President Isaac Herzog’s speech at the State Opening Ceremony for Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron) 5783/2023 at the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem:
“The siren that pierced the silence right now, making its way from one end of the land to the next, rattles our souls and makes way for remembrance, which overwhelms us with silence. I ask myself; I ask us: what other country in the world has such a special sound? It is the sound of pain and of hope; of grief and of pride. It is the sound of the State of Israel. A sound that calls on us to pause for a moment, to lock in the sanctity, to remember and to connect—together. This year, in the grips of these days of discord, this sound is more powerful, more searing, more pained and more painful than ever. This year, more than ever before, this sound calls on us, in the heart of the stillness that cries out: all of us, together! Their sacrifice has not been in vain; it shall never have been in vain.
I appeal to you, my brothers and sisters, citizens of Israel, at this sacred moment, from here, the wall of longing and tears, from which the Divine Presence has never moved, and I ask us to mourn and grieve—together; may we let that feeling of longing envelop us—together. May we let that sound of our collective pain ring loudly on this Memorial Day, free of discord, as we cry for our sons and daughters. As we refuse to find comfort, for they are no more.
Dearly beloved families, injured survivors of wars and terror attacks, Mr. Defense Minister, the IDF Chief of Staff and heads of the security forces, ministers and members of Knesset, the Tenth President, honorable rabbis, Mayor of Jerusalem, ambassadors and diplomats, heads of organizations representing bereaved families, citizens of Israel, ladies and gentlemen.
Tomorrow when day breaks, we will head out in our tens of thousands to the nation’s cemeteries; to the military lots. Those that tell our uniquely Israeli story. Those that speak of our diversity and togetherness. Faces, names, stones. Headstones. The stone tablets lain over their graves are the tablets of a covenant: a covenant of fate and a covenant of destiny.
I wish to speak about one burial lot tonight; one small burial lot. Lot 9, Area A, from 1948-49, in the cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
At the entrance to the lot, in the first row, above the first grave, stands in silence the headstone of the youngest fatality in the lot: Private Yosef Zvi Strauss. Yossi, born in Hungary, a young man, Haredi, a refugee from the Holocaust, joined the youth movement of Agudas Yisroel, made aliyah on the Latrun clandestine immigration ship, was expelled to Cyprus; he persisted, and he returned. He was a student at the Kol HaTorah Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and with his rabbis’ blessing, he enlisted in the war effort and fell in battle around Armon Hanatziv, aged only 17.
Next to Yossi is buried Yosef, Yosef Ahrak, who made aliyah from Yemen, three years before he was killed defending the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem. “He dreamed of building a new life in his beloved homeland,” Yosef’s family wrote about him, as he left behind a young wife and a baby a few months old. A line thus stretches from Hungary to Yemen, and from both of them to Jerusalem: to Lot 9.
When the Jerusalem Conservatory wished to send Arik Fenigstein, a gifted musician, for a training program overseas, he refused and said: “I cannot leave the land in wartime.” Staff Sergeant Arik Fenigstein, a native-born Israeli, a son of Jerusalem, who served in the Israel Police in tandem with his service as a medic in the Haganah, became the first fatality of the Israeli defensive force after the establishment of the state. As he pulled the wounded out of the carnage, near the Old City of Jerusalem, a rifle’s bullet hit the hand grenades carried by this musician-medic from Lot 9 on Mount Herzl. He was killed on the spot. His ballad, cut short.
On the day Arik fell, Rachel was also killed. Her headstone reads: Private Rachel Seltzer-Reis, daughter of Ada and Yisrael. And when one looks at the next headstone along, one’s heart is shattered by a harrowing realization as one reads the words: Private Ada Seltzer-Reis. Rachel, daughter of Ada. Rachel and Ada. Mother and daughter.
Ada was separated from the apple of her eye, her daughter Rachel, when they escaped the Nazis. Years went by, the Nazi butcher butchered, and mother and daughter met again here in Jerusalem, against all the odds. Rachel enlisted, fought in Gush Etzion, and fell as a Lehi fighter on the “rooftop of death” near the Old City. When Ada was informed about her daughter’s death, she said: “I already know.” Three months later, she too was dead; dead of a broken heart. The headquarters of the Haganah announced: “Mother of the Sick and Injured—Dead!” And through the air rises that hymn from the Days of Awe: “Tell my mother that her joy has turned away / The son she gave birth to at ninety years of age / Has gone to the fire, and been designated for the knife. / Where will I find a comforter for her, where? / It pains me for my mother to cry and sob. / Recall the binder, the bound, and the altar.”
