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Jews Are Not Israel’s Only Mourners on Yom Hazikaron

Hundreds of others who died in battle—Druze, Bedouins, Christians, Circassians—will be remembered on the country’s Memorial Day

Hillel Kuttler
April 24, 2023
Courtesy the author
Haled Rakhal, who maintains the Bedouin Warriors Memorial, was 14 when a roadside explosive in Lebanon in 1993 killed his father, MajdCourtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Haled Rakhal, who maintains the Bedouin Warriors Memorial, was 14 when a roadside explosive in Lebanon in 1993 killed his father, MajdCourtesy the author

On an early April morning in Daliyat al-Karmel (pop. 16,000), the largest Druze village in Israel, Lutfi Eldeen was speaking about his father, Amal Nasereldeen. Nearing 97 years old, Nasereldeen will this week receive the prestigious Israel Prize for his life’s work, in a nationally televised ceremony from Jerusalem on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. He will be the third Druze so honored.

We were sitting at Eldeen’s desk in the local branch of Yad Labanim, a national organization that memorializes individuals who fell in Israel’s defense. Eldeen, the branch’s director, spoke of his family’s losses. His brother, a command sergeant major, died in 1969 in a battle with terrorists who had infiltrated from Jordan. His nephew, a sergeant major, was killed in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead in 2008.

At the family’s mourning tent in 2008, someone asked Nasereldeen whether he felt angry at Israel for the losses in action of his son and grandson. (Another son, Saleh, who likewise served in the Israel Defense Forces, was abducted as a civilian in 1995 by Hamas terrorists. He was never heard from again and is presumed dead.)

“To attain a strong, independent state, you must sacrifice,” Eldeen remembered his father responding. “And if I have to, I’ll sacrifice another son.”

At the time, Eldeen was serving in the IDF. His late brother and late nephew also were called Lutfi.

“My name is Lutfi … so my chances were not good,” he said, smiling, of his father’s comment. “But I respect what he said. He had to have been strong mentally and in his belief to say it a few days after losing his grandson. I’m proud of him, to say something like that.”

When sirens sound for two minutes across Israel on the night of April 24 to open Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, the family will be commemorating the occasion, too.

Jewish Israelis aren’t Yom Hazikaron’s only mourners.

Bereaved families among the country’s ethnic and religious minorities also will attend memorial ceremonies that night and the next morning, light candles at gravesites, be embraced by friends and family and comrades of their fallen, flip wistfully through scrapbooks and reminisce.

Israel’s Defense Ministry counts 24,213 people as military fatalities (including those serving as police officers and prison guards) and victims of terrorist attacks, dating to before the state’s founding 75 years ago. My interviews this month with representatives of several minority groups reveal that the number includes 427 Druze, 221 Bedouins, 27 Christians, and approximately 10 Circassians.

The IDF benefits from soldiers’ diversity and minorities’ contributions, said Idit Shafran Gittleman, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and an expert on the intersection of military and society. Military service also provides “a better chance [for] integrating in Israeli society,” she said. “The fact that they’re willing to sacrifice means that their loyalty does not need to be questioned.”

Still, Shafran Gittleman said, the country has “work to do” to extend the full benefits of citizenship to those groups: “Serving in the military does give you social mobility, but does it give you equal rights and equal opportunity? Not yet.”

In a country replete with memorials to people killed protecting Israel, those communities’ losses are highlighted to varied degrees. The Druze complex in the Carmel mountains near Haifa, which includes a pre-army training center and an amphitheater on whose stage stands a memorial wall with the engraved names, is state-sponsored. So is a facility in the Jezreel Valley honoring the Bedouins; both sites host Yom Hazikaron ceremonies. The Circassian Heritage Center, in the village of Kfar Kamma, west of Tiberias, is privately funded. Jawdat Salameh, a Catholic, said he hopes to establish a memorial in the Galilee commemorating fallen Christian Israelis.

Until then, Salameh said, he’s pleased that his son, Rogeh, is memorialized at the Bedouins’ site. Rogeh Salameh, a 22-year-old staff sergeant, was killed by a sniper in 2001 while posted at a lookout near Gaza.

“Apparently, the good people are taken early,” he said.

A few miles northeast of the Druze facility on another spring morning, three Jewish residents of Moshav Shorashim stopped in at the Bedouin Warriors Memorial. They came to plan an outing here for Yom Hazikaron. Each year, they lead a group of their moshav’s neighbors to a different site connected to a military unit or battle.

The Bedouins “are our brothers. They fought with us,” one of the trio, Dror Angel, said of the upcoming tour. “We want to show that they have a central place. Just like the Druze are part of the IDF brotherhood, so are the Bedouins.”

The group is likely to hear on Yom Hazikaron from the memorial’s four employees, all of whom lost loved ones serving in the IDF. On this morning, Angel and his colleagues had just finished meeting with the memorial’s chairman, Ziad Saady, who was 13 when his father, Salah, serving in the Border Guard, was killed in 1972 in a firefight with terrorists near the northern border.

The gardener and maintenance man who escorted me around the grounds, Haled Rakhal, was 14 when a roadside explosive in Lebanon in 1993 killed his father, Majd.

