The Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery was inaugurated in 1931 as Tel Aviv’s second graveyard, after the first, Trumpeldor, reached capacity. Like most cemeteries, Nahalat Yitzhak was originally built on what were then deserted outskirts and is now part of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, between the city and the sleepy suburb of Givatayim, where I live.
I often visit the military section of the cemetery on my daily walks. Most of the 1,151 soldiers interred at Nahalat Yitzhak died in the 1948 War of Independence: The large number of casualties and limited area of the cemetery soon required the inauguration of a third and much larger cemetery, at Kiryat Shaul. The graves at Nahalat Yitzhak are identical and well kept: Most of the soldiers buried there died in battle 72 years ago, but their graves look as if they were interred yesterday.
I usually walk slowly past a single row in the cemetery, making a point of reading the identical headstones, which contain the names of the fallen, their countries of origin, their dates of birth and the time and place of their deaths. Most of the soldiers died in their late teens or early twenties. Many were Holocaust survivors, men and women alike, who came to Israel after the Second World War, enlisted in the army and were killed shortly thereafter.
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Chana Offenberg, for example, was born in Berlin in 1931, hid with her family in Brussels throughout the war, came to Israel in 1946, served as a medic at Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak and was killed in an Egyptian attack on July 15, 1948. She was 17.
Or Moshe Ovadia, born in the Old City of Jerusalem and orphaned at a young age. He died at the age of 20 in the battle for Tel Aviv. Hungarian-born Yisrael Einhorn, whose family was murdered by the Nazis, came to Israel in June 1947 and was killed 11 months later in the Negev. Esther Chechik Artzberg died at the age of 20 in an Egyptian air strike on Tel Aviv.
And then there is the mysterious William Wordsworth, who came to Israel from England in 1947, enlisted in the army and died of an illness in 1950 while on active duty, at the age of 25. He left behind a wife, sketchy details about his background and an enduring mystery about the origins of his poetic name.
The cemetery is mainly deserted throughout most of the year. Many of those buried there were not survived by relatives or were simply forgotten over the seven decades that have passed. As I pay my respects, I am usually comforted by the fact that the place would be teeming on the official Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers – but not this year.
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Fearing the spread of the coronavirus, the government banned remembrance ceremonies other than the officlal one at Mount Herzl and forbade bereaved families from visiting the graves of their loved ones. So it came to pass that on the one day devoted to the memories of the fallen soldiers, the military cemeteries in which they are buried, including the one at Nahalat Yitzhak, were even more desolate than usual. This year the most somber day of the Israeli calendar was marked by an eerie silence and by the disturbing thought that on this day, of all days, the fallen heroes had been abandoned.
Memorial Day, however, is a day of collective national sorrow even in the best of times: The 2020 edition was just gloomier than usual. On Memorial Day, Israelis are either at work or ensconced in their homes, awaiting the start of Independence Day festivities, as Memorial Day concludes.
The sharp veer from mourning to jubilation often sparks controversy and debate, but not this year: In many ways, Independence Day 2020 will be even more depressing than the Memorial Day preceding it. Independence Day is usually celebrated outdoors.
When I was younger, the masses would break out in a hora and other folk dances in the main squares and avenues of every town and city on the eve of Independence Day. More recently, families wander the streets, visit Independence Day fairs, attend outdoor concerts and marvel at the fireworks displays.
Independence Day itself is mostly devoted to large family barbecues in the parks, where Israelis prove their prowess in the art of the “mangal,” the Arabic word for grill, which is often cited as the only true sport at which they truly excel. The rush to mangal is so overwhelming that many are forced to set up their grills on vacant traffic circles, empty parking lots and even on the sidewalks. If you don’t eat a piece of grilled meat on Independence Day, it’s as if you haven’t marked the holiday at all.
This year, however, Israelis will be confined to their homes. They will celebrate alone or, at best, with their own nuclear families. Fearing a renewed outbreak of coronavirus, the government has imposed the strictest of quarantines on what many Israelis consider their most festive day of the year. Thus, in many ways, the difference between the normally jubilant Independence Day and the isolated 2020 version is far starker than the disparity between the always-somber Memorial Day and its sadder 2020 model.
In fact, were it not for the coronavirus crisis, Israelis could be marking this Memorial Day with no small satisfaction: Only 56 soldiers and civilians killed in terrorist attacks were added this year to the grand total of 23,471 fallen, the lowest number since the establishment of the state.
Independence Day, on the other hand, offers no such consolation: For many Israelis, the celebration of their country’s birth in 1948 is marred by increasing concern about its well-being at the start of its 73rd year in 2020. Israelis of all political stripes are exasperated by their country’s ongoing political and constitutional crisis, bewildered by the spread of corruption, confounded by their leaders’ seeming inability to form a workable coalition and concerned about the growing hostility and enmity between left and right as well as among Israel’s myriad ethnic and social groups.
The majority that voted against Benjamin Netanyahu in the March 2 election is despairing ten times over: Not only does it seem that Netanyahu will stay in power, not only do most of them feel betrayed by Benny Gantz and his Kahol Lavan party, which defected to Netanyahu’s ranks, but the construction of their new alliance, dubbed a “national emergency government,” has entailed a slew of snap legislation that overturns Israel’s constitutional framework and threatens Israeli democracy itself.
Nothing could have been more symbolic of the contrast between the present day and the solemnity of Memorial Day or the milestones of Israel’s independence than the insistence of the new Likud-Kahol Lavan coalition to continue legislating their profound constitutional changes on Monday despite the imminent siren heralding the start of Memorial Day. Knesset members who lost loved ones in Israel’s wars were unable to attend ceremonies or to visit grave sites before the cemeteries were officially cordoned off to visitors. In Israeli terms, the frenzy to legislate what many view as a new and essentially corrupt regime was nothing less than sacrilegious.
It was an unseemly rush to enable Netanyahu to stay in power despite his indictments, and even if he is convicted; to establish a government with 36 ministers, 16 deputy ministers and countless Knesset committee chairmanships, the most in history, at a time of impending economic depression; and to bestow equal but grossly disproportionate power and a rotation at the prime minister’s office to Kahol Lavan, which has only 17 Knesset seats compared to the bloc of 59 headed by Likud. All of these have added to the despair and despondency of the slim majority or at least the sizeable minority of Israelis who are firmly opposed to such moves.
Israel may be objectively more secure against its external enemies, but for Israelis who oppose Netanyahu and his right-wing camp, it is succumbing to internal pestilence: Democracy is in danger, the rule of law is under threat and Israel’s social cohesion is fraying as never before. Coupled with their anxieties and fears over the coronavirus, many Israelis might feel that they and their country have never been more vulnerable, fragile and on a certain course to disaster.
If Offenberg, Ovadia, Einhorn, Artzberg or even Wordsworth were alive today, I have no doubt they would marvel at the tremendous growth and empowerment of the country they died for: In 1948, its very existence was in doubt. They would probably be dismayed, however, by government corruption, social injustice, vain leadership and the disintegration of national cohesion.
When cemeteries reopen, and Independence Day is over, I’ll pop over to Nahalat Yitzhak to continue my visits. In many ways, it is a source of consolation: If Israel survived the battle with Palestinians and the onslaught of seven Arab armies, if it succeeded in building itself into a modern, powerful state, perhaps this too shall pass. All that is required is for us to be worthy of their sacrifice, which will admittedly take some doing.