Israelis gather at Tel Aviv's beaches to watch Israel's annual Independence Day airshow, April 19, 2018.
(photo credit: KOBI RICHTER/TPS)
The week between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day symbolizes more than anything else Israel’s ability to unite as one unified society.
The experience that all Israeli Jews go through during this week includes mourning, celebration and feelings of unity. The week begins with Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), then continues with Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars) and ends with Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day). This might, indeed, be the only time of the year when there is a consensus among all the Jews living in Zion.
The Jewish calendar is full of holidays and fast days, of happiness and bereavement. Most of these days are religious festivals based on the Jewish calendar, which is complicated since Israeli society is made up of many different religions and cultures. Even among the Jews, there are religious and secular, haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and traditional, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, right-wing and left-wing. Not everyone celebrates the religious holidays in the same way.
Secular Jews celebrate these days by going on a hike or picnic with their families. Even among religious Jews, each group has its unique customs and prays according to different prayer books. Some people keep kosher on Passover, while others don’t. Some fast a few times a year, while others fast only on Yom Kippur or not at all. Some Jews build a sukka and sleep in it, while others just decorate their porches or don’t do anything at all. On Yom Kippur, some people fast and go to synagogue, whereas for others it’s a day for riding bicycles in the middle of the street and watching movies at home.
Now that Israel is 70 years old, it’s getting even harder to define Israeli society as a collective. We’re not very homogeneous when it comes to artistic cultural interests, for example, and there are still so many distinctions between the different communities.
Despite our best efforts, our national aspirations are still not homogeneous since there are so many different communities that make up Israeli society.
We all have vacation on Hanukka, but there are so many different ways to celebrate the holiday. Some of us light candles to celebrate the Maccabeans’ defeat of the Greeks, but for many Israelis it’s just a convenient time to take the kids to fun shows or go skiing in Europe.
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THIS WEEK is a unique period in the Jewish calendar since all Israelis come together around one single idea. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, the whole country is enveloped in sadness. Facebook is full of posts that express people’s personal connection with the Shoah. Everyone has internalized that the Holocaust has affected the Jews as a people, and stands silently when the siren sounds. We hear quiet and beautiful Hebrew music all day long on all the radio stations. We all feel sadness when hearing the harrowing stories of our parents, grandparents or neighbors who survived the Holocaust.
We come together around all these painful memories. These feelings last all week long until we reach Yom Hazikaron – Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars – when we mourn all the Israelis who’ve died in wars and terrorist attacks. Again we stand as the siren is sounded (except for haredim) and visit cemeteries where our loved ones who fell in battle are buried.
Next comes Yom Ha’atzma’ut – Independence Day – when we all celebrate together, hang flags on our homes and cars in celebration of our heroes. The transition from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut is sudden and can be a bit traumatic.
This sharp switch into celebration is important, though, to show how our lives combine the sad and happy all at the same time. On these days, we are one nation – we cry together and celebrate together; we hold barbecues together with family and friends regardless of cultural background or religious or political standing.
Once a year, we are filled with hope that we can survive all the hardships as a united front, and forget about who veers towards the right and who to the left.
Based on this concept of uniting people around an agreed consensus, political manipulation of Israel’s citizens is constantly taking place. Slogans such as “The Arabs are flocking to the polls,” “The Iranians are attacking us,” and “The Syrian danger” are thrown out in an effort to unify us around external threats that we can’t refute, regardless of whether they’re real or not. These proclamations are meant to help us forget (temporarily) the real problems we face here in Israel, namely the economy, social issues, infrastructure, education, and health.
In the absence of solutions for all of these problems, some politicians prefer to unite their constituents around (virtual) external threats so that we won’t have time to think about the issues that actually have an impact on our lives. In the absence of any long-term vision or strategy based on a defined working plan that includes clear objectives and measurable goals, nothing will improve.
Instead, we will continue to waste all our time and money putting out fires.
However, this method does not deal with the main problem. Some government ministers even exacerbate the situation by polarizing the population and promoting their own personal political interests.
President Reuven Rivlin touched on this painful subject in the Four Tribes speech he gave at the 2015 Herzliya Conference. In his speech, Rivlin painted a painful picture of division and polarization among the various communities living in Israel.
Unfortunately, the solution he presented was a bit naïve and simplistic.
Let us hope that our leaders begin dealing with the root of our problems soon so that we’ll be around to celebrate many more Independence Days here in Israel.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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