The Rough but Vital Transition From Mourning to Revelry

Haaretz interviews Guy Zahavi, who lost his elder brother in a 1978 battle in southern Lebanon.

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In Israel, there is an old debate about Memorial Day. Each year mourning lasts until sunset, and then sadness gives way suddenly to celebration, as Independence Day parties begin.

Some question whether this sharp transition from remembrance to revelry shows sufficient respect for the families of the fallen, whose numbers reached 22,682 this year.

Haaretz spoke with Guy Zahavi, who lost his elder brother Nir in 1978. A captain in the paratroop brigade, not yet 23, Nir died in a battle with militants south of Sidon in southern Lebanon. Guy was 11 years old. Today he is nearly twice as old as Nir when he was killed.

Do you think there should be a gap between Memorial Day and Independence Day?

The sudden switch is difficult. On the one hand, it is hard to make the transition from mourning to partying. On the other hand, that's exactly the point. If I had to choose, I'd prefer to keep things as they are. On Independence Day our family celebrates with all the more conviction because of the memorial ceremonies the day before, which take so much from us, both psychologically and physically. On a personal level, I find the connection hard. On a national level, I think it's important. That's also what I tell my children: Without sacrifices, there would have been no independence; and without independence, there could be no memorial. My father used to say: Look, the whole country has come to a standstill for your brother.

But Memorial Day is above all about being with your parents. I feel a much greater connection during our family ceremony than at the national Memorial Day ceremonies. I go up to Nir's grave on Mount Herzl with my parents, while my wife, Tal, whose father Rafi was killed in the Yom Kippur War, attends a ceremony at the school in Rehavia where he studied.

Do you talk about it with your children?

Remembrance is very strong in our family. That's not to say that Nir and Rafi are the center of every conversation - but we're not the type of people who think children should be kept away from cemeteries. They've been coming with us to memorial services since the day they were born. Ido and Yoav (aged 6 and 10) have a better understanding of the issue than their peers. But on the other hand, we're not the type to bemoan our lot. We took a decision to get on with life. I've never heard my mother or Tal's suggest we're owed any sort of compensation.

This week Tal saw an advertisement in Haaretz by IDF orphans' charities calling for donations, claiming they were being neglected. We don't feel a part of that. The state needs to help bereaved parents who have suffered financial, it needs to help widows. I don't think a brother needs that much help. My mother once said: You'll never understand what it is to raise a child, and then suddenly he disappears. It's not like losing anything else. I have no argument with that. I don't doubt that she's right. But then I also don't accept the view that attributes too much influence to bereaved parents on a political level. My father's opinion on Gilad Shalit is no more important than anyone else's.

How do you keep the memories alive after 32 years?

My parents are very involved. They attend all the memorial ceremonies for Nir's unit. As a family, we visit Nir's grave twice a year, on the anniversary of his death and on Memorial Day. There's a picnic site in the Galilee named after Nir and Lt. Yiftah Ayin, who was killed with him, where we go each year. In Hadera, where we used to live, an annual race is organized in his memory, in which lots of children and soldiers take part.

My parents still take an interest in any small amount of information they can glean about Nir. They still occasionally come across people who knew him and are often deeply touched by their stories. Of course, in these situations, people always speak about the good things ? and it seems there were a lot of good things about Nir. He was charismatic, friendly, successful.

For me personally, the memories have faded a little. I was 11. As the years go by, you start to mix up your own memories with things people told you. It's important that I mention the way in which the IDF keeps up its contacts with bereaved families. They phone, they visit, they are always ready to help out with every problem or request. Take Itai Virov (a former colonel in the Kfir brigade), for example. He was a boy when Nir was killed. He doesn't owe anyone anything. But they sent him to speak with my parents when he was a second lieutenant in the unit, and since then he has had a close relationship with them. He is always there to lend a sympathetic ear, calls or visits at every opportunity. To them, he's like family. We greatly admire that, and he probably has other families who feel the same.

Do you think you feel different to others when you hear of soldiers who have been killed?

It hits me harder when I hear news of a tragedy, like when I heard about the deaths of the soldier and officer from the Golani brigade (Major Eliraz Peretz and Staff Sergeant Ilan Sviatkovsky in Gaza a few weeks ago. It affects you immediately. You hold your head in your hands and immediately your thoughts are with his parents. I think my parents can barely breathe for half a day when they hear a piece of news like that.

On Independence Day, do you feel you have a slightly greater share in the story of the State of Israel?

Nir was killed in battle, as a fighter. From my perspective, that has great importance. It preserves my connection with the nation, it influences the way I try to raise my children and my everyday conduct. I was an officer in the Air Force. During my military service, it was natural that I should be involved in visiting bereaved families, that I would be the one to pick up the phone to speak to them, as I was the only one who understood.

For some people, Israel's situation today can give rise to a feeling of bitterness.

There are very few moments when I feel that Nir died in vain. He didn't give his life for one insensitive person or another ? but for the nation. I do sometimes ask myself how people can show such little respect for the state when I hear stories of kids desecrating monuments or showing a lack of respect for the fallen. The rowdy and violent behavior I see in the streets - that worries me more than stories about corrupt politicians. I'm fairly certain we will still have those in 30 years' time.

Do you ever play the game of 'what if...'?

I assume Nir would have continued his career in the army up to a point. But he was a bit of a troublemaker, so I'm sure at some stage he would have left. His generation has done well for itself. The Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, was in the year above him at staff college. His friends are in their fifties now. What would Nir be doing? What sort of family would he have? These are things I ask myself from time to time.

Posted by Amos Harel on April 18, 2010

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