Like nearly every event being held during the coronavirus pandemic, the joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony will look utterly different this year.
The 15th annual installment of the event – an alternative to the government’s official Memorial Day commemorations – will be held, like every ceremony these days because of the coronavirus, with no audience or crowd. But the organizers say that their taking of the event online means participation will be larger than ever.
This year, the ceremony is being co-sponsored by a long list of Jewish and pro-peace groups in both Israel and the United States including the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish organization in the United States. Other sponsors and partners include J Street, the New Israel Fund, Peace Now, IfNotNow, Churches for Middle East Peace, as well as individual churches, synagogues and interfaith dialogue groups.
“While the coronavirus is making things more difficult and complicated, we also see this as an opportunity,” said Nathan Landau, the Israeli coordinator of the joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day. “Not everyone can attend a ceremony in Tel Aviv. But because everyone is on the internet, we believe that this year we can reach new populations – among Israelis, Palestinians and around the world.”
The ceremony, initiated by a father whose son died fighting in Lebanon, has developed a controversial tradition of its own. The event is co-sponsored by Combatants for Peace, a nongovernmental organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants, and the Parents Circle Families Forum, bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families that work together for reconciliation.
The organizers aim not only to mourn the fallen on both sides together, but to commit to “build a new reality based on mutual respect, dignity, equality, freedom and peace,” as they put it. They seek to avoid a narrative of victimhood in order to “turn a sense of helplessness into empowerment and hope.”
Veteran sponsors of the ceremony applauded the broadening of its base of supporters, applauding, in particular, the decision of the URJ to participate.
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“We are inspired that, even in this time of pandemic, our partners are building and ever-broader, ever-more powerful base of support," said Libby Lenkinski, an official from the New Israel Fund, which she said, has supported the effort since the first ceremony took place.
"All of us who support this event — from the Union of Reform Judaism to IfNotNow — must stand together as we face both a public health crisis and a new Israeli emergency government that has only one action item other than coronavirus response on its agenda: annexation in the West Bank," she added.
UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov sent a video clip expressing support for the ceremony, calling it “a source of inspiration to us all.”
Landau, who has organized the event for three years now, saw it grow into last year’s record turnout of 9,000 people in Tel Aviv.
Expanding the ceremony’s audience beyond the physically present is nothing new for the organization, because its efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together already faced obstacles in the past, Landau said.
The event has been videotaped since its inception, and live streaming has made participation all the more possible. Last year more than 20,000 people watched the ceremony on their computers, more than twice the number who turned out in person, Landau said. And last year was the first time the alternative ceremony was shown in Gaza – streamed live in the office of Rami Amman, a 37-year-old activist.
Online discussion rooms
This year, Landau expects that many more will be watching because the sponsoring groups have partnered with peace organizations worldwide to promote the ceremony, which is set to be live-streamed this Monday night – Memorial Day Eve – at 8:30 P.M.
“But even with that, something will be missing when we don’t have thousands of people standing in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park. We’ll miss it – the feeling of standing together in solidarity,” Landau said.
According to the organizers, Israeli speakers this year will include Hagai Yoel, whose brother, Eyal, was killed in fighting in the Palestinian city of Jenin in 2002, and Tal Kfir, who lost her sister, Yael, in a terror attack in 2003.
Palestinian speakers will include Yaqub al-Rabi from the village of Beida, whose wife, Aisha, was killed in 2018 when settlers threw a stone at their car, and Yusra Mahfoud, from the Al-Arroub refugee camp, whose 14-year-old son, Alaa, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers.
Artists performing will include singer Achinoam Nini and the Jewish-Arabic women’s choir Rana, while Liora Rivlin and Yusuf Abu Verde will read Hanoch Levin’s poem “Because In a Just War.”
The guest speaker will be writer, poet, college professor and peace activist Sami Shalom Chetrit.
The formal ceremony will last an hour and 10 minutes, with some parts live and some prerecorded. After the ceremony, viewers will be invited to take part in online discussion rooms with members of bereaved families.
That format, Landau said, was inspired by Israel’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day this week, when survivors shared their stories online.
No legal costs this year
“We’re making an extra effort to make people feel like participants, even though they’re watching on screens from their homes,” Landau said. “Corona forces us to be alone, so we’ll do our best to try our best to feel that we’ll be together.”
Combatants for Peace’s Israeli co-executive director, Yonatan Gher, said the coronavirus “will not prevent us from fulfilling the significant human need to come together, Israelis and Palestinians, to remember and remind others of our loved ones, and to say once more that a just peace is the key to a better future for us all – an even stronger message today in a time when people in Israel, Palestine and all over the world are standing together against a joint threat.”
Robi Damelin, a leader of the Parent’s Circle, said the ceremony would also focus on “recognition of the people who died all over the world. We will be lighting a candle in their memory. It’s impossible to divorce what is happening here from what is happening in the wider world.”
Damelin, whose son David was killed by a sniper while he was doing army reserve duty in 2002, noted that this year the groups would be spared the legal costs in the fight to let Palestinians enter Israel to take part in the ceremony.
Last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu barred 181 Palestinians from entering Israel to take part. That decision was overturned by the High Court of Justice, which ordered the government to issue entry permits for 100 of the Palestinians.
The previous year, a similar attempt was made to prevent Palestinian participation at the order of then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Then, too, the High Court overturned the decision, ruling that it was “tainted by a genuine lack of balance and a lack of reasonableness.”
The groups are also spared the need to fund security for the event; throughout its 15-year history, protesters have tried to disrupt the ceremony. Last year, several dozen protesters demonstrated against the event, and a few tried to burn a Palestinian flag. The police detained three people for disturbing the peace and “throwing items at participants.” A few protesters tried to cross the protective barriers, and called participants “traitors,” “kapos” and “Nazis.”
This year, different types of security precautions will have to be taken as the ceremony goes online. Landau said each of the event’s Zoom gatherings will include a monitor who will quickly shut down any attempt to “Zoom-bomb” or otherwise disrupt the proceedings.