Ruminations on holidays

Maybe Israel and America could help each other out a little here.

Israelis enjoy an Independence Day barbecue in Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher last year (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israelis enjoy an Independence Day barbecue in Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher last year
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Among the benefits of holding dual citizenship – Israeli and American – are two sets of holidays.
In particular, two Memorial Days. Two Independence Days.
Pleasant enough, the festivities. But beyond that... what? In truth, I’ve never cared for holidays, for the calendar dictating what I should think and feel, when I should think and feel it. Nor have I ever had much use for the American notion that a holiday isn’t a holiday unless the word “Sale” can be appended and Americans exercise their fundamental right to spend money they don’t have on stuff they don’t need.
Israeli holidays are not immune to such misapprehensions of meaning. Still, Israeli Memorial Day (known as Remembrance Day) and Independence Day are different from their American counterparts in some rather evocative ways.
Israel’s Remembrance Day seems oddly placed, a non-day off the day before Independence Day. This year, I watched the locals shopping frantically to prepare for Independence, a.k.a. National Grilled Meat, Day. Why not something more set apart, more somber? Perhaps because all that commemorated death and pain still reside in living memory. So too all the death and pain to come. Perhaps, rather than let it overwhelm, better to conduct the requisite ceremonies, then get on with the trivialities of preparing for a holiday that thousands upon thousands should be here to attend but aren’t.
America’s Memorial Day... pro forma.
Just as pro forma as the endless muttered saccharine litanies about how wonderful our men and women in uniform are.
Some thought given, perhaps, to those who died. Precious little thought about those who will. Why ruin the party? Independence Days are different. As a historian, I’ve long been fascinated by the process that makes a people a self-conscious nation: self-conscious enough to fight and die and then – sometimes – to create something new and worth having. Many years ago, I took up, every July 4, reading anew the American Declaration of Independence, to me the most brilliant political statement ever.
This year, for the first time, I read the Israeli Declaration. Also magnificent, in its way. But so utterly different.
The American Revolution, it has oft been noted, succeeded because it didn’t need to do all that much, beyond whupping the world’s strongest empire. There was no national established church to disestablish, no hereditary aristocracy to guillotine. Land was plentiful, (non-indentured) white mobility unimpeded.
Lots of things were possible, especially after the Brits left and other enemies proved less than permanent or fatal.
Still, this list of advantages doesn’t mean that the enterprise had to succeed.
It did so because of a melding of philosophies expressed in the Declaration with consummate clarity, then ratified in the Constitution.
The Declaration appeals to the natural reason of humanity, that all human beings have certain rights, enumerated and not.
Beyond this, the Declaration operates on two conflicting understandings of political life. One, known historically as the Radical Whig or Radical Republican (or Machiavellian or Hobbesian) holds that politics is about power, literally, the domination of some by others, and best you be real careful when dealing with those who would dominate you, no matter what their origin, present position or claims.
The other – call it the Lockean or perhaps the classical Greek – contends that politics, the creating and ordering of the public world, is something citizens do together. In the Constitution of 1787, the Founders created the machinery to balance these two outlooks, with no illusions about human perfectibility or the jerks to come.
The American Declaration talks to humanity about universal concerns.
The Israeli Declaration talks about the Jews: accomplishments, sufferings, aspirations.
It reads less like a political classic than a partisan press release. It’s not, for that reason, invalid. Far from it. But its interests do not extend much beyond itself.
Perhaps it could not have been otherwise; certainly, the founding accomplishment ranks among the most astonishing in history. And in one particular – why doesn’t anybody ever mention this? – the Israeli Declaration bespeaks a consummate sense of human justice and equality. On May 14-15, 1948, under both international law and usage then current, Israel could have declared every Arab within its borders as an enemy alien, subject to expulsion or worse.
Instead, the Declaration declared them citizens. Perhaps someday both sides will take that to heart.
In sum, America and Israel both spoke to the world. America spoke about humanity. Israel spoke about the Jews.
Israel still speaks almost entirely about Israel. Maybe it’s time to broaden the repertoire a bit.
America still presumes to speak to the world of universals, but more and more about America First. Specifically, about making America “great again” – whatever that means. Perhaps America, also, should speak a bit less about itself.
And maybe Israel and America could help each other out a little here.