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Remembering. Again.
Israeli Military Cemetery
by Judy Lash Balint
April 28, 2009

It's eerie how often the elements reflect events occurring here in Israel. At last week's Yom Hashoah commemoration at Yad Vashem, participants huddled together in the chill of the Jerusalem evening as the ceremony marking the systematic murder of six million European Jews unfolded. The youthful members of the choir were shivering in the frigid air. Six survivors delegated to light the memorial torches stood stoically at attention as a cold wind blew across the hilltop.

Just one week later, as the State of Israel pauses to remember her fallen soldiers on Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for the Fallen and the Victims of Terror, the ritual takes place as a similarly chill breeze envelops hundreds of bereaved families gathered in the plaza facing the Kotel.

The flag at half mast flutters in the brisk wind flurries, and the memorial flame flickers boldly in front of the subdued crowd.

Those commemorated on Yom Hazikaron are not the mass victims of yesteryear's death camps, they're our youth who died and continue to die, defending the state and its citizens. We need the warmth and gentleness to reassure us, to enable us to look to the future.

It's slightly disconcerting to see the Kotel bereft of worshipers, replaced by rows and rows of men and women with profound sadness in their eyes and etched into their faces. A significant number of the men choose not to wear any head covering--I can't help wondering if it's an indictment of God or an expression of secularism that has nothing to do with their loss. Apart from the ultra-orthodox who generally do not serve in the army, the full spectrum of Israeli society is represented at the service--national religious and secular; Ashkenazi and Sephardi; rich and poor; old and young. Bereavement itself is a social strata here --according to the Foreign Ministry, 22,570 soldiers and civilians have died in the 61 years of statehood leaving thousands of families to join the ranks of the bereaved.

This year, thanks to the Gaza War and the ongoing assault on the south, another 133 names have been added to those we mourn.

As the siren sounds marking the beginning of the ceremony, I notice a young child next to me dropping her head along with the formal honor guard who face us across the plaza. Sadly, the culture of grieving and remembering is ingrained at an early age here in Israel.

Called to light the memorial flame together with Prime Minister Shimon Peres, is Tziona Netanel, the young widow of Yehonatan Netanel, 27, the last soldier killed in the line of duty last January. Radiating strength and dignity, the young mother struggles to retain her composure as the light of the flame illuminates her pain.

At the end of the formal program, President Shimon Peres and Chief of Staff Gabi Askenazi pass among the families offering brief words of comfort. The gesture reinforces a remark made by Peres during his address to the gathering--that each loss is a national loss, felt keenly by the entire country.

As we wait to leave at the close of the 30 minute ceremony, I fall into conversation with the young couple sitting next to me. The wife, whose brother was murdered in a terror attack in the late '90s, tells me she finds it difficult to attend the Memorial Day observance. "There were a few years when I actually got ready to go, but just couldn't make myself get here," she says with tears in her eyes. Her parents have never come to the Kotel ceremony. They find it easier to sponsor a Torah lecture in Oded's memory in their home community.

What upsets Michal most is the fate of her younger brother's murderer. Captured by officers of the Palestine Authority in Jericho, the terrorist spent just one month in jail before being released in Yasser Arafat's notorious revolving door policy. Just one month ago, Israel was considering releasing 450 Arab security prisoners in return for the safe return home of captured IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit.

As we walk together out of the Old City through Dung Gate, the warm breeze evaporates into the night, leaving a chill wind in its place.