Personal Loss and Collective Mourning
in Israeli Society
(the hebrew university)
On February 4, 1997, a tragic helicopter collision caused the death of seventy-three soldiers on their way to southern Lebanon. A national day of mourning was declared by the government. Politicians, dignitaries and the media reenacted their sad routines. Radio programs featured plaintive Israeli melodies; the national television networks provided wide coverage of the funerals as well as extensive interviews with friends and relatives; newspapers featured photographs and biographies of the fallen soldiers. In short, the media enlisted itself to promote a sense of community, a “we” feeling of being one big, bereaved family. Afew days later, the well-known Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling published an uncommonly sharp critique in the daily Ha'aretẓ Entitled “A Moment of Solidarity, ” it reflected on the collective discourse of bereavement:
It seems that the more divided our society is, the more we need such moments… . The generation that did not experience the magical days of anticipation just prior to the SixDay War, of the lingering national depression of 1973, could now renew (for a little while) the holy days of the “candle children” who appeared—albeit for a short time—after Rabin's assassination…. Not that one should doubt the sincerity of people's feelings. The trauma and mourning are real, even when disseminated by anchorpersons… . In such moments, the voice of reason must remain silent…. When such moments (as this) are to a large extent prescribed from above, by the elites, the public—or parts of it—easily lends itself to be manipulated. 1
This article examines and extends the point made by Kimmerling. It does so by looking at a number of commemorative “moments of solidarity, ” as well as at the actual reactions of bereaved families to the collective ideology of bereavement and commemoration. My point of departure is that these phenomena, in Israel and elsewhere, constitute a powerful social institution, a symbolic space where the public and the private, the military and the civil spheres meet to form “one big family. ” This space, whether occupied by the smallest burial ceremony or the largest war memorial, is therefore traditionally marked by normative control.
Funerals and mourning have traditionally been viewed by anthropologists as universal group mechanisms used by society for the enhancement of solidarity. 2 This per-