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Reflections on Peoplehood, Democracy, and Grief


By Michael Oren

This Memorial Day, as in years past, I attended the official ceremony at the military cemetery in Ashdod. My presence there was both semi-official and personal.

Despite the painful price, the Jews must fight back against those who, in very generation, try to annihilate us. Yet he took no responsibility for October 7 or for the unraveling of Israel’s foreign relations ever since


I proudly serve as president of the Hadas Malka Foundation that assists the needy and bereaved families of the Israel Border Police. The foundation is named for a young policewoman who was murdered while preventing a terrorist attack outside of Jerusalem in 2017. At Hadas’s shiva, I met her father, David Malka, who determined to perpetuate her memory by assisting the brave women and men who served beside her. It has been my privilege to help David preserve Hadas’s legacy of selflessness, leadership, and love of Israel. But along with my voluntary role, I feel a strong attachment to the Malka family and, on Memorial Day, I join them at Hadas’s gravesite in Ashdod.


Formally, at least, there was nothing different about this year's ceremony. The chief military rabbi said the Kaddish prayer for the dead, and a military cantor sang the El Maleh Rachamim lament. Bugles were blown and wreaths laid. In the profoundest way, though, this year was different. 


Surrounding Hadas’s final resting place were the freshly engraved headstones of soldiers killed on, and since, October 7th. The crowds were dense, the silence penetrated only by the wailing of recently bereaved families. Everywhere the unbearable price of this war was on display. Among the fallen were women and men, soldiers from elite combat units and maintenance crews, and the civilians who, on that nightmarish morning, picked up guns to rush to defend their country. In the Ashdod military cemetery, we were one nation, one people, one family.


Then, as in all official ceremonies, a representative of the government rose to speak. It was security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a radically right-wing and virulently divisive figure so radical in his views that the IDF would not even let him enlist. No sooner had Ben-Gvir begun to speak when loud protests broke out and the police moved in to evict the demonstrators. The vast majority of the mourners nevertheless remained silent and kept whatever disgust they felt wholly to themselves.


I too became silent, but my heart and mind both raced. My father, a career soldier in the U.S. army always told me, “You salute the rank not the person.” In Israel, of course, we tend to salute neither. Still, I feel duty bound to respect the offices of Israel’s democratically elected government even if not their holders. Yet the question remained: Could I respect an individual whose very presence was an affront to many of the families present and the loved ones they lost?


Ben-Gvir’s speech, while fiery, was boilerplate: Despite the painful price, the Jews must fight back against those who, in very generation, try to annihilate us. Yet he took no responsibility for October 7 or for the unraveling of Israel’s foreign relations ever since. He offered no vision of a future peace that could somehow justify our people’s sacrifice. With the protesters dispersed, his remarks were greeted with silence.

Later, following the traditional three-volley salute, the ceremony ended. I embraced the members of the Malka family and, as every year, wished to meet them in happier times.


The mourners filed out of the cemetery, but they could not leave behind their grief. Tragically, our unspeakable losses will likely continue as the war for the defense of this country drags on. We deserve better, I thought. All Israelis—the reservists and the conscripts, the volunteers, and the medical staffs, the wounded and the displaced, deserve better. As we continue to fight our enemies, we must strive to ensure a more honorable, responsible, and unifying leadership. We owe nothing less to Hadas Malka and the fallen who will forever remain beside her. 


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