And the silent headstones, these covenantal tablets, continue to speak, in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12): Rahamim Eliezer, a foreign volunteer from Bulgaria; and Refael Fergi Fadlon from Libya; and Leon Morris Amzel from France; and David Har Zahav and Ephraim Oster from Poland; and Yaakov Werner Miller, from Germany; and Israel Fenigstein, the box office worker from the Orion Cinema—all of them buried in Lot 9. David Netanel Mintz, whose father was murdered in the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt, alongside Henry Fernebok, whose father was murdered in Auschwitz; and Uri Cohen, who first volunteered with the British Army, and now rests in Row 6, near the Irgun fighter Raphael Mike Mika, in Row 5. They all share the same address: Lot 9, Mount Herzl, Jerusalem.
All of them. Of all shades, lands of origin, professions, and lifestyles; they all believed in the resurrection of Israel on its soil; they all dreamed of the State of Israel; they all wanted to build and be built within it; they all paid with their lives for our shared national home, here in our homeland.
“I left to build a new life,” wrote Ben-Zion Sergio Favoncelo, also from Lot 9, who made aliyah from Rome, to his sister—soon before he fell on his way to escort a convoy to the besieged city of Jerusalem. “Here they call me Ben-Zion. Here I will forge a new life. Without prejudices, without any difference between one human being and another.” And these words, these last words, keep ringing in my ears. Leading the heart, again and again, to the same place. Lot 9. Area A. The cemetery on Mount Herzl, Jerusalem. One lot. One small corner of God’s earth. A lot that, altogether, is one nation.
Citizens of Israel, the siren this year, the intensely Israeli signature call, is a wake-up call for all of us. The cost of internal strife is heavy. Very heavy. At this sacred place, where so many of our soldiers swear oaths to defend the homeland, now is the time to pledge once more: we have one army and one state. The IDF and the men and women who serve it must remain beyond all disputes. All of us, from all shades of this nation, must find what connects and unites us. And not only in our cemeteries. We must entrench our covenant of life, commit to the unity of Israel, to the eternity of Israel, and to the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.
Lot 9 and all the military cemeteries reflect to us clearly that our fallen heroes over the years—Jews, Druze, Muslims, Christians, and Circassians, women and men, immigrants and native-born Israelis, from all across the land, from all beliefs, opinions, and worldviews, gave their lives out of a commitment to a profound existential necessity: building together, in partnership, more and more floors of our Israeli home. We must do everything—everything!—to safeguard this shared home. To argue and disagree, like always, with all the fervor and passion, but to love one another as sisters and brothers, for we are one people!
Dearly beloved families, mothers and fathers, girls and boys, grandmothers and grandfathers, sisters and brothers, you whose hearts are full of love. The grief is boundless; the pain, immeasurable; to silent sobbing, there can be no response. You are in our hearts and thoughts all year round, and especially on this day.
I meet you over the years, and also, painfully, in recent months. You share with me your profound concerns for Israel’s unity; and as I have promised you, I am working day after day, hour after hour, to safeguard our beloved country as a strong and unified state, Jewish and democratic. At this sacred moment, I repeat from the bottom of my heart: their sacrifice was not in vain! This past year, too, and even today, terror has reared its head. The heavy price in blood that we have paid for our existence has left gaps among our ranks. But we shall not break. Our enemies completely misinterpret the Israeli culture of argumentation and the Israeli spirit. They should make no mistake: we are all one people, one shared society, one state, which will continue to defend itself, will continue to extend a hand in peace, will continue to overcome, time after time, those who rise up to destroy us, and it will continue to “walk with heads held high” (Leviticus 26:13), despite the pain, and because of the pain.
Beloved family of grief, ladies and gentlemen, from here I pray for the recovery of the wounded, in body and in spirit, from wars and terror attacks, and I pray for the speedy return of our soldiers and civilians, our captives and MIAs, whom we think about every day; the task of bringing them home is our top priority.
I ask all of us, in these sacred moments, to recognize, strengthen, and embrace all the women and men of the IDF, the Police, the Border Police, and the Yamam, the Prison Service, Mossad, the Shin Bet, and all branches of the internal security forces, who keep us safe day and night, under incredible pressure, with devotion and a sense of duty, leaving homes and families behind. “See, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps!” (Psalm 121:4)
Sisters and brothers, may we emerge from this day, a day of grief and pride, strengthened and more cohesive, as one man with one heart, and may these verses and words of prayer be realized: “May it be your will, O Lord of Peace, the King to whom all peace is, to bring peace within your people Israel, and may peace spread until it reigns over all mankind.” As is written: “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land” (Leviticus 26:6). May the Lord grant strength to his people; may the Lord bless his people with peace.
May the memory of Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks be seared in our nation’s hearts from generation to generation forevermore.”