My Word: Look back in wonder

I am writing this column on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the Nazi genocide aimed at the complete eradication of the Jewish people, but it will appear ahead of Independence Day.

 A MAN stands in the middle of a field of poppies in the Elah Valley on April 23 and takes photos of the stunning flower display all around him.  (photo credit: ORI LEWIS)
A MAN stands in the middle of a field of poppies in the Elah Valley on April 23 and takes photos of the stunning flower display all around him.
(photo credit: ORI LEWIS)

The phrase “Look back in anger” dominated my thoughts for a while this week. It’s only natural. We are in that uniquely Israeli time frame that spans between Purim to Independence Day, an emotional roller-coaster probably unparalleled anywhere else in time and space. 

If you think that is an exaggeration, consider that the Saturday before Purim (which was in March this year), Jews mark Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath when we read the biblical commandment to “remember what Amalek did” when he attacked the weak Israelites in the desert as they fled Egyptian slavery; then we celebrate Purim, our survival as a people despite the plans to destroy us in ancient Persia; a month after that, we hold the Seder at the start of Passover when we’re commanded to remember the Exodus as if it happened to each one of us personally; a week after Passover, Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day; and the week after that, back-to-back, Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism and Yom Ha’atzmaut – Independence Day – modern Israel’s establishment, another miracle of survival of biblical proportions.

I am writing this column on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the Nazi genocide aimed at the complete eradication of the Jewish people, but it will appear ahead of Independence Day (with Remembrance Day in between.) 

Keep in mind, too, that Remembrance Day, Yom Hazikaron, is not like Memorial Day elsewhere. Almost all Israelis can personally put a face to the name of a fallen soldier or a terror victim. This isn’t a day for a shopping spree and festive picnics. This is the day to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. 

The transition from the somber day to the festive celebrations of freedom is hard, but it demonstrates the point better than almost anything that independence did not come easily. When Israel was established in 1948, the armies of the surrounding Arab countries sought to eliminate it in one quick onslaught. When that failed, they tried again in 1967, and once more in 1973. The peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan and more recently the Abraham Accords with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, prevented more battles, but did not stop terrorism and rockets.

 Day 2 of the Negev Summit (credit: ASSI EFRATI/GPO) Day 2 of the Negev Summit (credit: ASSI EFRATI/GPO)

On March 27, as foreign ministers of four Arab countries and the US gathered at Sde Boker for the Negev Summit hosted by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, there was a terror attack in Hadera, one of a series of similar attacks resulting in the deaths of 14 people within three weeks. 

B’Tzelem, an organization purporting to be a human rights group, was among those that deliberately distorted the events. Mid-month, the organization shared  a list of “20 people killed” since the beginning of April. The start date meant it could ignore nearly all the terror attacks in Israel that triggered Operation Break the Wave. Without context, the Palestinians all seemed to be entirely innocent. Their list did include the three young Israelis murdered at a Tel Aviv bar on April 7: Infuriatingly, they were listed together with “the shooter,” putting the murderer and those he killed in the same category. Such groups don’t use words like “terrorist,” that would mean acknowledging something they don’t want to admit. 

This wasn’t the only news I found frustrating. The double standards, even compared to what Israel is used to, were astonishing. The UN Security Council met to discuss the events on the Temple Mount, at least its version of events. But anyone who supports freedom of religion and truly cares about the Temple Mount should condemn the Arab rioters, not the police. Stockpiling rocks and weapons in a mosque is a desecration.

Israeli police officers did not storm al-Aqsa Mosque to “conquer” it. They broke in to arrest rock and firebomb throwers who had barricaded themselves inside after Friday prayers. Some of the masked Palestinians waved Hamas flags and tried to bombard the Jewish worshipers who had come to pray at the Western Wall at the foot of the Mount. 

It is Jewish worship that is limited at Judaism’s holiest site. The Muslim extremists object to any Jewish presence in the area where the First and Second Temples once stood. Several Israeli politicians and commentators noted the sensitivity of the site to Muslims, warning that an incident there could sweep up the entire Muslim world – something that the Palestinian terrorists are trying to provoke. But to belittle the importance of the Temple Mount to Jews is to ignore the most important lesson of all. 

Jews didn’t “colonize” Israel and “conquer” Jerusalem – unless you think Abraham should apologize for purchasing a burial plot in Hebron; we should forget Amalek and the Exodus led by Moses; and King David should have been nicer to the Jebusites. Without recognizing its ancient history, it is not easy to understand why the Jews live here.

It is the time of year when I recall Israeli writer Haim Gouri telling me: “Remember, Israel was not born because of the Holocaust but in spite of it.”

Last year, the celebration of Jerusalem Day was marred by Hamas rockets from Gaza, leading to the start of the 11-day mini-war and rioting by Arab-Israelis.

Several rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza this week and one from Lebanon. The UN had its own Pavlovian response. UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, issued a statement saying UNIFIL head “Major General Aroldo Lázaro was in immediate contact with authorities on both sides of the Blue Line to urge restraint.

“Nonetheless, the Israel Defense Forces fired back several dozen shells into Lebanon.” 

I urge UNIFIL to nonetheless exercise less restraint and take more action to prevent rockets being fired and weapons being smuggled across the northern border into Israel. Every rocket Israel ignores, is followed by more attacks. 

JUDAISM IS not the “turn the other cheek” religion; we are the people commanded to “Remember!” Zachor! Yet, as natural as looking back in anger might be, it is futile unless there is also room to look ahead in hope.

We live in difficult times, certainly, but the challenges are only compounded by promoting a feeling of hopelessness.

Instead of constantly calling for Days of Rage, fomenting incitement and fostering a cult of martyrdom, the Palestinians and their supporters should be aiming to create better lives. Instead of demanding that UNRWA continue providing Palestinians with the status of perpetual refugees, the Palestinians, too, could put their efforts into peaceful state building.

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine brought with it heartbreaking images of genuine refugees in need, women and children fleeing to safety; civilians mowed down as they rode their bikes or walked their dogs; once majestic buildings turned into rubble; apartment blocks that used to be full of homes, now crumbling, scarred and derelict.

Yet everywhere there were stories of people helping the refugees, including two extraordinary Zoom-style helplines established by Israeli Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers. One was run by midwives and doctors who gave remote advice to Ukrainian women giving birth in shelters and abandoned buildings or even by the roadside. The Israeli helpers guided them from a distance through the births, saving lives in a soothing, encouraging and practical way. The other helpline that caught my attention was run by psychologists, social workers and other trauma specialists who could assist those going through emotional emergencies.

As we emerge from two years of the COVID pandemic that affected every aspect of our lives, we can recall not only the uncertainty, isolation, and loss of lives, but also the solidarity, innovation, and the speedy rollout of lifesaving vaccinations. 

Social media play a greater role than ever in our global village – bringing people together or tearing people apart. The choice is ours. 

We can wallow in negativity or push forward to better things.

As we approach Israel’s 74th birthday, we could look back in anger at so many things but we cannot let that stop us remembering our considerable achievements as a thriving state. On Independence Day I will sing with pride the national anthem: Hatikvah, The Hope.

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