Israelis mourn after a year of increased attacks

As Israel marked its traditional day of mourning for fallen servicemen on Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance on April 22, in a far corner of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, an intimate ceremony for victims of attacks was underway. Mourners packed elbow-to-elbow under beige tents, each with a story of loss.

“He was kidnapped at the entrance to Jerusalem on his way to turn in his military uniform. It was supposed to be his last day,” an Israeli-American who lives in Jerusalem said of a close friend killed in 1994 at the age of 24. “Later they found his tefillin bag laying on the side of the road. Three days later they found his body,” she said. 

For some, it was their first time attending the commemoration for victims of attacks. “We feel a human connection,” said Sara Halevi, 23, a resident of the Har Nof neighborhood in Jerusalem where five people were killed in a synagogue in November 2014 when two Palestinians yielding knives attacked worshippers. The murders were gruesome and shook HaLevi, who usually attends Israel’s main event, a military ceremony held hours earlier, also on Mount Herzl, honoring fallen soldiers.

Indeed, Israelis have had a rockier year than most since the close of the second Intifada. Twenty-five have been killed since April 2014, the last such commemoration, a stark increase from the six killed in attacks in 2013, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared the story of his personal loss, the death of his older brother Yonaton (Yoni) Netanyahu, killed in 1976 during Operation Entebbe, an Israeli rescue mission of hostages held by Palestinian militants who had hijacked an Air France plane. “It was the worst moment of my life, besides one other moment, seven hours later, after a tortuous nightlong journey, when I walked up the path leading to the house of my mother and father,” the Prime Minister said.

While Netanyahu spoke, thousands of Israelis gathered at the gravesites of their deceased relatives. Mount Herzl is also Israel’s flagship army cemetery, and on this day it was a sea of grief. In every direction, hundreds sat on small plastic chairs next to headstones. Others placed small rocks beside the graves, a traditional Jewish ritual.

“They recruited him to the infantry when he arrived, and he never came back. We don’t know what happened to him,” Diane Alice, 69, said of her late husband. At just 22, she was left to raise three children under the age of four when her husband was killed. The couple had emigrated from Morocco to Israel that same year.  Attending the official army ceremony, “It unifies you with all of the other families,” said Alice who traveled from Haifa for the memorial with her now-grown children.

On Tuesday night, at the sundown start to the commemorations, President Reuven Rivlin gave an inclusive eulogy in a torch-lighting ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He honored the latest victims and noted “Jews and non-Jews, lone soldiers and new immigrants” alike were killed in a series of attacks that followed Israel’s summer war in Gaza. The deceased included two Druze police officers who were slain while on-duty.

“Death struck at the door of many, regardless of their religious beliefs. No camp was left untouched by death,” the president said.

That same night in Tel Aviv, some 5,000 people poured into a stadium at the north of the city to honor both Israeli and Palestinians victims of the conflict in an alternative commemoration. Combatants for Peace, an organization founded by former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants hosted a testimony reading by family members of the victims.

“In all of this darkness, I suddenly understood, there was meaning hiding everywhere,” Iris Segev said from the stage, recounting how joining up with bereaved Palestinian families helped her grieve after her son Nimrod Segev was killed during the Second Lebanon War, in 2006.

Palestinian Yasmine Istaye, 27, from the village of Salem near Nablus, read from braille, explaining she is nearly blind from an eye disorder. “I can feel the energy of thousand who want to be together.” A settler killed her father in 2007.

At Combatants for Peace’s first commemoration 10 years ago, just a few hundred attended. This time around, the hall was filled beyond capacity. It was the largest memorial in Tel Aviv. Still, traditionally, Yom HaZikaron is about remembering soldiers who lost their lives while in the Israeli army. Their deaths are viewed as a sacrifice to the existence of the state of Israel. In that sense, Tel Aviv’s memorial, which rejects that narrative and casts soldiers’ deaths as victims in a political conflict, evoked shock and anger from many.

