On June 7, 1982, then-prime minister Menachem Begin and defense minister Ariel Sharon arrived at the Crusader-era Beaufort Fortress in south Lebanon with a retinue of photographers and journalists.
The Lebanon War had begun the day before. Israeli formations had entered Lebanon, bent on routing out of the country the Palestinian terror groups that had shelled and terrorized northern Israeli towns and communities. Begin’s government called it the “Peace for Galilee War.”
In one of the first operations in the incursion, troops from the Golani infantry brigade forces stormed the hilltop fortress that overlooked the northernmost communities in Israel’s Upper Galilee region. The fortress had been used by Palestinian terror groups to fire rockets at Israeli towns and villages. It was, Begin said, “an open wound.”
The Beaufort battle was difficult and stretched long into the night. The Golani fighters charged into machine gun fire, rushed through twisting defensive trenches and faced well-fortified defenders at close quarters.
The following day, with an Israeli flag flying atop the ancient fortress’s uppermost battlement, defense minister Sharon, the architect of the war, hailed the swift success as an opportunity to showcase the war to the Israeli public as a fast, successful and low-cost operation.
But Sharon and Begin’s visit soon turned into a public relations fiasco.
As they arrived at the Beaufort, Sharon boasted to reporters that the fortress was “one of our greatest achievements” of the first day of fighting and that no Israelis had been lost in the battle. Six Golani soldiers had been killed, a fact the defense minister apparently didn’t know even though many hours had passed.
Begin fared even worse. He was introduced to a young lieutenant, Tamir Masad, who had helped lead the attack. Begin seemed to know nothing of the battle. In front of the cameras, he asked if any PLO fighters had surrendered and if they’d used “mehonot yeriya [shooting machines],” an old-timey name for machine guns long superseded by the modern Hebrew word mikla. The young officer, seemingly embarrassed, used the same term in his response to the prime minister.
The broadcast was intended to show a government firmly in control of a successful war of necessity that would free Israeli towns from the threat of incessant attacks. But neither Sharon nor Begin seemed to know what had happened on the very battlefield they had chosen for the photo op. Begin especially seemed wholly detached from the military situation.
That night, in her Jerusalem home, Raya Harnik, whose husband had died in a car accident a decade earlier, watched the posturing politicians on television, heard the news report that no one had been killed, and went to bed.
It was only the following morning, at 7:30 a.m., that officers showed up at her home to tell her that her son Gony was one of the six fighters killed in the battle.
Maj. Giora (“Gony”) Harnik, just 25 years old and already commanding the Golani Reconnaissance Company, one of the IDF’s most elite and celebrated units, had been shot and killed by a PLO fighter as he rushed through the last uncleared trench on the mountain.
His mother described that day in a 2012 interview.
When the officers showed up at her door to deliver the news, “they didn’t have to tell me. I understood immediately. I told them, ‘Gony was killed on the Beaufort.’ It surprised even me; how did I know? Gony wasn’t in the unit [he’d been on leave when the war broke out and rushed back to his unit], and they said [on the news] that there were no deaths. But I had a feeling. Then Noa came, my daughter, who was still asleep. ‘They killed our Gony,’ I told here, and I didn’t at all mean the terrorists.”
Gony’s death thrust Raya Harnik into the national spotlight, and in doing so sparked a profound change in both her and her country. Harnik would use that spotlight in ways that hadn’t been seen before among the families of fallen soldiers. She became a loud critic of the war, lambasted the political leadership and helped set in motion the anti-war movement that would eventually push Israel out of Lebanon and launch the Israeli movement for peace with the Palestinians.
“At least 50 percent of the Beaufort families” — the bereaved families of the soldiers who fell on the mountain — “will tell you it was a screw-up,” she told an interviewer. “A war that was a mistake and a battle that was a screw-up.”
As the military correspondent Alon Ben David put it in a documentary he helped make on the battle, “the gap between the courage and sacrifice [of the soldiers] and the euphoria and detachment [of the politicians]” set the anti-war protest movement into motion.
“I fled [the grief] to anger and action,” Harnik would later say. She demanded that Gony’s military gravestone say that he fell in the “Lebanon War,” rejecting Begin’s formula of the “Peace for Galilee War.” Though it was a break with protocol, the IDF didn’t dare resist her demand.
Harnik’s response to her son’s death is seen today as a pivot in the country’s history, a moment that revealed and perhaps helped catalyze a change in the national ethos.
The 1948 Independence War was a war for literal survival. One in four of the nascent IDF’s soldiers in that war were Holocaust survivors and displaced persons from Europe, living witnesses to the collapse of all other options for Jews but independence in their ancient homeland. The wars of 1967 and 1973 were, by the prevailing consensus, also wars of survival against Arab nations and armies working to destroy the country; the alternative to war was another Holocaust. Throughout those first three decades of the country’s existence, the bereaved were a hallowed class in Israeli public life, but their role was limited: They embodied the solidarity and sacrifice that were required for a battered refugee nation to secure for itself its survival and freedom. Theirs was not to question why.
