Remembrance Day from afar

The following is an excerpt of a speech given by Doron Almog commemorating Remembrance Day.

ALMOG (right) embraces his late brother Eran (photo credit: Courtesy)
ALMOG (right) embraces his late brother Eran
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This is the first Remembrance Day that I am not in the State of Israel, together with my family, beside the grave of my brother who fell in the Yom Kippur War. This physical distance is for me an additional source of bereavement in addition to the pain of separation from by beloved brother. Despite this great physical distance, we sit here today in Boston – as Jews and Israelis – and try to understand the meaning of Remembrance Day. I will focus my remarks on three central topics that connect us to this day:
• Memory
• Bereavement
• Courage
Memory is the most important element that defines our character. If right now, each one of us would imagine that we had no memory at all, as if someone simply erased everything from our minds, we would not know who we are, what we are doing, to whom we belong, what is the purpose of our actions and what is the meaning of our lives. Memory creates a meaningful connection between our today and everything that has occurred in the past. Memory lets us define ourselves as belonging to a community, to an ethos and to the totality of our own existence. Memory grants us knowledge that enables us to evaluate our actions in the present. Memory provides the basis to our heritage; gives us values, identity and the spirit to fight. It makes us want to be a partner, to be part of something much greater than our individual selves.
Memory gives us perspective when we are called to endanger – and even give – our own lives. Ultimately, memory of past tragedies gives us hope for a better future.
On this Remembrance Day, we look forward again to a better future, to the end of war for our children yet to come. And yet this year we continue to fight with a troubled soul against Palestinian terrorism, which challenges our right to exist as a sovereign state.
On Remembrance Day, more than any other day, we stand united with the fallen and with their families.
As a member of a bereaved family, I have lived with grief for over 30 years.
Bereavement is the painful longing for a beloved person who will never return. My brother, Eran, was supposed to celebrate his 51st birthday this week. He will stay 20 years old forever. Bereavement is the empty seat when the whole family gathers at the holiday table; the pictures on the wall; the memories; the smells; the frustration that Eran will never marry and will never bring children into this world, and will never pass on the goodness that was in him. Bereavement is an open, oozing wound that only deepens with the years.
Time does not heal grief.
The question that gnaws inside me is, “What’s the purpose of life without someone I loved so much?” Someone I dreamed would always be at my side, who felt like part of my own flesh. Someone whose death killed something within me, to the point where I have to ask what is the use? How can I go on? Bereaved mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and relatives all grapple with this question. The loss of a loved one brings a drastic change in their daily lifestyle. Some cannot bear the burden of the pain. I remember Moshe, the father of Menachem Ayal, “Menachemka,” a combat pilot from Nahalat Yehuda who fell in the Yom Kippur War. Moshe ended his life on Hill 69, the hill on which he fought during the War of Independence, where he lost the best of his friends; and there he decided to put an end to his sorrow after months of pain and suffering following the loss of his beloved son.
Many others decide to dedicate their lives to higher purpose. Avi Naor, who lost his son in a road mishap, decided to dedicate his life to a different war – the war against traffic accidents. Naomi Ungar, a Holocaust survivor, who lost her only son in an army training accident and wrote a book: Stop the Bullet. The loss for her was another Holocaust. She decided to fight the training accidents in the IDF, not for herself, but for others in our society. I have seen sons of bereaved families endanger their lives for our state. At Entebbe, I commanded the forces that landed first and secured the site. My deputy was Tali Vardi, whose brother fell in the Yom Kippur War and whose father served as a general in the IDF. I’ve seen generals lose sons in battle or in accidents grit their teeth and continue their work.
In the last three years, as Commander of Southern Command during the war against Palestinian terrorism, I lost 84 people, 58 soldiers and 26 civilians. I hurt with each loss. In my condolence visits, I did not offer comfort. I came to share the pain. There is no comfort for the loss of a loved one. In fact, life holds different meaning after tragedy. We make a personal decision that flows from an understanding of our own transience and a desire to give meaning to our lives after something within us has died.
Courage is the bravery of the fallen, but also the day-to-day coping of the bereaved families. They seek substance to go on with their lives. Their choices lead to meaningful actions, driven by great courage.
