5/9/19 Yom Ha'atsmaut 71
Today, Israel marks the 71st anniversary of its Independence. Israelis have much to celebrate. The Israeli population has now passed the 9 million mark, having grown from 600,000 souls in 1948. Israel is no longer an impoverished third-world nation, but rather a member of the OECD, with a strong economy and a 21st-century military, which is peerless in the region.
However, Israeli Independence celebrations are always somewhat restrained—in large part, due to the unique tradition of how the country observes. Israel’s Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism takes place during the 24 hours immediately before Independence Day. In Israel, Memorial Day is a day spent reflecting on all of those who gave their lives to ensure Israeli Independence. There are no parades and no one spends the day shopping.
In the evening that beckons the start of Memorial Day, every store, bar, and restaurant in the country close. In Tel Aviv, a city that never sleeps, thousands gather together in central Rabin Square to watch the official ceremony at the Western Wall on giant screens. After the close of the national commemoration, attendees in the Square spend the next two hours listening to sad songs, punctuated by stories about soldiers who gave their lives, going back to the state’s inception. In most cases, a wife, or parent, and or child of the fallen hero whose story is being told sits in the audience. These stories all evoke tears from those gathered, both young and old.
This year was somewhat different. On Monday night, only forty-eight hours before Memorial Day was scheduled to begin, rockets were falling on cities a mere 30 miles from Rabin Square. The people in the square, some of them army age, and other parents of active duty soldiers, could not help wonder and fear whether their loved ones would be a featured story of heroism at next year’s commemoration.
The first rows of seats in Rabin Square are reserved for the families of the fallen. It is the one honor all Israelis uniformly and categorically fear. Therein lies Israel's impossible dilemma. Regardless of how strong and rich Israel becomes, Israel seems unable to guarantee its citizens will be spared from making the ultimate sacrifice—whether due to random rocket fire, terror attack, or the fact that as most Israelis believe, we will eventually be forced to send soldiers into Gaza again, in order to stop the rocket fire. Everyone in the audience at the square last night, and throughout Israel, understands that if Israel is forced to go back into Gaza, more lives will be lost; additional families will surely join that most dreaded of all clubs.
Israel at 71 is a terribly complicated place. Every survey indicates that Israelis are satisfied with their lives and generally happy. However, Israel still lives under the constant threat of attack. While there have been periods in Israel's history when the country’s continued existence was in greater peril, even during those times, the average Israeli believed that, somehow, there was a path forward to peace.
When Sadat came to Jerusalem in 1978 and pledged no more war, there was a collective sigh of relief that could be heard across the planet. From that moment, until the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000, the average Israeli believed a final peace agreement was around the corner, just waiting to be negotiated. Today, after 1,137 Israelis were killed in bombings during the second intifada; followed by a pullout from Lebanon that brought no peace to our Northern border; and a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the hope that a new Singapore might be born, only to find a terrorist pseudo-state rise to power—Israelis, both right and left, are much less optimistic that peace lies in our immediate future.
Most of the year, unless you live in the Gaza border communities, the issues of war and peace only occupy a very small portion of the national consciousness. Instead, Israelis like people all over the world, worry about the mundane issues of daily life — whether bemoaning the high cost of food at the supermarket or finding the best school for one’s children to attend.
Most of the year, Israelis are like people all over the world. But during this two-day holiday, Memorial Day/Independence Day, Israeli are reminded each year that as much as we may wish to be the country that Herzl the Founder of Modern Zionism envisioned, (i.e., a country just like every other country), to date that dream has not been realized. Israel remains an oddity among the nations; a nation that has not experienced true peace since its inception 71 years ago.
Rabin Square Memorial Service