Israeli Bereaved Families Fight to Memorialize IDF Soldiers in Own Words

Defense Ministry's advisory panel is still undecided on whether to allow more personalized inscriptions on tombstones of fallen soldiers.

Despite growing pressure from bereaved families, tombstones at military cemeteries will not bear inscriptions of more than 48 words, the national council for soldier commemoration has decided.

But after years of deliberation, the Defense Ministry's advisory panel is still undecided on whether to allow more personalized inscriptions on tombstones of fallen soldiers. Despite the panel's hesitation, such inscriptions have become increasingly common over the last two decades.

Graves of fallen IDF soldiers.
Emil Salman

"In the old plots there is consistency, but in the newer ones it's like an amusement park," says council chairman Eli Ben-Shem. "There are birds, and chains and sunset images. It is not uniform; it's just unbearable."

During the first decades of statehood, military tombstones were almost identical. Each fallen soldier was commemorated by a two-line inscription that summarized his life, character, service and circumstances of death.

In 1992, the Weichselbaum family petitioned the High Court of Justice to allow them to add a third line to the tombstone inscription of their son Eran, who was killed in a military training accident.

Rejecting the petition, Justice Yacov Malz wrote: "A civilian cemetery is a holy place for the families of the dead. But a military cemetery is much more, in my view; it is a holy place for the people and the country. It's the focus not only of the bereavement of the families, but of that of the entire people, and as such it's a historic site. It is therefore understandable that the council [for soldier commemoration] is anxious for its harmonious and egalitarian composition."

But in March 1995, a similar petition met with more sympathy. The judges wrote that human dignity is superior to aesthetic uniformity. The following year, the law was amended, and allowed for a separate, personalized inscription to adorn the tombstone, pending the approval of the Defense Ministry.

"The development of the military tombstone is a mirror image of the development of Israeli society," says Prof. Yossi Katz of Bar-Ilan University's geography department, author of the 2007 book "Heart and Stone: the Story of the Military Tombstone in Israel."

"From a society consecrating collectiveness, equality and solidarity - according to which the military plots in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were arranged - Israel was swept in the 1990s by multiculturalism, privatization and globalization that led to the rise of the individual at the expense of the collective," he says.

A wave of militarism

In his book, which was written in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, Prof. Katz analyses the successful campaign of bereaved families to change the inscriptions on 119 tombstones. He says that the families' desire to replace the inscription "killed in battle in south Lebanon" with "killed in battle in south Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War" underscores a wave of nationalist militarism that has gripped Israeli society in recent years, evidence of which can be seen in military cemeteries.

Practices of commemoration were also influenced by immigration, mainly from the USSR. Irena Stanislavsky, whose son David was killed in a suicide bombing in 2002 while on duty, says she knew she wouldn't make do with a few words. She wanted a picture of her son, who died at 23, to be featured on the tombstone so that she can speak to him and relate to his memory.

"In the stone, I see his face," she says in broken Hebrew. "In the cemetery, of all places, I wanted to have a picture of him, wearing a uniform. He died a soldier, and that's how I want to remember him. I put the picture there, and nobody told me anything about it. For me, it's more than just a stone; that's why it was so important."

She says she was not alone. In the military cemetery in Netanya, where her son is buried, there are many more pictures on the tombstones, "even of Israeli[-born] soldiers."

Despite the court decision and the obvious desire of the bereaved families, the council for soldier commemoration has yet to amend the formal guidelines. "It's very difficult to bring it up in the presence of the families, and we don't quite know how to do it," says Nava Shoham-Solan, chairperson of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, and a board member of the council.

Prof. Katz says it would be futile to try and undo the process of individualization that military cemeteries are undergoing. "The cemetery does not reflect the desire of the fallen soldier, but rather that of the commemorator. In the rabbinic literature, cemeteries are referred to as 'houses of life,' which is exactly what they are: the reflections of the life, motivations, desires and perceptions of living people. In this sense the law is not in sync with the reality on the ground."