Segev’s husband and her other son would not attend, opting for the state military ceremony headed by Netanyahu. Outside, around 20 protested. They yelled racial epitaphs at the attendees as they entered and exited the front doors.

Back inside the venue, in a prep room, the two men who founded the joint memorial told the Journal how each of their daughters had died from violence in the conflict. 

“I lost my 14-year old daughter in a suicide bombing on the fourth of September 1997,” Rami el-Hanoun, 65, said of Samadar el-Hanoun.

For el-Hanoun, joining Combatants for Peace “opened a whole new world for me. I was 47 years old when I first met the Palestinians—every time I say that I am ashamed—deeply ashamed.” He added, “ever since then I have been hooked. It has given purpose and meaning to my life, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It gives sense to the senseless killing of my daughter.”

By el-Hanoun’s side was Bassem Aramin, 45, a co-founder of Combatants for Peace, along with el-Hanoun’s son, Erik el-Hanoun. Aramin explained that before he started the organization, he spent his late teens and early twenties incarcerated after he joined up with a group that tossed two grenades at Israeli soldiers. In jail he had a change of heart.

“We decided to let down our weapons because we discovered that we wanted to kill each other to achieve the same thing, peace and security—of course each one from his point of view. But the result is the same result. We are dying. We are suffering, both of us,” Aramin said.

Two years after their 2005 start, disaster struck. Israeli border police killed Aramin’s 10-year old daughter, Abir Aramin. She was a bystander to a confrontation in Anata in the West Bank.

“We ran to the hospital to sit by her bed, and for me it was like losing my daughter for the second time. I was completely devastated” el-Hanoun said of Abir. At that point, the two families, one Israeli, one Palestinian “became, in fact, one family,” he said.

‘Martyr for Peace’

Flags of the United States and Israel draped the simple pine coffin of Marla Bennett, the 24-year-old student laid to rest on Monday, at a service that emphasized Jewish solidarity in the face of terrorism.

More than 1,500 mourners gathered in San Diego to bid farewell to Bennett, who was killed July 31 in the Jerusalem bomb blast that claimed seven lives at a Hebrew University cafeteria.

"Marla was one of Israel’s martyrs for shalom, for peace," said her rabbi, Martin S. Lawson of Temple Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue in San Diego.

Lawson was joined on the bimah by Conservative Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal, whose Tifereth Israel Synagogue hosted the service, and by Orthodox Rabbi Danny Landes, who heads the Pardes Institute of Religious Studies where Bennett had studied in Jerusalem. Dignitaries from both countries paid tribute, including U.S. Rep. Susan Davis (D-San Diego); Terri Smooke, Gov. Gray Davis’ special liaison to the Jewish community; Tzvi Vapni, the deputy consul-general for Israel in Los Angeles, and Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Under tight security, with camera crews from nearly a dozen news stations, as well as reporters and photographers from various newspapers and wire services present, there may have been a temptation to make the hour-long funeral service more political than at times it was.

But the rabbis, cantorial soloist Myrna Cohen of Temple Emanu-El, and Bennett’s boyfriend, Michael Simon, kept the focus on the life and values of Marla Ann Bennett.

"Marla packed goodness into every moment of her life," said Simon, who Lawson described as Bennett’s "intended." Only a week before the funeral, the couple had been in Jerusalem, making plans to meet each other’s families in San Diego and Long Beach.

Looking at the 1,500 mourners, Simon said, "This is just not the way it was supposed to be."

Simon described Bennett as a kind and giving person. When they had gone shopping in downtown Jerusalem for presents to bring home for her family, they met an elderly woman who needed help carrying her groceries. Of course, Bennett volunteered, he said.

"I have had an opportunity to love someone with the greatest intensity," he said, adding that he was proud to be loved back by such a person. He read a letter in which Bennett wrote to him, "you bring so much happiness into my life…. Thank you for pushing me to make good decisions. We make a good team. I love you."

