JERUSALEM (AP) — Hecklers interrupted Israel’s prime minister for several minutes during a Memorial Day address on Wednesday in which he called for unity, laying bare the country’s internal divisions even as it mourns its dead.
At least two people shouted “swindler” and “shame” as Naftali Bennett cast ongoing friction among Jews as an existential threat to the country. At one point, Bennett, whose family has received death threats in recent weeks, put his hand over his heart as he looked out over the crowd at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.
“Bereaved families are holy. You are allowed to shout, you are allowed to mourn,” he said as the yelling and screaming continued. “I hear the pain.”
Bennett has faced vicious criticism from erstwhile allies on Israel’s nationalist right for forming a coalition government with left-wing parties and an Arab faction last year following a series of gridlocked elections.
Israeli media identified one of the hecklers as Herzl Hajaj, whose daughter was killed in an attack in Jerusalem in 2017 and who became an outspoken critic of Bennett last year.
It was a sharp display of bitterness on a day and in a setting that are among Israel’s most solemn. A few hours earlier, sirens wailing for two minutes called the country to a halt. People stopped and stood, heads bowed, in honor of more than 24,000 people lost in the nation’s conflicts. In addition to the soldiers killed, Memorial Day honors more than 3,000 people killed in militant attacks.
Bereaved families visit cemeteries and attend memorial ceremonies, as television and radio shift programming to somber music, broadcasts of memorial services and documentaries about slain soldiers. At sundown, the occasion turns festive, and on the following day Israelis celebrate Independence Day with military flyovers and barbecues.
Bennett’s unity theme was familiar, and personal.
Last week, as Israel remembered the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust, Bennett pleaded for Israelis to refrain from fighting one another even at a time of great division in the fragile government he leads.
Bennett said national unity is Israel’s “duty” to the fallen.
“Brothers and sisters, if we are not together, we will not be at all. We have no existence as conflicting tribes, rather, only as a varied and united nation,” Bennett said.
Israel has fought several wars with neighboring Arab countries, battled two Palestinian uprisings and endured scores of deadly militant attacks since its establishment in 1948.