Invitations sent to journalists usually include all of the necessary details about an event – the date, the time, the identity of the organizers and the location. But the invitation for the joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony on Tuesday missed one of them, and not by accident.
Over the course of 15 years, the event – held on the eve of Israel's official Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror – drew increasingly larger crowds, but two years of the coronavirus pandemic forced organizers to opt for an online event instead.
This year, without any raging wave of infection, the organizers still decided to avoid a public event. COVID uncertainty may be one reason for it, but despite not being cited by the organizers, the fear of violent counter-demonstrations by right-wing activists, as had happened before, also influenced their decision.
The organizers kept the location secret "for security reasons." Only some bereaved families, activists with Combatants for Peace, and a handful of other invitees got the address beforehand: A conference hall at Tel Aviv University.
Then, two days before the event, the right-wing news outlet Arutz Sheva revealed the location. "We knew you can't really keep it a secret," the organizers admitted.
Some 200 people, most of them veteran left-wing activists, gathered at the university hall. Among them was Rachel Reuven, a regular attendee at the annual event. "I'm here to represent an alternative, a chance for connection," she said. "What can unite us (Israelis and Palestinians) is bereavement, sadly." For activist Ben Eshel, the joint ceremony is "the way to leap over the gulf between us."
The secretive, limited nature of the physical event, Reuven argues, is the result of growing intolerance in Israeli society. "I have a feeling that reactions to the event influenced the decision and the overall trends in the country," she said.
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The crowd also included three of Israel's ruling coalition members – Meretz lawmakers Michal Rozin and Mossi Raz and Labor's Ibtisam Mara'ana. For Raz, being in government did not influence his decision to attend. "They knew it was Meretz when they took us into the coalition," he said. "There's a difference between what we do in the Knesset and how we behave personally. So I don't check where Yamina members go," he added, referring to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's right-wing party.
"I'm hoping it's all mostly because of COVID, and that next year the event can be held as usual, among the people," Raz said.
Despite the concerns, the counter-protest drew less than a dozen people. Moreover, the anger on social media turned out to be a smokescreen. "There's a lot of noise about the ceremony; there's a protest outside, but now is our time," the event's emcee, Yossi Zabari, told the crowd.
A partner event took place, like every year, in the West Bank city of Beit Jala. As the Palestinian emcee Rafa Mismar spoke from the West Bank to the crowd in Tel Aviv about the military rule, violence, and hope, they all nodded along. The homogenous group, generally on the fringes of Israeli politics, enjoyed a rare moment of togetherness.
Regardless of the noise surrounding the event, Boma Inbar, the ceremony's founder, succeeded in captivating his audience and making them forget about the rest.
Inbar spoke emotionally about his son, who died in Lebanon in 1995. Parental memories, not political ones, were innocent and painful, about the food he loved to eat, the friends who gathered around him, and how his cheeks flushed when he talked about love. Since his son died, he has stopped working and has devoted "20 hours a day, seven days a week, 27 years all for the sake of advancing peace," he says.
Other Israel and Palestinian bereaved families shared their testimonies following his remarks. Their stories might have had different circumstances, language, and cultures but were similar in the sense of loss they convey and the lessons they wish to share.
"There's no difference between the pain of an Israeli mother and a Palestinian mother," says Mashka Litvak, who lost her father and brother. "No more spilling the blood of innocents, no more bereaved families," said Ismail al-Khatib, a resident of the Jenin refugee camp, whose son Ahmed was killed at age 12.
For the organizers, next year's ceremony will be held as before, not online – despite the difficulty of finding a place to host the event and the fear that participants will be met by curses, spitting, and bags of urine as it happened in the past.
Israelis often rush to condemn an "assault on democracy." Here, too, it wouldn't be exact. But the fact that the organizers struggle to find a place to hold the ceremony shows that Israeli democracy is not doing well. Similarly, even if the ceremony is not banned, the fact that the organizers fear for the safety of the participants reflects poorly on Israeli society just ahead of its Independence Day.