In Israel, You're Not Somebody Until You're Dead

Death in this country has ranks and classes. Drop dead just like that in the street and you’re not anything. If you’re a fireman who risks his life and dies doing his duty, that’s also not enough. Only if you fell in a war is your death considered something.

The special week in which we mark Memorial Day and Independence Day has brought to new heights the morbidness prevalent here − venting our emotions about death. Fewer and fewer bereaved families recall the Torah’s injunction “Therefore choose life,” nor does one hear it said, “By their death, they bequeathed us life.”

Life is no longer a prime value. Sacrifice and death are the new values. Israel has the most memorial sites in the world, one monument for every 17 dead, on average, while in Europe there is one monument for every 10,000 fallen. We have sanctified death by showing respect only to those who are dead. The sad story of their premature loss is told mostly with resignation, as if such a fate cannot be changed.

No one dares ask the bereaved about their political beliefs. Even if the family lives in an isolated settlement in the territories, on land that was taken by force from their neighbors.

They are not asked about the link between the occupation, the repression, the lack of readiness to negotiate and the continuation of the wars that will lead to more bereaved mothers and more tearful fathers. From their point of view, there is no connection.

Death in this country has ranks and classes. Drop dead just like that in the street and you’re not anything. If you’re a fireman who risks his life and dies doing his duty, that’s also not enough. Only if you fell fighting in Israel’s wars − only then − is your death considered to be something. Only then can you be inscribed in the roll of the most honored. Only then is there a point to your dying.

Thus the families of three firefighters killed in the Carmel blaze are struggling mightily to have their sons recognized as fallen in Israel’s campaigns, even though everyone knows there is no connection between their deaths and a war. They died as heroes, but doing their civilian duty.

Against this backdrop, one condemns the cynical remarks of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has suddenly become an enthusiastic supporter of recognizing the firemen as fallen in Israel’s wars. Yishai even raised the matter at a cabinet meeting, apparently to be rehabilitated in the eyes of the families of the blaze’s victims who had demanded he leave the memorial ceremony held a few months ago.

Someone who accepts not serving in the Israel Defense Forces as a way of life needs considerable chutzpa to dare speak about the fallen. What a whopping serving of sensitivity from someone whose sons and supporters do not serve in the army at all; he decides on memorializing the fallen?

This worship of death apparently scared Yoel Shalit, the brother of the abducted soldier Gilad. So he did not continue to sit quietly during the official Memorial Day ceremony but deliberately interfered with it. Shalit heard, with growing fury, how the country’s elite paid lip service to his living-dead brother. How Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Knesset, and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and President Shimon Peres spoke so eloquently of Gilad, who has been sitting in a hole for five years. They lit a torch in his honor and recited a prayer for him, as if they were from the United Nations. As if they are not in a position to have an influence.

Rivlin, who was agitated by the disturbance to the smoothness of the ceremony, says that Yoel and his girlfriend disturbed its national character and succeeded merely in disrupting unity. After all, everyone agrees that Gilad must be brought home. The spirit of the ceremony was supposed to be “mutual support.” Any more support like this and where will we be?

Yoel Shalit understood, tragically late, that our many wars have turned us into a nation drenched in a ritual of death. He understood that the political leadership prefers a dead Gilad to a living Gilad. It’s hard to deal with a living Gilad. He causes tremendous headaches and invites criticism and damage to the image should a large number of terrorists be released in return for him. But with a dead Gilad, the leadership has no problem. Yet another monument will be built, and maybe even some side street will be named after him. It will even be possible to exploit his death to threaten Hamas with a terrible reprisal. The public will like that.

We’re experts at the danse macabre. Our only problem is with life.