By 1982, three and a half decades after independence, Israel had grown stronger, its enemies weaker, and successive governments had demonstrated that they were not above warmongering and folly. Many Israelis, and especially those who’d lost loved ones in war, began to question the wisdom of any government’s resort to war. In their handling of the Lebanon invasion, Begin and Sharon made it all too easy to do so.
Harnik’s voice was also uniquely suited to lead that change. Born in 1933 in Berlin under Nazi rule, her family fled to Tel Aviv in 1936. Harnik grew up with German in the home and Hebrew in the street. She was a bridge between the old, destroyed world and the new Israeli one.
She was also a gifted poet, though until Gony’s death an unpublished one. Over the course of Gony’s short life, she’d written numerous poems about her firstborn son. After his death, she collected them into a book titled “Poems to Gony.” It was released in 1983 and almost immediately became part of the Israeli vocabulary of commemoration and loss.
It included horrible testimonies to an Israeli parent’s fears in those years of the possibility of losing their child in war. In 1962, when Gony was just six, Harnik wrote of her fears of his death in lines read each year at cemeteries around the country. “I count moments in mercies. / Collect hours. Days. / Hope. / But know with certainty / Where the years all rush / And I wait.”
Her poems are read at official ceremonies and have become a subject for artists and animators, singers and poignant sermons at synagogues and in youth movements.
A new questioning of the consensus, a distrust of government and of the efficacy of war — delivered deep into the national consensus by a mother grieving for her hero son.
Harnik and others like her would attain the status of secularized prophets — in the oldest sense of the term, the Biblical prophets famed not for conversing with God but for their rebuke of kings and human folly.
Since Gony Harnik’s death, to be a bereaved family has conferred a new standing, a claim on the rest of the country, a hallowed right to criticize and be heard.
In World War II, a million and a half Jews are estimated to have taken part in the war against the Nazis. But they were scattered among a dozen nations’ armies. As minorities within other nations, those million and a half Jewish soldiers could do nothing to save the Jews from their great cataclysm.
Memorial Day is in an important sense the bedrock ethos of Israel. In the week that begins with Holocaust Memorial Day and ends with the street celebrations of Independence Day — moving from a murdered world to a reborn one — Memorial Day sits in between, commemorating the sacrifices that allowed the Jews to pass from death to new life. It is the act of redemption itself, a distilling of the mainstream Israeli Jewish sense of the world.
But this Memorial Day is harder than previous ones. Over it looms the great divide sparked by the judiciary fight of the past four months. The details of the divide center on the government’s plans for a remade judiciary, but the deeper debate isn’t about those details.
It’s a debate about the place of liberalism within the larger ethos of solidarity and mutual responsibility, about the demands of solidarity and the politics of division and polarization, about the meaning of Israeli identity in a powerful and relatively safe Israel.
For many bereaved families, the criticism of the right or of the left is part and parcel of their bereavement, a sentiment that brought the protests and debates of the past four months into the cemeteries and saw scuffles over the graves of the fallen.
ועוד לפני הטקס, תמונות קורעות לב מבית העלמין בבאר שבע בעימותים בין משפחות שכולות, כולל חילופי קללות עם רינה מצליח, אחות שכולה, בעצמה.
הרקע הוא הנוכחות התקשורתית ובכלל נגד מצליח שלא נשארת חייבת. pic.twitter.com/kg7TJL4t7T
— Josh Breiner (@JoshBreiner) April 25, 2023
Yet it is also a day when a minister of government, afraid that his presence might disturb a family’s communion with their fallen soldier, chose to sit on the sidelines and remain silent at the ceremony to which he was invited to speak. And Haredi ministers, fearing that their presence at military cemeteries might anger bereaved families amid a visceral public debate about the blanket exemption from military service for the Haredi community, voluntarily gave up their ceremonial positions at memorial ceremonies and spent the morning at the Western Wall praying for the war dead out of sight of the grieving families. Raya Harnik in a 2016 interview. (YouTube screen capture)
Israel hasn’t seemed so divided in decades. Yet even now, where politicians did not tread, the controversies did not follow. Forty years ago, Harnik, now 89, ushered in an ethos of bereavement that didn’t shy away from criticism but instead embraced it and even came to be identified with it. That change hasn’t weakened the sense of hallowed solidarity, but only strengthened it.
Harnik was able to change Israeli minds in part because she wasn’t trying to change minds. Her poetry and activism were both premised on the accessibility of her grief. In the end, even in the maelstrom of political war, Memorial Day is a simple day. Israelis’ debt to those who fell in their defense is undiminished by the failures or follies of future generations.
It is a day that remains, even in times of strife, focused on the vastness of their sacrifice.
In one of the most famous and agonizing passages from “Poems to Gony,” translated by this writer, Harnik reminds us of how vast it was.
And in the night comes to me
The child who wasn’t born
Peers in my eyes
“Where is my father?”
His eyes were
Your eyes, my son, and the angle
Of your brow
And of mine. And the child asks
Where is my father!?
Your father, my boy, was carried by the wind
Of the mountain. In a foreign land
Your father remained, my boy.
Someone made a mistake. My beautiful boy
And now you will not be.
“Where is my father,” asks the child
Who wasn’t born.
Where is my son, asks the mother
Who is no longer alive.
Where am I, asks the man
Left on the summit of the mountain.
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