Arts, Culture & Media

As Boston Plans Its Future Memorial, How Has Israel Memorialized Terror Victims?

Authorities in Boston have started gathering up hundreds of items at memorial sites for the victims of the marathon bombings. With rain in the forecast, all the running shoes, notes, pictures and other personal tokens left in remembrance of those killed and injured are being taken and put into storage.

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"It's important to me to do it with respect and dignity," said Boston Mayor Tom Menino.

Menino said the city is also in the early stages of planning a more permanent memorial. One place he could look to for examples of how to do that is Israel, which has wrestled with the delicate issues of how best to memorialize the victims of terrorist attacks.

There are dozens of such memorials in the city of Jerusalem like the one at the Mahane Yehuda open-air produce market.

On the afternoon of July 30th, 1997, two Palestinian suicide bombers set off nearly simultaneous explosions and killed 16 people. All these years later, there is a stone plaque on the wall where it happened. It has the date and the names of each victim. But there is also a fading bumper sticker slapped across the memorial, and a plastic gas line dangling in front of it.

Ori Ginsburg, who works at a tapas bar down the alley, said he never noticed the plaque until I asked him about it. He said that Israelis tend to move on pretty quickly after incidents like this.

"I think they're used to it," Ginsburg said. "Part of the mentality of living here. There is a bombing, it happens every once and a while. It's nothing special."

Still, Ginsburg said he lost a good friend in a 2004 bus bombing. The memorials around town like the one in the market are important, he added, because the victims need to be acknowledged somehow.

"It's also good for the families. They come, they put flowers on them," he said.

These are places infused with meaning, he said. They are, "like, the last place the man was alive."

When civilians are killed in a terrorist attack, it almost seems self-evident. Of course some kind of memorial should be built to honor the victims. But there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it, according to Asa Kasher, professor of ethics and philosophy at Tel Aviv University.

"Private [memorials], the unofficial ones, the temporary ones, [they] are beautiful at the beginning and then, they are very sad eventually," Kasher said.

During the second intifada, Kasher said impromptu memorials sprouted up all over Tel Aviv. But people started to complain. And for good reason, he said. However well-intentioned, a memorial that is not well-planned and well-maintained defeats the purpose.

"The whole idea of a memorial is to remember, not to forget," Kasher said. "But when such a site seems one that has been forgotten, it's really improper."

When I showed Kasher a picture of the plaque in the Jerusalem market with the bumper sticker on it, he shook his head. This is the sort of thing he is talking about.

A proper memorial should be seen as a long-term project, Kasher emphasized. It should also be open and accessible to the public. And it should be both "comprehensive and individual at the same time."

Any successful memorials should include the names of the victims, even if people can't be expected to remember each one, he said.

"And therefore, it is not an abstract notion of a number and a date and a place," Kasher explained. "It's a person. … It's a person with a name, with a face, with a history of life, with a history of death. That's the best way of remembering people who died under such circumstances."

The key to building a meaningful permanent memorial, Kasher said, is to somehow keep "the presence of the dead in the life of the living."

His advice for Boston is to think about how its planned memorial can teach future generations about this tragic chapter in the city's history.

  • P1100440-e1368035658106.jpg

    This is the spot in Jerusalem's "Mahane Yehuda" market where a double suicide bombing killed 16 people in July 1997. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

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    The plaque in the market. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

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    This memorial on a bikepath in Tel Aviv is dedicated to the victims of a cafe bombed in 1997. (Photo: Matthew Bell)