Opinion

Brothers in Arms - but Not to the Grave

Non-Jewish Israeli soldier Viacheslav Gargai, killed last week on the Golan Heights, was buried a distance of four cubits from the adjacent Jewish grave, in line with Orthodox practice.

Israeli military cemetery.
Daniel Bar-On.

That non-Jewish soldier Viacheslav Gargai, who was killed last week while doing routine maintenance on an armored personnel carrier on the Golan Heights, was buried a distance of four cubits from the adjacent Jewish grave, makes any secular person shudder, or at least feel uncomfortable.

The distinction between religions that one can ignore or even display understanding of in regular cemeteries takes on an especially blunt and coldhearted dimension in a military cemetery, in which comrades in arms who serve side by side are meant to be buried that way as well. On an emotional level, I can totally identify with the anger regarding the way non-Jewish Israel Defense Forces fallen soldiers are buried, even now, after the custom of burying them in separate sections was stopped following the 2013 incident involving the chief of general staff’s flag, which was not placed on the grave of Yevgeny Tolochko even though he was the last soldier to fall before Memorial Day of that year. Instead, then-Chief of Staff Benny Gantz placed it on the grave of the last Jewish soldier to fall.

Even so, one must ask if those who are seeking to change the burial procedures in military cemeteries are not ignoring – consciously or unconsciously – the consequences of such a move. After all, if burials are based on full, demonstrated equality among all its soldiers, with no distinction between religion or nationality, it would mean the IDF would stop being the “people’s army” and become an army of (all its) citizens. Beyond the change in the status quo on religion-state relations, giving up the demands of Jewish law in military cemeteries would lead to a change in Israel’s status as the state of the Jewish people. In practice then, it is quite possible that this link between religion and nationality – that, and not social or political considerations – is what assures the durability of the status quo, i.e., the non-separation of religion and state in Israel.

To those having a hard time connecting separate burial to the issue of Israel’s identity, I suggest you follow this chain of logic: Introducing secular burial will erode the status of the military rabbinate and lead to Judaism being no more than one of the religions IDF soldiers can legitimately follow. The IDF’s authority as the last bastion of the melting pot will collapse; there will be no more military conversions.

One can approach the subject from a different, more principled direction as well: If the army yields on Jewish burials, will it not be a clear step toward giving up the Jewish character of the state? That’s the argument of those who support the status quo, and I tend to agree with them. There’s a contradiction between giving in on halakhic burial in the IDF and stubbornly upholding the Law of Return, which is also based on Jewish law and the search for the ultimate Jewish grandmother. The ugly Siamese twin of the Law of Return, the Citizenship Law, which forbids Arab citizens, who are 20 percent of the population, to conduct normal family life with a Palestinian spouse, would be revealed in all its nakedness and fall.

Like a bad game of pick-up sticks, so it is in Israel; moving any toothpick, even the most seemingly trivial one, threatens to bring down the entire shaky structure of the “Jewish and democratic state.” True, this isn’t exactly a democracy here and it isn’t exactly the Judaism I’d want to see. But like many others, I too fear any change that might stir up the racism deeply embedded in this country’s DNA. So until we gather up the courage to make such a change, we will have to swallow major and minor discrimination in the name of maintaining the sacred equilibrium.