Israel's Politicization of Bereavement

Individual loss that is not incorporated into and defined as an idea is pure emptiness, which is liable to cause the national ethos to crumble. But one day, somebody may yet refuse to take part in it

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Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.
Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

There are many problems with speaking about the parents of fallen soldiers a few days before Memorial Day. A particularly brutal minefield awaits anyone seeking to conduct a restrained, dispassionate discussion of the bizarre scene in the State Control Committee last week, where the tacit agreements between the state and these families collided and collapsed. This is what happens when death can be raised to the level of an idea, harnessed to the heroic story.

When parental military bereavement derives its lofty meaning from a broad national goal, private bereavement is nationalized. “I’m suffering from this,” wrote Roland Barthes in his diary of mourning. “I can’t bear that they’re reducing, that they’re generalizing my grief. It’s as if they have stolen it from me.”

Indeed, this is the national bereavement economy. Memorial Day ceremonies are meant to pour meta-meaning into the sacrifice the families made, but also to steal their grief. And consciously or not, the families accept the role the state has assigned them in the national ethos. It’s a role that shields them from any condemnation and raises them to the level of saints, but also conceals the impersonality of loss from them.

There’s no difference between right and left. Israeli Jewish society in its entirety agrees that the state’s existence has been bought by the blood of our children. Nor is there any real argument over the fact that this will continue to be true for the foreseeable future. There’s no significant difference between our two political camps in their attitude toward the sanctity of bereavement, but only in the political lesson that can be drawn from each round of bloodshed.

The right has Miriam Peretz and Rachelle Fraenkel, the left has Raya Harnik and Robi Damelin, and all have an equal place in the national bosom. Peretz, to many, symbolizes the myth of the phoenix, the idea of growth from amid bereavement. Damelin and Fraenkel symbolize the healing power of forgiveness. But all are woven into the same tragic plot, all are its heroines, and the state has spread its aegis over the bereavement of each and every one of them, thereby concealing the uniqueness of their loss.

And now, the charged scene in the State Control Committee, which brought them all into the political arena, has also brought the reciprocal relationship between the state and the bereaved families to the height of absurdity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has embodied the national bereavement since his first day in politics, apparently expected that this would grant him some kind of immunity. Netanyahu wanted to have his cake and eat it too — to be both the leader and the heroic embodiment of military bereavement.

Therefore, when the mother of slain soldier Hadar Goldin accused him of turning her family and the Shaul family into “enemies of the people,” he seemed genuinely shocked. And when MKs Miki Zohar and David Bitan came to Netanyahu’s defense by assailing the families, the families were deeply offended to discover that their role is strictly symbolic, a kind of “be martyrs and shut up,” and wasn’t accompanied by any kind of influence.

Afterward, Bitan said that what happened in the committee was “cynical exploitation by petty politicians on the left in order to reap political capital.” Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in contrast, tweeted, “Allowing attacks on bereaved families for political gain? A new low.”

Both men are right. This is what the extended politicization of bereavement looks like. And all sides are party to it equal measure. Because individual loss that is not incorporated into and defined as an idea is pure emptiness, which is liable to cause the national ethos to crumble. But one day, somebody may yet refuse to take part in it.

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