Hillel Schenker reflects on a joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony and what it means for independence and freedom for both peoples.
On May 7 at 9 pm, I joined at least 10,000 people in Tel Aviv’s Park Hayarkon for the 14th annual Israeli-Palestinian joint Alternative Memorial Ceremony. The event was co-organized by the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Family Forum and Combatants for Peace under the title, “Sharing Sorry, Bringing Hope.”
“Traitors!” “Shame on you!” “Homos!” “Nazis!” “Fuck you and fuck the Arabs!” “Go to Gaza!” “This day is only reserved for the Israeli fallen!” “The terrorists are coming for you — you’re next!” “They’re going to rape your daughter!” These were just some of the curses hurled at us by a pack of right-wing extremists when we arrived at the park, with yellow-vested monitors and swarms of police blocking their way to prevent them from getting at us. It felt like a test of courage, going through a gauntlet to make it to the dark green pasture near the Yarkon River, an oasis of hope and coexistence.
Memories of those who were killed
At 8 pm, when people stood in silence in memory of those who were killed in the conflict, thoughts ran through my mind of Yoram, the music teacher from Kibbutz Ma’anit whose wedding I had sung at; of Dr. Yosef Ha’efrati, head of the department when I studied general literature at Tel Aviv University, killed by a Syrian shell when he was lecturing to soldiers on the frontlines; of Yonatan Shomroni, one of the first sons of Kibbutz Barkai who I had taught music to in the sixth grade, lost on his third flight as a pilot; and the guy in my unit from Kiryat Shmoneh whose name I don’t remember, killed on the Golan Heights on the second day of the war when the Syrians rained shells down at us while we were laying a minefield.
The first speaker, Yuval Rachamim, chair of the Israeli Peace NGO Forum, lost his father in 1967 when he was 8 years old. He said he no longer goes to the official ceremony and that we have to mourn together and seek ways to end the conflict. Leah Shakdiel from the Oz V’shalom religious peace movement also spoke, noting that people who look like her don’t usually share her views about the need for Israeli-Palestinian peace and understanding. However, she came to represent what she felt were true Jewish, humanistic values.
There were three Palestinian speakers who lost family members. Two of them, Muhammad Unbos and Fatmeh Muhammadin (from Gaza but living temporarily in Ramallah), spoke via video from the West Bank, since they weren’t given permits to visit Tel Aviv. Fatmeh said she wanted to present the human face of the Gazans living under extremely harsh conditions. The entire ceremony was broadcast live in Gaza by 37-year-old Rami Amman, founder of the Gaza Youth Committee, who said: “I welcome every peace initiative coming from the Israeli side, I don’t care if it’s right or left-wing. I don’t think we — Palestinians and Israelis — should be busy blaming one another, especially after the terrible number of days we all went through; we need something else.”
The third Palestinian, the very eloquent 14-year-old Mohammad Darwish from the Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem, recalled how, when he was 8 years old, he saw his close childhood friend, Abd el-Rahman Shadi Abdullah, killed by a stray bullet fired by an Israeli soldier. With great pride and passion, he said: “I promise you that I am telling the story of your death in order to return life to a humane path, and in recent years, I have chosen to commemorate you by means of activism for peace.”
“… and there are many more of us”
I was particularly moved by the last speaker: Tamar Ben-Ozer. Her grandfather, Avraham Shomroni, was a colleague on Kibbutz Barkai; lost his parents in the Holocaust; survived via the kindertransport in England; became a member and leader of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and was principal of the regional kibbutz high school when I arrived; and he was a dedicated peace activist after his son Yonatan was killed. Saying this was the first year that she wasn’t sitting in the front row of the ceremony together with her grandfather, Tamar described how one of the veterans cried out at his grave last year. “Where are the young people who will continue the struggle? … I’m here,” exclaimed Tamar in memory of her grandfather and her uncle, “and there are many more of us.”
Afterwards, while catching a taxi with three women to Tel Aviv since the buses were all full, one of them said she came all the way from the Galil, and that it is so encouraging to see so many people — giving a sense of hope for the future. She also said that a friend didn’t come this time because, in 2018, the demonstrators spat at her and she didn’t want to go through that again.
In honor of Memorial Day, the Avi Chai Foundation prepared a series of short animated films in memory of some of the fallen. Lior Yonatan, the eldest son of poet Natan Yonatan, was killed near the Suez Canal on the first day of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. His brother Ziv says that Lior always told him, “on Purim, don’t dress up as a soldier.” Although Lior died on the frontlines, he was a dedicated peace activist who believed in the sanctity of life for all people — Israelis and Arabs on an equal basis — and for animals as well. Ziv is very gratified that the animated short in memory of his brother doesn’t show him in uniform, but emphasizes his love of nature.
The evening closed, as always, with a beautiful rendition by a joint Jewish-Arab choir of Chava Alberstein’s powerful anti-war version of “Chad Gadya,” written during the First Intifada, with its powerful cry: “How long will the cycle of violence continue?”
Reflecting on the joint memorial ceremony as we celebrated Israeli Independence Day, one thing is clear to me: We Israelis will not be truly independent and free until the Palestinians also have their independence and freedom.
*[A version of this article was originally published on The Times of Israel’s blogs.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.