Courage is, above all, a spiritual strength. This force allows people to put their lives in danger on behalf of others. It multiplies our fighting spirit. A nation cannot succeed without the limitless love and devotion of those who risk their lives, day and night, on behalf of their families, their homes and their country. In the last three years, when I served as OC Southern Command, I found an extraordinary fighting spirit in the ranks of the fighters, conscripts and reserves. I saw women soldiers, assigned as observers, painstakingly scanning every inch of land over long hours out of a deep sense of responsibility. One small mistake in interpreting a picture can lead to a suicide bomber entering Israel. Not one terrorist succeeded in penetrating the State of Israel from the Gaza Strip in the last three years, and not because of the fence. The fence was completely destroyed in December 2000. More than 400 penetration attempts failed because of the courage, dedication to mission and sense of responsibility for the fate of living people.
It was the courage of scouts, of engineering fighters, of tank crews, of the infantry soldiers, of the fighters of Special Forces, of the intelligence personnel, of pilots and of the navy.
The purpose of this ongoing war on terrorism is for us to save lives and guarantee our existence as the world’s only Jewish state and the only democratic state in the Middle East. It is our state. A state where we feel the holiday on both Remembrance Day and Independence Day. We feel the pain and the joy. Here in Massachusetts, thousands of kilometers away, when we leave this synagogue we will feel America. Effervescent America, pulsating America. It is wonderful, but it is not ours. The spirit of Israel, which one can only feel when in Israel, is not here. Yet here we can feel something that gives additional meaning to our lives in Israel: a sense of peoplehood.
The courage of the fighters, the families and the people in Israel flows from the same sense of responsibility for the Jewish people in every place where Jews are found.
In the Entebbe Operation, we flew 4,000 km. from our borders to overcome seven terrorists and free our brothers and sisters who were taken hostage. The Israeli government sent us, because Jews were in mortal danger somewhere in Africa. And we had the capability to act. That is the spirit of the State of Israel: to act for Jews who are in distress anywhere in the world. I participated in many secret missions, bringing 6,000 Jews from the deserts of the Sudan. Jews who’d escaped Ethiopia by the skin of their teeth. Jews in distress. They, too, had the strength to rescue them and bring them to their new country.
This bravery gives expression to a fact: a strong Jewish defense force, proud and professional, can only exist in the context of the State of Israel.
On February 10, 2002, two terrorists from Hebron attacked the headquarters of Southern Command in Beersheba. During the short battle that took place, two women soldiers were killed: Lt. Karen Rothstein and Cpl. Aya Malachi. Here too, as in other situations the terrorists were killed, but at a heavy price. Several days later, I spoke to a group of people on the circumstances of the conflict until then. I said that up to that point, after one-and-a-half years of conflict, we’d lost about 60 people – a very high price.
Suddenly, one man got up and said to me: “Young man, you don’t know what you are talking about. I know that you are a general, head of Southern Command and I respect you very much, but I am a survivor of Auschwitz.” He then showed me the number tattooed on his arm. “In Auschwitz, every day they killed 1,000 Jews, 3,000 Jews, 5,000 Jews, 10,000 Jews. We did not have an army. We did not have a state; we did not have uniforms; and we had no identity. We lost our human dignity. And you are complaining about the loss of 60 people after a year-and-a-half of war? You need to be proud of the fact that you are a Jewish general, that you have an army, that you have superb soldiers, a superb army, and superb technology. You need to be proud you have been given the opportunity to fight for the State of Israel and to be a partner in shaping her borders.”
I was silent for a moment and then I said: “You are correct.” I said to him and I say to you now: I am proud to be a Jew, to be an Israeli, to be a Jewish fighter, a soldier, a commander, a general. I am proud that I have been given the opportunity to be born in a period as important as this and help shape our country, and be part of the courageous effort of the Jewish people in rebuilding its state in our homeland.
From afar, our collective memory helps strengthen our commitment and our love.
On this Remembrance Day we hope for peace.
“God will give strength to his people, God will bless his people with peace,” is a prayer that expresses our passion. But it is a conditional sentence: Peace will only come when we find within ourselves the strength and courage to stay our course, and dedicate ourselves to the memory of those we honor today.
The speech was translated by Jonathan Leffell and adapted by Danny Grossman, a retired lieutenant-colonel in the Israel Air Force, who served alongside Doron Almog in the IDF.