A Poignant Controversy Over Israeli Burial Site A Muslim War Hero's Jewish Peers Speak Out.

Posted: December 31, 1993

TEL AVIV — Zvi Friedland, who for three years has been coming to this military cemetery twice a week to visit his son's grave, strolled this day to a remote corner where another man, "a perfect soldier" in his view, rests.

The small gravestone at the edge of the tearfully large Kiryat Shaul cemetery carried both of Col. Amos Yarkoni's names - Abdel Majid Khader, the Muslim name he was given at birth, and the Hebrew name he adopted when he joined the Israeli army.

Today Yarkoni's grave is the most controversial burial site in all Israel: The body of a Jewish soldier about to be interred next to the Muslim war hero was suddenly ordered moved to a Jewish section of the cemetery for religious reasons.

"In my opinion, it's a real scandal," said Friedland, a car mechanic who met Yarkoni more than 30 years ago when Friedland was a soldier and Yarkoni was becoming legendary for his exploits commanding both Arabs and Jews fighting in the Israeli army.

"Soldiers are the same, all over the world," Friedland continued. "In Normandy, everywhere. It doesn't make any difference what the religion is. You fight together for the same purpose. You stay together, side by side. Yet you and he know that if something happens you'll be separated? It's unfair."

A lot of Israelis, from both right and left sides of the political spectrum, feel the same way. Yarkoni's comrades-in-arms have called the decision not to bury a Jewish soldier next to a Muslim soldier an insult to them personally and to the Israeli military in general.

Several have asked to reserve the plot next to Yarkoni so they can be buried next to him. Rabbis who support the decision say no insult was intended, only adherence to Jewish religious law.

DUAL NATURE

The poignant controversy, pitting bonds formed in war against the bonds of birth and belief, reflects an Israel coming to grips with its dual secular and religious nature.

The two are not mutually exclusive. A new sociological study has found that most Israelis are far less secular than believed. The Guttman Institute of

Applied Social Research recently reported the vast majority of Israeli Jews consider it important to maintain most Jewish religious traditions, from dietary laws to life-cycle rituals like circumcision, bar mitzvahs, marriage and burial.

Yet, as the Yarkoni case illustrates, many Israelis are profoundly disturbed that because of religious dictates against Jews and gentiles being buried side by side, a Jewish soldier cannot be buried next to an Arab Muslim who fought heroically for the State of Israel.

Under Jewish law, non-Jews who are buried in a predominantly Jewish cemetery are to be treated with respect and honor even though their graves are set apart. In practice, cemeteries in Israel usually have plots at the remote edge of cemeteries set aside for non-Jews.

David Hartman, a rabbi who heads the Hartman Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, said the tradition developed over the centuries in a hostile world that often tried to subjugate Jews and their traditions.

"Burial traditions arose not in the sense of rejecting each other, and not in a racist sense," he said. "It was because Jews felt threatened, and as a minority had to maintain distinct traditions to maintain an identity."

Rabbi Hartman said that now that Jews are a majority in their own country, many Israelis believe more flexibility is called for in at least some religious rituals.

"With Bedouins and Jews living and fighting and struggling together, and being buried in the same cemeteries, it's a different frame of reference," he said. "There's no question a different spirit is required.

"Long traditions do not go away easily. But I'm sure the wise religious leadership will catch up with the instincts of the community, and understand the need to move a new way. It's not a compromise with spiritual integrity, but an appreciation of why it sits in full harmony with tradition."

CASES INCREASING

Cases where an Israeli's Jewishness has been a factor determining burial are increasing with the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

In February, a Georgian Jew who was killed in an attack on a bus was buried in a section of a civilian cemetery reserved for those whose Jewishness is

uncertain after an anonymous telephone caller claimed she was not Jewish.

Another Russian immigrant, this one in the army, was killed by militant Islamic gunmen in August while he was on duty manning a roadblock. Because his mother is not a Jew, rendering him a non-Jew under religious law, he initially was buried in the gentile section of a military cemetery. An irate Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered his body transferred to the Jewish section.

After that incident, the military established a memorial unit to determine where dead soldiers should be buried. And that was the unit that made the decision to bury 26-year-old Amir Fisch next to Yarkoni in a lonely corner of the military cemetery where the only other gravesite is that of Evan Florin Telduresco, whose mother was not Jewish.

The Defense Ministry declined to comment about the case. But apparently officials decided to bury Fisch in the non-Jewish section because, in the words of the military, "he died by his own weapon." Suicide is a severe transgression in Judaism.

Had the grave not already been dug next to Yarkoni's grave by the time Maj. Gen. Gad Navon, the chief military rabbi, appealed to Rabin to reverse the order and bury Fisch among Jewish soldiers, no one might ever have noticed. But the swift reversal on the order of Rabin, who doubles as defense minister, made Yarkoni's comrades sit up and take notice.

Yarkoni had not been just any soldier. He was the founder of the Bedouin tracking unit that operates in the Negev Desert. During two decades in the army, he lost the use of an arm and a leg in various operations, and had been awarded three medals. He was presented the Yigal Allon Prize in 1985 for his military deeds, many of which remain classified.

When Yarkoni died at the age of 70 in February 1991, newspapers reported that he was a Bedouin who believed his people's fate was tied to the Jews.

"I am not a Zionist, but I love the state with all my heart," he had told interviewers. "Three principles guide my life: honor, justice and trust."

Across the political spectrum, Israelis were outraged at the perceived slight to Yarkoni.

"He fought all his life for the security of the Jewish people," said Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Elizer, who replaced Yarkoni as commander of the elite Shaked tracking unit. "We are talking about a modest man, and there is no Jew greater than he was."

Among those who took it personally was Yarkoni's former commander, Rehavam Ze'evi. Today, Ze'evi is a right-wing Knesset member in the Moledet Party, which advocates "transferring" Arabs who do not pledge allegiance to the Jewish state.

"This was an insult to him and his comrades," said Ze'evi. "To insist Jews can't be buried close to Muslims is ridiculous. In every British military cemetery from the First World War on, all over Israel, you'll find Jews and non-Jews buried together."

Ze'evi, who traces his ancestry in Jerusalem back five generations, had always assumed he would be buried in Jerusalem. But when he heard about Yarkoni, he asked the Defense Ministry to keep the neighboring plot in Tel Aviv vacant so he can one day be buried alongside the Muslim hero.

"I was his commander, but I learned from him chapters you can't read in military books," he said. "He was brave, and a great leader who took care of his men. We lived together, we fought together, and we'll be buried together."

Religious political parties said there had been no alternative under Jewish law.

"There are special religious law strictures for Jews, as there are for other religions," said a statement by the United Torah Judaism faction in the Knesset.

"No one insulted Col. Amos Yarkoni, said a statement by the religious Shas faction. "Every nation buries its dead according to its own customs and in its own burial section."

But among those who thought Yarkoni's grave belonged beside other men who had risked their lives and died for Israel was the man who dug the Fisch grave. He would not give his name, but he said he was a 56-year-old mathematician from the former Soviet Union who immigrated to Israel 18 months ago.

"If the synagogue were separate from the state," said the gravedigger, ''there would be no problems."

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