Cleared for Publication

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Today is May 13, 2024. Memorial Day in Israel. It’s not a shopping and vacation holiday like in the U.S. Rather it is a day of somber reflection and sadness when we mourn our war dead and embrace their families. Whether you think the war is just or not, I believe that we can all agree that it is heartbreaking that so many widows and orphans have joined Israel’s family of the bereaved. Their lives will never be the same.

This year is a particularly hard year with so many casualties. It is the first year following October 7 and the first year that 132 hostages (both alive and dead) are being held in inhumane conditions deep underground in the tunnels of Gaza. It is a year when much of the world does not support us in an extremely vocal way, when antisemitism is rife everywhere, and when there is a general feeling of sadness and hopelessness that we live with every day.

As is customary, every city and town holds a ceremony honoring their war dead. In my town, we have a memorial for soldiers who fell in battle before 1948 and the ceremony was held against the backdrop of that memorial. At 8 p.m. last night (because we mark every holiday beginning the previous evening), a country-wide siren rang out for one minute, signalling the whole country to come to a stop. The same happened this morning at 11 a.m. with a two-minute siren. Everyone stands still and silent. Even cars on the highway stop in the middle of the road and their drivers get out to share in that moment of respect.

In Israel, before soldiers go to battle, they are encouraged to write a letter to their loved ones which is only shared if they do not return. One particular line from one particular letter struck a chord with me. Written by a young soldier explaining why he entered Gaza without hesitation during this current war (and who obviously did not return), it read: “You really have to love your country more than you love yourself.” That was the recurring theme throughout the ceremony and, in fact, a theme which permeates every minute of every day — the deep love for Israel (even if you do not agree with the government’s policies) and the inherent need to protect this tiny but mighty nation because, as Golda Meir once said, we have nowhere else to go.

Throughout the year, there are three words (it’s actually only two in Hebrew) that we dread hearing or reading: “Cleared for publication.” “Cleared for publication” means that the family of a soldier on active duty has been notified that the worst tragedy of all has befallen their son. Several months ago, it was cleared for publication that we lost a boy from our community. His parents and friends spoke at our ceremony last night, demonstrating impossible stoicism, especially his mother. No mother or father should have to stand before their community on Memorial Day eulogizing their son instead of holding him close.

We’re fairly new here, so we don’t really know that many people. And we don’t know this family. But it’s as if we do. We caught our breath at the time when we heard that the soldier whose name was cleared for publication was one of our own, a local boy, 21-year-old Staff Sgt. David Sasson. David, who was a fighter in the Israel Defense Forces’s Oketz Special Force Counter Terror K9 Unit, was reportedly killed while on his way to search a building in Southern Gaza where his unit had identified terrorists.

On the day of his funeral, the whole town turned out to line the main street holding Israeli flags as David was sent on his final journey to the military cemetery a few miles away. The municipality, in cooperation with the IDF, made three buses available for residents of the town who wanted to attend the funeral. Another two buses were dispatched from the regional council offices to transport youth who wished to attend.

Funerals are a big deal here. Military funerals even bigger. They are usually attended by hundreds of people and often thousands. People want to pay their respects to a young person who was struck down before he began to live. David was deployed to try to bring our hostages home and ensure peace for the people of Israel. Instead, he left behind a grieving family and dreams that will never be realized. People recognize that sacrifice and somehow inherently share in the family’s grief.

On Memorial Day, families and friends of the fallen pack the nation’s cemeteries. I have been to a few different cemeteries on Memorial Days throughout the years to pay respects. I recall that the cemeteries were packed, literally packed, with mourners around each grave. I can only imagine the crowds this year with over 770 soldiers (as of this writing) killed since October 7. Maybe that number also includes members of Israel’s security forces. Maybe it doesn’t. I’m not good with numbers. Only words. And these words are painful to write.

My heart weeps every time I hear another soldier’s name cleared for publication. And there is always another and another. And another. And sometimes several in one day. Sometimes one who died from his injuries which he suffered days, weeks or months earlier. But it’s always the same. Those three little words: cleared for publication.

Israel is such a normal place to live during the day to day. Really, it is. But, at the same time, it isn’t. We are always running after that elusive peace. We hunger for tranquillity and serenity. We don’t want anymore wars. We want to live in a place where there is no need to clear anything for publication except the ramblings of writers like me who would rather be writing about happier times.

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