Pictures of the fallen men—like the Druze, only male Bedouins serve in the military; many females in both communities do national service—are among those displayed in a memorial hall at the site’s Yad Labanim building. Framed facsimiles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence hang side by side on a corridor wall: one in Hebrew and one in Arabic.

In a garden nearby, 221 headstones are arrayed as in cemeteries, although the bodies are buried in each person’s hometown.

Saady estimates that 10% of Bedouin males in Israel enlist in the IDF. “I want 100%,” he said. “I want it to be compulsory service, not voluntary.” Universal conscription would spur the government to invest more in Bedouin communities, he explained.

“The state was founded on a silver platter of the blood of the fallen,” Saady said at another point. Natan Alterman’s Hebrew-language poem from late 1947, “The Silver Platter,” often is recited at Yom Hazikaron ceremonies countrywide. Two main characters are a male soldier and a female soldier, both wearing fatigues and caked in grime. They give “no sign of life or death” before withdrawing into the shadows, Alterman wrote. The other main character is the awestruck nation. Alterman wrote the poem shortly after Chaim Weizmann, soon to become Israel’s first president, said that statehood wouldn’t come delivered on a silver platter.

Saady’s evoking the term suggests a uniting in grief of Israelis of all stripes. In their interviews, all of the minority communities’ representatives spoke of the commonality of the day’s sorrow, and of their patriotism.

On Yom Hazikaron, “we remember our fallen,” said Saady. “We sing the anthem. From our perspective, we are equal citizens and no different in our obligations. For me, it’s a day that all Israeli citizens should remember the soldiers who, because of them, we live.”

During our conversation in Daliyat al-Karmel, Nasereldeen was interrupted by the entrance of 30 visiting Air Force cadets. He seated them around a conference table, and stood while explaining that the Druze allied themselves with the Jews before the state’s founding. “We fought in all of Israel’s wars, because we feel that this is our state. We are partners,” he said. “I tell this to leaders of the country: The Jews and Druze are true friends. It’s not just a saying. We are your brothers, and you are our brothers.”

“We grew up with a love of the country,” Salameh said in a phone conversation several days later. A retired police officer, Salameh comes from a family of public servants. His brother and brother-in-law served in the police department and Border Guard, respectively. His uncle was wounded in battle during the Yom Kippur War. As he does every year, Salameh will attend Yom Hazikaron services at the Bedouin memorial. He wants to raise funds for a larger church in his village, Turan, that he’d name after his late son.

“We’re seeing more and more Christians—males and females—joining the IDF,” he said. “For us, Israel is our state and protector.”

Aibek Napso, the Circassian center’s director, explained that his community—Israel’s 5,000 Circassians live primarily in two villages in the Galilee—doesn’t hold Yom Hazikaron ceremonies, doesn’t build memorial sites, and that its fallen soldiers, like its civilians, tend to be buried without tombstones. “We believe that the soul is in the sky, and what’s in the ground is not the soul,” he said.

“We are citizens of the state, part of the state, just like everyone … We’re proud we’re Circassians, Israeli citizens and Muslims. We’re modest people, and I want to be accepted as a citizen, not because I served in the army,” he said. “We serve in the army just like we pay income tax.”

Nitza Yogev, a Jewish resident of Kiryat Tivon, made the short drive to Daliyat al-Karmel to see the monument and meet Nasereldeen. Her husband, Zeev, a pilot, was shot down over Egypt during the Yom Kippur War. She came here out of curiosity about the Druze, a religious community that split from Islam about 1,000 years ago.

“Lots of wars are fought over nationalism. It’s a wonder to me that they live without the desire for a state and that they sacrifice their lives for the State of Israel,” she said of the Druze.

Earlier, Nasereldeen had explained the devotion of the 150,000-member Israeli Druze community (1.5% of the population) to the country as deeply ingrained, going back to the example set by Hassan Abu Rukun, recognized as the first Druze killed while defending Israel, when in 1938 he refused Muslims’ demands that he join forces against the nascent Yishuv.

Nasereldeen served in the early 1950s, when Druze joined the IDF voluntarily. In 1956, Druze leaders insisted on their service being compulsory, and since then have been drafted just as are Jewish Israelis. Circassians’ service is compulsory at their own initiative, too.

“We work for the benefit of our country and our state,” Nasereldeen said.

He told the Air Force group that one of his most important functions is supporting bereaved Druze families. “Another is to strengthen Jewish-Druze relations,” he said.

Photographs filling the corridor’s walls show Nasereldeen the community leader and former parliamentarian with Israeli presidents, prime ministers, and generals; dignitaries visiting from Europe; even members of the parliament of Lebanon, with whom he met at the request of Prime Minister Menachem Begin during Israel’s war in that country, when Nasereldeen still served in the Knesset.

Such photos also dominate his office. The largest picture sits on a shelf beside his desk. It’s a black-and-white electronic image of his eldest child, Lutfi, known as Lutfi the First. He was 24, married and the father of a daughter when he was killed.

Asked what being awarded the Israel Prize means to him, Nasereldeen mentioned his advocating for more Druze officers to be promoted to generals and brigadier generals; aligning the Druze—he calls his people a tribe, rather than a community—with Jewish members of Knesset and not Arab ones; pushing for greater opportunities for Druze, including housing for discharged soldiers; and settling land disputes.

“These,” he said, “are the areas where I invested so much of my effort.”

Hillel Kuttler, a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected].