U.S.-Israeli Soldier's Haifa Funeral Draws 20,000, Many of Them Strangers

Concerned that Staff Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli's funeral would be sparsely attended and moved by the story of a young man who chose to serve, thousands of strangers pay their last respects.

AP

Most of the estimated 20,000 mourners at Staff Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli's funeral had never even heard of the 21-year-old American-Israeli before Monday.

Carmeli, originally from South Padre, Texas, was among the 13 Israeli soldiers killed during clashes with Hamas fighters Sunday. Also killed was Max Steinberg, 24, of Woodland Hills, California.

In announcements by the Israel Defense Forces, both Carmeli and Steinberg were reported to have been “lone soldiers,” a term the military uses to refer to the thousands of troops whose parents do not live in Israel.

Carmeli was not a classic “lone soldier.” He was the son of Israeli parents who had moved to Texas years ago and over the past few years had been dividing their time between the United States and Israel. His two sisters live permanently in Israel, as does his large extended family. He had attended Ostrovski High School in the central city of Ra’anana since he was 16, and he had numerous friends.

Yet, summoned by social media, concerned that the funeral of the lone soldier would be sparsely attended, and moved by the story of the young man who could have taken an exemption from the army yet chose to serve, thousands of mourners crowded together in the dense heat to pay last respects at the Neve David Military Cemetery in Haifa, as the funeral began at 11:30 P.M. on Monday.

According to his Facebook page, Carmeli played football in high school and was a Dallas Cowboys fan. In Israel, he became a passionate supporter of the Maccabi Haifa soccer team and attended games whenever he could.

When a picture of him draped in the team flag surfaced on social media, team officials urged fans to attend the funeral. “We have a huge request of you all,” they wrote on their Facebook page and in WhatsApp messages. “Come and pay final respects to a hero who died so that we can live. It’s the least we can do for him and for our people.” The team also chartered buses to return mourners to back to the city center.

“I never knew him, but I don’t miss a game, so Sean and I must have been together in the stadium,” said Aliza, who wore a shirt with the team logo. “So we shared something."

Pointing to the distance, Ruhama, a woman who appeared to be in her fifties, added, “From here you can see the new stadium. It will be opened soon – as if in honor of this young soldier."

Hundreds of members of the Israeli Scouts movement attended, as did a group of more than 50 bikers, members of the Israeli Motorcycle Association. “I got a WhatsApp message, and so here I am,” said Moshe, a biker dressed in full biking gear, driving a Harley-Davidson with a large Israeli flag. “It’s the least I could do."

Thousands of soldiers, their tags indicating that they are from many different units, were also visible. “We asked to come,” said Yaakov, a soldier who serves in a noncombat position in a base “somewhere in the center of Israel."

“He gave everything. He was a combat soldier. It’s the least we could do. We asked our commander, and he not only gave us permission to come – he came, too."

Others came simply as individuals. Yulia, 22, from Nahariya, said: “I just got out of the army. I feel a connection. I admire this young man, who didn’t have to serve but did.” And then she added, like so many others, “It’s the least I could do."

Observing the huge crowd, Yaakov Danon, head of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry’s Unit for Immigrant Soldiers, told Haaretz, “This is the best example of what the people of Israel can be. In times of trouble, we bind together. This is our tradition, our narrative. A boy like Sean expresses values we all admire – loyalty, a willingness to give to his people, openness, warmth, caring. That’s why so many different people – religious and secular and Haredim, young and old – are all here."

As the flag-draped coffin, borne by six soldiers from the Golani Brigade, marching stiffly with tears in their eyes, made its way through the thick crowd, Anat, a 56-year-old teacher from Tel Aviv, cried softly. “Maybe because we didn’t know him, he represents everything – he is everyone’s son, everyone’s brother. Being here is a way to express the fear that we all feel that it could be any one of our loved ones who could die, in the army or in a missile attack."

In a breaking voice, Carmeli’s father recited the Kaddish, the traditional mourning prayer, as a passing train whistled in the distance. As the crowd responded Amen loudly and fervently, Ruhama added, “Let the enemy see this: This is our response. ... We care about even one soldier."

Nitza, a young woman in skinny jeans, asked to add her opinion. “That’s not why I’m here. I know that most people are in favor of what’s going on in Gaza, but most people aren’t here because of politics. I don’t even approve of this war. I don’t think this war is right. But I am here because this young man represented something that is good and loyal. And he deserves respect for that, even if he died in a war that is wrong.”

In her eulogy, Yaffa Lahavi, principal of the Ostrovski High School, remembered Carmeli as a modest yet popular student, who had “shining, smiling eyes, and loved sports and the land of Israel.”

Zeev Bielski, mayor of Ra’anana, noted that Carmeli had grown up “among the beautiful vistas of Texas. You chose to make your life here. You overcame the difficulties of integrating into the country. You were popular and you gave of yourself.”

Choking on tears, Elior Mizrahi, eulogizing in the name of Carmeli’s friends, concluded, “You went from being a chubby kid to a strong soldier. You were raised by the extraordinary family that made you what you are ... I always thought we’d grow up parallel to each other forever. I just didn’t know that forever would be so short."

As the funeral ended, traffic jams clogged the narrow roads leading away from the cemetery, yet the crowds of pedestrians and drivers were unusually quiet and patient. Directing traffic, a police officer acknowledged that the police had underestimated the numbers of people who would attend, yet were pleasantly surprised by “the amazing way in which the people behaved. The public was respectful and patient. It made me feel proud."

Many of the attendees had been forced to park their cars at a considerable distance from the cemetery. At the entrance to his home on King Saul Street, a man had set up a table with free drinks and snacks for the passersby. He refused to give his name. "No one needs to remember my name. They need to remember Sean Carmeli’s name. This is the least I could do." 

Rami Shllush