Magazine

In Plain Language: Between two sirens

I am caught somewhere in the middle of the Israeli experience.

Soldiers lay flags on Graves on Remembrance Day
Photo by: REUTERS
All week long, I’ve been humming a song from my bar mitzva year – Red Rubber Ball, written by Paul Simon and recorded for a monster hit by the Cyrkle – and I can’t get the last verse out of my head:

The roller coaster ride we took is nearly at an end.

I bought my ticket with my tears; that’s all I’m gonna spend.

These last three weeks have been an emotional roller coaster, bringing smiles to our faces as we soared to thrilling heights only to feel a weight in the pits of our stomachs as we plummeted into the depths. The “bookends” of this unique stretch of our calendar began with Passover and the Seder night – those leaven- less days “of wine and matzot” as we celebrated our entrance into peoplehood.

It ended yesterday, when we rejoiced, for the 64th time, our rebirth as a proud and independent nation in our own land.

But sandwiched in between these glorious events were intense moments of sadness and solemnity. They began on the last day of Passover, when we recited the Yizkor memorial prayer for our departed loved ones, whose seats remain empty at our Seder table. We went on to Holocaust Remembrance Day a week later and, seven days after that, Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars.

I am caught somewhere in the middle of the Israeli experience; part of the post- Holocaust, pre-IDF generation. I was born after the last death camp had been liberated, but made aliya too late to personally experience army boot camp. And so I live between two sirens: the one that sounds on Holocaust Remembrance Day for my many relatives who perished in Poland, and for my mother-in-law who spent her 16th birthday in Auschwitz; and the one that wails on Remembrance Day in a cry of commemoration for our son who fell in battle 10 years ago as well as for all the heroic men and women of our holy armed forces.

At some point, the two sirens seem to meld into one. I feel that the same ill wind that blew over Europe, as the Germans emptied the continent of Jews in a brash and brutal blitzkreig, is polluting our air once again. After too few years of respite, the term “Jew” has returned to its status as the ultimate curse-word. Anti-Semitism is rampant, whether poorly disguised as anti- Zionism or unabashedly flaunted as pure, unadulterated Jew-hatred. Nazi symbols desecrate graveyards worldwide. A Hitler wanna-be furiously seeks a weapon of mass destruction to, God forbid, finish the job that Hitler started. And surrounding Arab nations relentlessly demonize us with Nazi caricature and classification, even as Palestinians – who openly and actively identified with the Nazis during World War II – declare that all of redeemed “Palestine” must be made Judenrein.

It is not a good feeling. One turns on the radio or TV with trepidation. Who, after Egypt and Turkey, will be the next supposed “ally” to put the knife in our back? Where, after Itamar and Toulouse, will the next outrage be perpetrated against our innocents? I wake up at night sometimes with the sensation that the noose is tightening around our necks.

But then I remind myself that, despite all the signs of danger around us, there is a pronounced and powerful difference between Then and Now.

IN THE years before and during the Holocaust, we were powerless, defenseless. The world, as Chaim Weizmann wryly noted, was divided between those countries in which they would not let us live and those they would not let us enter. We waited for some knight in shining armor to come and rescue us and he never appeared. He did not bomb Auschwitz’s rail lines, he did not open the doors to our desperate citizens seeking asylum. He did not raise a hue and cry in Congress or in church; he did not join our ghetto fighters as we rose up courageously in Warsaw. No; no knight in shining armor came to rescue us – instead, all too often, others came to collaborate with our oppressors in our destruction.

But now we have an army. And a navy.

And the best air force in the world. God has blessed us with the finest soldiers ever to put on a uniform, and they are sworn to our protection. They will not let us ever again be attacked with impunity. They have been to the death camps and marched to Birkenau – with the flag of Israel proudly wrapped around them – and they have seen the crematoria. They fully understand what our enemies are capable of, and they are a wall of deterrence surrounding us. They live on the front, but they have our backs. They are the definition of everything good that derives from sovereignty, and the antidote to all the deadly ills that flow from statelessness.

The sirens we sound are a clarion call about danger and destiny. The two seem to travel together, but their path is not always foreseen.

SHORTLY AFTER our son Ari was killed in battle, there was a knock at our door. We opened the door to find a woman standing there, crying. We had never seen her before and would never see her again. She asked to come in, and when she finally composed herself, she tearfully told us the following story: “I was born and raised in Israel,” she said. “But when my son turned 16, my husband and I decided to leave. We feared for our boy’s safety. We knew he would soon have to go into the army – he was already telling us of his insistence on joining a combat unit – and we could not bear the thought of him standing in harm’s way. So we packed up and we dragged him away to California, far from the Middle East war zone.”

The woman lowered her head and sobbed for a few minutes more until she mustered up the strength to speak again.

“When he was 18, still pining away to serve in the IDF with his high school friends, we bought him a car. We hoped that this would lift his spirits and make him happy. he loved his car, like all kids would in California. Three months ago, just after his 21st birthday – the same age as your son – he was killed in a car accident.

I came here to tell you what a fool I was for taking my child away from Israel.

If he was destined to die young, he should have died in an IDF uniform, not in a car in California. He should have been a hero, like your boy, and not just another statistic.”

IN HIS important new book, Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto, former defense minister Moshe Arens tells the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, particularly the heroic, often overlooked role played by the Betar fighters. Before the last battle against the Germans began at Muranowski Square, Betar’s leader, Pawel Frenkel, addressed his youthful soldiers: “Fellow Jews,” he said, “in all likelihood, we will die young. But we are not doomed; the world will hear of us, and we will have our place in history.”

Would that the Almighty allows all of our brave defenders to live to a ripe old age. But whatever their fate, they are the surest guarantee that the State of Israel and the people of Israel will have their rightful place in history.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; www.rabbistewartweiss.com


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