After his eulogy, Simon was accompanied from the bimah back to the front row to join the people who could have been his in-laws: Linda, Michael and Lisa Bennett, Marla’s parents and sister.

Lawson delivered the main eulogy, in which he painted a portrait of a girl-turned-woman whose joy and goodness were infectious inspirations to others.

When Bennett had her bat mitzvah 11 years ago, Lawson said, she was determined "to dig" beneath the Torah portion she read.

Remarkably, in light of what happened to her in the Hebrew University cafeteria, Bennett had understood that even though a person might live a holy life, and follow the mitzvot, there was no connection between that and what might happen to that person in the physical realm, Lawson said.

Following her first trip to Israel, with her mother, Bennett spoke at her Torah confirmation about her Judaism. "She spoke of her love for JCA Camp Shalom [in Malibu], of volunteering to help others in the community as part of Jewish teachings and then she said: ‘Have you ever been somewhere with others, just thinking, this is all so right? I believe Judaism has created this feeling … in my life. Judaism is the reason I feel so close to people thousands of miles away in Jerusalem that I’ve never even met. This religion has created such a strong bond, I think it is incredible.’"

As a teenager, she was active in United Synagogue Youth (USY). Lawson said after one Havdalah service celebrated with fellow USYers in La Jolla, "Marla felt a spiritual change in her life and knew she wanted more."

In the past two years, since Bennett returned to Israel to study in a joint program offered by the Hebrew University and the Pardes Institute, "Marla became more Jewishly observant," Lawson said. "She would not drive on Shabbat, so this became an opportunity for Marla and her dad to take long walks together and visit as they wandered through the neighborhood."

"It is also possible that walking was far better for her and others, since I am told that for Marla, driving was not her forte," Lawson’s remarked, and laughter broke through the grief of her friends, seated throughout the sanctuary.

Many of the friends Bennett had made from all her myriad activities attended the funeral.

"Death is a funny thing," Ori Blumenfeld told The Journal. "You spend your life meeting people every day, but the one day that everyone that you ever met and/or life you touched gathers in a room — you aren’t there to see that," said Blumenfeld, who had done junior year abroad with Bennett at Hebrew University and senior year at UC Berkeley. He said that "pretty much the entire junior year abroad class showed up" to pay their respects. Although it was not the way they would have chosen to have a reunion, he said, "Marla would have loved to have seen all of those people yesterday."

"Marla had no enemies, she was that respected and loved….She loved life and the people it included."

Lawson said that after graduating from Patrick Henry High School, where she had been a member of the student council and a cheerleader, Bennett attended UC Berkeley where she chose to live in the Berkeley Bayit, a Jewish student housing co-op.

"She arrived at college not having a clue about cooking, not even about the names of most vegetables," Lawson related. "Patiently she learned and soon became a great cook, preparing meals for her housemates and later, incredible Shabbat dinners in Jerusalem for eight to 10 people without any stress.

"While living in Israel, Marla collected clothing to be distributed to poor Arabs and Jews. Her concern for the plight of the homeless stretches back to her teenage years when she fed the hungry here in San Diego at St. Vincent de Paul. Friends told me how she was a ‘take charge’ person who made you want to help her because you knew it would be fun."

Landes, her teacher and mentor from Pardes, spoke of the biblical injunction against destroying a fruit tree, even in time of war because it provides not only nourishment, but shade and comfort.

"Our Marla was this beautiful tree often in an arid desert of scorched relations," he said.

"Everyone who knew her wished to be under those branches and there was room for all of us."

Landes said he just learned that Bennett used to help a woman in Jerusalem shop, clean and generally make certain that everything was all right.

"It takes 4,000 years of Judaism to produce a person like this," Landes said. "This is what Judaism is all about."

Donations in the name of Marla Bennett can be made to:
Student Israel Travel Program, Temple Emanu-El, 6299 Capri Drive, San Diego, CA, 92120; and Israel Social Service Fund, Jewish Community Foundation, 4950 Murphy Canyon Road, San Diego, CA 92123.