For the First Time, Israeli Army to Allow Military Funerals in Secular, Non-military Cemeteries

Funerals at military cemeteries will continue to confirm to Orthodox custom

Menucha Achrona Cemetery in Be'er Sheva, where civil burials are allowed.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israeli army has agreed to allow soldiers to be buried in military funerals in secular civilian cemeteries if this was the will of the soldier. Their families will be allowed to hold secular military ceremonies without any religious rites or symbols, if they so desire, as part of the funeral of their loved one.

Israel's military cemeteries will continue to be administered according to Orthodox Jewish religious tradition. Although most cemeteries in the civilian sector are also run according to Orthodox tradition, the change means that now families will be able to request military funerals in the small number of secular cemeteries that exist around the country.

The Israel Defense Forces changed its protocol after the religious pluralism organization Hiddush requested the change. The IDF informed Hiddush last week that the revision had taken effect.

After Hiddush first made its request, the Defense Ministry said it would act to allow families to hold military funerals without religious symbols or ceremonies, but nothing actually changed. As a result, Hiddush filed a petition with the High Court of Justice, asking it to order the army to allow such funerals. Under the new practice, the default choice is still for a military funeral to be held in a military cemetery.

The new orders also allow for the possibility of deviating from parts of the standard military ceremony at the secular civilian cemetery, such as skipping the gun volley salute. But such exceptions will be allowed “only in exceptional circumstances,” the orders state – and with the approval of the head of the IDF’s casualty department in the Manpower Directorate.

The new orders also permit military burial in a secular cemetery without a military honor guard carrying the coffin, and without wreaths or a gun salute. 

The president of Hiddush, Rabbi Uri Regev, praised the IDF for taking “this important step” and for advancing religious freedom in the IDF. “The new order constitutes a real revolution in such a sensitive area, which for decades has been under the control of the Orthodox Military Rabbinate, without any justification,” he said.

However, Regev expressed regret that “the army has stopped in the middle of the road," noting in part that the alternative of secular military burial is still seen as the exception, requiring special permission from the senior command or the Military Rabbinate.”

The IDF views these changes as its response to the High Court petition. A military source said it was taken of the army's own volition and not in response to the petition filed by Hiddush. For its part, Hiddush said it does not fully address its concerns, and therefore it intends to continue to press to have the case heard by the High Court.