The Fallen Served Their Purpose

Without their permission, the state has turned the thousands of fallen Israeli soldiers into a mass symbol of sacrifice for the homeland

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks in front of a wall bearing the names of fallen Israeli soldiers while attending a memorial ceremony at Yad Lebanim, Jerusalem, May 2, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Military ceremonies are a national symbol. Small monuments, uniformly engraved, that seek to stress unity and equality among the dead. Amendments to the Military Cemeteries Law over the years have permitted small variations in the wording of the inscriptions – “with the approval of the competent authority,” of course – but every such change requires an agonizing bureaucratic process that doesn’t guarantee approval.

That’s because the state, not the parents or families, is the master of national commemoration, and the state has determined that soldiers, in their deaths, are equal (other than those exceptions who bury their loved ones in civilian cemeteries). The fallen are transformed into a mass symbol of sacrifice for the homeland, “who in their deaths commanded us to live.” The military cemeteries have become places of national pilgrimage; they express the individual’s submission to the whole and give our lives a sense of mission imposed by the deaths of the fallen.

But this deceased collective never elaborated on the nature of the mission it imposes on those who remain. Are they meant to continue fighting wars? Are they obligated to melt themselves into a single essence, like the dead? Or perhaps they are warning the living to look at the graves and beware of a similar fate?

Military cemeteries, which speak to an ideal of unity, obedience and equality, are light years from reality. If they were really meant to symbolize life, there should be military cemeteries for Ashkenazim and Mizrahim; religious and secular; for high-tech employees, the new symbol of the flourishing nation-state; for soldiers whose families are living on welfare; and most of all for the fallen from the left and the fallen from the right.

Ridiculous? What is counting the dead by sector if not dismantling the symbol? Who bothers to show how many kibbutz members fell compared to city dwellers, or how many religious Zionists compared to secular soldiers, or how many Mizrahim compared to Ashkenazim. “There was no bereavement there, and there won’t be any bereavement,” declared former Manpower Directorate head Elazar Stern in August 2006, referring to the number of Tel Avivians who fell during the Second Lebanon War. Not only is bereavement measurable, but the potential for bereavement is valuable in creating a hierarchy of honor in that same imaginary national unity.

Where the next fallen soldiers will come from is not an existential or military question; it will be a political question. One designed to strengthen certain communities at the expense of their expected future victims, because “only by them” can you find a stockpile of war-lovers. Thus sectors that will contribute fewer victims are excluded, not to mention those who will not send even a single fallen soldier to the military cemeteries.

The transition ceremony from Memorial Day to Independence Day has become a façade, aimed at concealing the political garbage that has piled up over the year. An event at which the president and prime minister clash over the legacy left by the dead, a show of a worn-out definition of ideals that were never realized and a reminder of the extraordinary Zionist project that turned a persecuted people into the masters of a national home. But it’s a home that has mutated into an empire, whose agreed territorial framework can’t hold it and that must spread to territories not its own and establish another state outside its borders.

There’s a thick link connecting the neat rows of graves that have served the poetic expressions of unity over the past two days. On regular days this link is used as the borderline between “loyalty” and “citizenship,” between “traitors” and “lovers of the homeland,” between “opponents of the occupation” and “the battalions of the whole land of Israel.” The thousands of fallen in Israel’s wars are a silver platter, but like any platter they are not responsible for the quality of the dish served on it. They didn’t choose and will never again choose the government and the regime that commodifies them without their permission.