among the national religious public, who continue to memorialize the fallen with books and not websites, this kind of criticism has not surfaced. Stuart Cohen, who studies memorial books for fallen soldiers among the national religious public and is the chair of the Department of Government and Politics at Ashkelon Academic College, believes that the reason for this stems from the nature of religious faith itself. "The DNA [of national religious people] doesn't permit [them] to object to it."

The shift in the manner of commemorating the dead had led to "exchanging of roles" among different groups within Israel society, Lebel explains. If during the early years of the state the Ashkenazi elite played a larger role in army combat units, Label says today there is an increasing dominance of immigrants, youth from Israel's periphery and residents of the settlements in these units, all of which has an effect to how these groups relate to bereavement.

"On one hand, in a specific group there has been a dramatic rise in recent years of a discourse of trauma, in which every soldier's death is by definition unnecessary and something to be investigated," says Lebel. "War is not viewed as legitimate by this group, with all the pain it causes. On the other hand, there is also anger toward this trauma discourse. Many texts that I examined complain about how 'there' they have transformed Memorial Day into a day of pain and bereavement instead of a day of tense silence and national resilience. By the way, these texts are very much the same as the ones written by David Ben-Gurion, who really didn't want the discourse of loss to take over the discourse of Independence Day," says Lebel. "One can see how the ethos hasn't disappeared, just changed addresses. What was once [the ethos of] Mapai and Mapam has suddenly moved across the Green Line."

Israeli soldiers stand at attention as a woman touches the grave of a fallen soldier during a ceremony at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, ahead of Memorial Day, April 10, 2013. Credit: Reuters
An Israeli soldier prepares national flags at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery, April 14, 2013.Credit: AFP

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