The Palestinians Who Inspired Me on Memorial Day

Those who can understand the suffering of the other without marginalizing their own pain should be an inspiration to all; while Memorial Day and Independence Day are important for cementing our communal sense of belonging, Israel must spend the rest of the year hearing the narrative of the other.

Dr. Samuel Lebens
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The Combatants for Peace Memorial Day ceremony in Tel Aviv.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Dr. Samuel Lebens

On Memorial Day, thousands of Israelis attended the annual “alternative ceremony” organized by Combatants for Peace. Of the 109 Palestinians from the West Bank who applied to attend, only 44 were issued the relevant permits. The idea of this alternative ceremony is to memorialize the dead of both sides of the conflict rather than concentrating solely on the Israeli victims. The ceremony is bitterly controversial, and I understand why.

Discomfort with the ceremony stems from the fact that it could so easily be read as equating the victims of terror, for example, with the perpetrators of terror. The intentional killing of an Israeli civilian onboard a bus, or the killing of an Israeli soldier drafted by his country to defend its citizens, shouldn't be equated with the killing of a terrorist hell-bent upon the murder of innocent non-combatants, nor even with the accidental collateral damage of Israeli military campaigns. But, on the other hand, a death is a death. A Palestinian mother can draw no comfort from the fact that her baby was killed accidentally by the Israel Defense Forces, unlike the intentional victims of Hamas. And, as Avraham Burg said at the ceremony, we can't make peace unless we can each “respect the other side's victims.”

The other cause for discomfort is that Israel's Memorial Day is a sacred moment in the calendar of the family of victims of terror, and in the calendar of the family of young men and women who valiantly fell in defense of their country; in the line of duty. At a moment of such intense family pain, and national pain, it simply isn't sensitive to put things into context and tell a broader story and see things from the other side. There is a time and a place for that. I don't doubt it’s import. But it simply isn't sensitive to say to a family at the climax of their annual cycle of grief that they should be attentive to the story of others. They should be. But not on that day. It would be equally insensitive to tell the mother of that Palestinian baby, for example, on an annual memorial of her death, that she should invite some Israelis to tell their side of the story. There's a time and a place. And, I can see why people are offended by this “alternative ceremony.” It should be held on another day.

Yet, despite my apprehensions and my desire for it to occur on a different day, there really is something beautiful about it. Look at it this way: 44 Palestinians went through a considerable amount of grief in order to attend a ceremony that marked the death of Israeli soldiers. One Palestinian, Nur Al-Shahadeh, videotaped a speech that said, "Today is Memorial Day, the day the Israeli people remembers its victims… But there are also Palestinian victims. Enough. We must learn a lesson. I hope that this day will serve as an engine for vigorous action to achieve peace." And in one breath, that Palestinian humanized Israeli soldiers, the enforcers of his occupation, as victims just like Palestinian victims. Indeed, one of the Palestinians who attended the event said, “We need to end the violence, Palestinians and Israelis. Soldiers are people, too. How many more wars do you want?"

I recently read of a Palestinian tour of Yad Vashem and it seemed that these people were really striving to understand our narrative and our perspective. This occurred to such an extent that one of the participants, Bassam Aramin, whose 10-year-old daughter was killed by an IDF rubber bullet, became indignant at the suggestion that the suffering of the Palestinians can be compared to the Holocaust of the Jews. Indeed, he said, "This is a big mistake. These are very different things. As a person who lives under occupation, I surely can identify with feeling like a refugee – humiliated, weak, lost – but the tragedy of the Holocaust is very different."

These Palestinians, Nur Al-Shahdeh, Bassam Aramin, and those like them, should serve as an inspiration to us, because they are able to understand the suffering of the other without marginalizing their own pain; they are able to hear the heart-rendering melody of another nation's narrative without losing their own particular sense of pride and belonging. It's important for us to have days like Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day. It is days like these that cement our sense of communal belonging. But, on all of the other days of the year, we should strive to hear the pain, the stories, and claims of those people who are not members of our nation, our community or society. For only if we take this seriously, both the days that focus on our own identity, and the task of understanding other people's identities, can our two proud peoples finally learn to live side by side in peace and security.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

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