Yom Hazikaron, Yom Haatzmaut

I really did want to post an entry yesterday but I guess I didn’t get around to it. Well it’s partly because my computer is in the shop–nothing happened to it, but just it needed a cleanup. Tonight I’m just using Eric’s computer to complete this entry.

Not having the computer over the last few days was actually pretty liberating in the sense that I wasn’t glued to the Internet. Instead I spent more time on the mirpeset, listening to the birds and voices of people on their way home or to someone elses’ for a meal or stretching and looking up at the clouds slowly changing form. It’s amazing how much more satisfactory this activity was compared to reading emails!

Some of you might be wondering why I haven’t addressed and am not planning to devote any of my blog to the Palestinian perspective of Israeli Independence Day. It’s not that I wanted to deny the existence of their narrative. There’s no denying that Independence Day is a crappy day for the Palestinians who feel they were kicked out of their homeland. It’s probably a very weird occassion for Palestinian Israeli citizens. The truth is that I could devote so much time to this topic and to my feelings towards this topic–which are complicated and contradictory.

For this year, I thought I should keep in simple and write about my perspective on the day to day level. G-d willing there will be many more years where I can write more in depth about this, Of course you’re welcome to add your story in the comment section below.

Israel is a place of contradicting and extreme emotions. The same could be said of Judaism which celebrates times of mourning (shiva, 9th of Av) and times of joy (weddings, Simchat Torah) with the same amount of intensity. People will tell you here that it’s unbelievable how the country goes from the intense low of Yom Hazikaron to the intense high of Yom Haatzmaut in such a short time. In the U.S. we celebrate Memorial Day and Independence Day in separate months, but here you are not made to forget that Israel’s independence was earned and continues to be earned through the sacrifice of its soldiers because commemoration is followed by celebration. 

Our commemoration at Pardes actually started on Tuesday afternoon. First we heard from Pardes alumni and historian Michael Oren, who offered a kind of historical survey focused on the ability of the Jewish people to maintain the sovereign state–i.e. have the Jews been able to assume responsibility for their sovereign state. The lecture actually sounded familiar because I had read similar arguments in an article he wrote for Azure Magazine, which you can find at this link.

Oren argued that the Israeli military’s methods for fighting terror incorporated humane and ethical principals. He spoke with his son about a raid where Hamas leaders where shot in their bed and asked him if it wasn’t a good thing. His son replied that it doesn’t matter what they do, but what we do. The IDF, he said, does their utmost to avoid afflicting civilian casualties. He thinks that had it been the American army fighting in the West Bank, things would have turned out far worse for the Palestinians. “We are an abnormal state because we are a Jewish state,” he said.

Oren also spoke critically of Israel’s response to Kassam rockets from Gaza, claiming this was an abrogation of sovereign responsibility. (I’m not sure if I agree with him on that.) On the other hand he saw the Winograd Commission and the resignation of Defense Minister as indication of Jews taking responsibility. Still, he sees the internal challenges as the biggest ones–namely the leadership crisis and the political corruption .(think no further than Olmert who has just admitted to taking lots of cash from an American financier for several electoral campaigns but who won’t step down. Geez the chutzpah.) I agree with him on that. If we don’t start fixing up our governing systems, our enemies will wise up and we’ll be done for.

After Oren’s talk, we visited Har Herzl. Har Herzl is like Arlington National Cemetary, in that the majority of those interred and memorialized were soldiers. Rabbi Zvi Wolfe guided us through several sections of the cemetery, explaining how to read and understand the gravestones. Usually a gravestone listed the name of the soldier, his rank, his parents, where he was born, when, in what battle and where he died. If he made aliyah the date of his aliyah was also listed.

We visited the graves of victims of the Yom Kippur War and the 1948 War. We saw the graves of Hannah Senesh and her colleagues. (Senesh and others escaped Europe, trained on kibbutzim and were supposed to be parachuted into Hungarian territory to help organize the Jewish resistance, but were somehow dropped in Bulgaria where they were captured.)  There were many sections consisting only of memorial stones because the bodies were either never found or died behind enemy lines. We saw graves from the 1st and 2nd Lebanon War including those of two Americans who made aliyah and joined the army, Alex Singer and Michael Levin (Singer fought in Lebanon 1 and Levin in Lebanon 2).

On Tuesday night we heard the first siren for Yom Hazikaron. It was eerie. Eric and I were on our way to Emek Refaim when the siren started. Other people on the sidewalk stopped walking. A person driving his car stopped it and got out. I felt an incredible sadness during that minute of silence.

On Wednesday our class broke from its usual Chumash study to focus on Yom Hazikaron. Our teacher Judy devoted some time explaining to us why she and her husband decided to come to Israel. Her Zionism is a natural extension of her Judaism, which includes a love of the Bible (naturally), and she sings Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut. She also grew up during the 67 war thinking of Israel as a place that couldn’t be taken for granted. Whereas now she says that this attitude is not as prevalent in Israeli society and people are more focused on developing themselves than diminishing themselves in relation to the whole.

She conceded that Israel had a myriad of problems but Jews were very good at criticizing themselves. She said the emphasis should be more on how to fix it. After all, because Israel is such a tiny country, it is easy to make a difference. And despite all of the problems she sees people as resourceful and optimistic, peace-loving and tolerant.

And there are some problems that are sources of good for her. The fact that her kids want to serve in the army is a source of pride for her because they are asking about what they can do for their country and people. And while there is less private space in the U.S. she says that people actually care about one another here. Someone from Pardes once said that Israel is the only country where people will run you down but then carry you on their backs to the hospital.

Judy then introduced us to her Israeli-born daughter, Nechama, who will be getting married in the fall. Nechama spoke of her army service where she trained recruits from criminal backgrounds and soldiers who had minor mental disabilities. Nechama said that Israel is the only army with an education unit that rehabilitates people. Like Judy said, it’s incredible that someone her size was able to make men 3x her size quake in their boots. But indeed she did.

The place where she served provided soldiers with three months of training, at the end of which they were transferred to other units. The three extra months provided them with an extra push so that they would be able to adjust to army life. A lot of the time she focused on making them feel equal, encouraging them to keep going, telling them that she believed in them. For many it was the first time they finished any type of commitment.

Immediately after her talk our class along with other Pardes students went to the Ephrata school down the block from us to watch the students’ Yom Hazikaron memorial. Everyone was dressed in blue and white and behaved very well throughout the ceremony. Students took turns reading poems and speeches, and there was a dance and several songs from the choir. Then the event became festive and focused on Yom Haatzmaut with a flag ceremony–a miniature copy of the one that would be performed at the official ceremony that evening.

We returned to Pardes to watch a sad but moving film about Michael Levin, who was a passionate Zionist who wanted to serve in the army. He was killed during the 2nd Lebanon War.

The afternoon came and went and all of a sudden it was Independence Day. We didn’t go out that night but a lot of Pardesians said that it was an incredible time. Thousands of people gathered downtown to watch a film projected onto the walls of the city and then participate in dancing and singing in Kikar Zion.

The next day we invited people over for an Israeli-style barbeque. Our grill was a tiny piece of crap, but it grilled the food just fine. I had to go to the shuk in order to buy food because almost everything was closed on that day. It was a very mellow way to celebrate the day, but I have no complaints. It was a sunny, breezy day and everyone was full of good cheer.

I think I was being ambitious when I thought that I’d be able to write an entry this week dealing with the diaspora and Israel. We’ve got a shorter week because my school is off to its final tiyyul/retreat, so that means less time for musing. We’ll see…

Shavua Tov!



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