There is something about Independence Day celebrations that make me instinctively recall my aliyah experience – my personal Exodus from England to Israel in 1979. As the country heads towards its 75th anniversary next week, it is suffering from extreme – and extremist – political and social turmoil, triggered by the government’s judicial reform and the response of those who object to it. The situation is disturbing, distressing, and at times disgusting.
But as usual at this time of year, I remember what Chaim Gouri – an iconic fighter-writer of the 1948 War of Independence – told me in an interview celebrating The Jerusalem Post’s 60th anniversary in December 1992.
“We are a people of ups and downs, euphoria and pathos, pride and pique. Everything about us is drastic,” Gouri told me. “Look even at the weather: We had snowstorms and brilliant sunshine the same month... Every day there is a sudden sunrise and an equally dramatic sunset, but there is no twilight. Hazal [The Sages] wrote: ‘The Jewish people is compared to the dust of the ground and to the stars of the sky. When they sink, they sink down to the dust; when they rise, they rise into the stars.’”
“Look even at the weather: We had snowstorms and brilliant sunshine the same month... Every day there is a sudden sunrise and an equally dramatic sunset, but there is no twilight. Hazal [The Sages] wrote: ‘The Jewish people is compared to the dust of the ground and to the stars of the sky. When they sink, they sink down to the dust; when they rise, they rise into the stars.’”Chaim Gouri
The only-in-Israel juxtaposition of Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism back-to-back with Independence Day is another of those jarring contrasts. Strangely, while I can recall in great detail my first Independence Day in Israel, in 1980, I remember nothing about that Remembrance Day.
Remembering the first Independence Day, forgetting the first Remembrance Day
My first Yom Ha’atzmaut was a learning experience. I was part of a Nahal garin (army group) on a southern kibbutz. In an expression of our own independence I was part of a small group of friends who sneaked away from the planned communal entertainment. Somewhat “outsiders,” my friends and I went to meet their friends in Sderot.
In my memory, there was a prevailing smell of orange blossom and melons. We boldly set out on foot certain that we’d pick up a “tremp” – hitch a ride – at some point. Hitchhiking in those days was common – frequently the only form of transport, in fact. Private vehicles were still not taken for granted, and – although it seems almost impossible now – cars could be mobilized by the army in times of national emergencies. As some pilots and other members of elite units are refusing to do reserve duty to protest the government’s judicial reform, it seems extraordinary that in those days people let their own cars be commandeered.
But back to Sderot, a symbol of the Negev development towns. In the early 1980s, the North was under frequent attack from Lebanon, but Israel was still in control of the Gaza Strip and the South did not experience rocket barrages.
By the time we reached the town center, we had missed any public performances and the only entertainment was provided by a few youths who were wandering around bopping revelers on the head with blue-and-white plastic hammers. While I don’t miss being tapped on the head – however playfully – I miss the innocence of those days when, somehow, being hit like that didn’t spark fights.
Being in a small town made it easy to find my friends’ former schoolmates. Everybody was at home. Somebody’s home. Almost all the families had previously gathered to watch the traditional parades and programs on Israel Television in the days when it was the only channel, providing what has been called “the communal campfire” effect.
Even without the benefits of phones – not everybody had a home landline in those days – friends, cousins, and neighbors somehow came together. About a dozen of us ended up in someone’s garden, eating watermelon, cracking sunflower seeds and drinking homemade lemonade. I was struck by the way somebody’s mother welcomed this large group that had arrived unannounced late at night and quickly produced food and sustenance. Evidently, there was more to hospitality than issuing an invitation weeks in advance, London-style, to come over for a drink. This was territory familiar to the patriarch Abraham.
Despite such strong memories of that first Independence Day, I can recall nothing of Remembrance Day that year. Probably the memory gap was because I didn’t yet have a face to keep in mind as I stood still for the siren. Apart from Yoni Netanyahu, killed during the Entebbe rescue operation, I would have found it hard to name any fallen Israeli soldier. There are cases when ignorance is bliss.
The First Lebanon War broke out in June 1982, and the list of fallen soldiers and of the victims of terror – including those I knew personally – has sadly grown longer. I am in awe of those families who channel their bereavement into commemorative projects helping others. But this, too, is Israel. Just this month, after Palestinian terrorists murdered British-born Lucy (Leah) Dee and two of her daughters, Rina and Maia, the grieving widower and father gave an inspirational speech calling for April 10 to be called Dees Day, a day of unity and distinguishing between right and wrong. The family – Leo and his three remaining children – also agreed to donate Lucy’s organs.
I MADE aliyah at a time of greater innocence – and with no small amount of personal naivety. My dream in those days was to live happily ever after on a kibbutz. If I couldn’t be a Sabra – an Israeli-born citizen – I could at least live the idealized life of my imagination. Some of the habits I picked up at the time have remained: I don’t take milk in my tea and – in one of those either-or combinations that Gouri could be proud of – my footwear comes down to either sandals or boots. I still enjoy that quintessentially Israeli pastime of shira betzibbur (public sing-alongs) to which I was first exposed gathering with my garin around a campfire on a kibbutz lawn. The fact that I now know the words by heart only adds to my pleasure.
Naturally, the older I get, the more nostalgic I become and I have fond memories of a period that I did not always enjoy at the time.
In my early days in the country, there seemed to be nothing more Israeli than having been born in Nahalal, the moshav in the Jezreel Valley where apparently anyone who was anyone had been born, or at least had family connections. As the country races toward its 75th anniversary, two iconic “sons of Nahalal” have died, marking the end of an era: Author and newspaper columnist Meir Shalev passed away last week and poet, writer, satirist, and entertainer Yehonatan Geffen died on Wednesday.
Geffen’s lyrics have provided the musical backdrop to my years here and Shalev’s books, particularly My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner, swept me up. Both Geffen and Shalev were stridently on the political Left. I enjoyed their writing, but often disagreed with their columns. Having a different political viewpoint should not mean having to rule out everything a person does. The writings of both, by the way, prove that coming from a Nahalal family is no guarantee of happiness, but having a satirical sense of humor is a good coping mechanism.
I have learned to be proud of who I am and where I come from – proud that I proved my Zionism by choosing to make my life here. I’m happy that over the years, the gaps between Ashkenazim and Sephardim have grown smaller as couples “intermarry.” I’m pleased that Mizrahi and religious music has become mainstream and that it is also sung in public, on days of joy and days of mourning and the “regular” days in between.
The politicization surrounding Remembrance Day and Independence Day this year is saddening and maddening. The lack of tolerance – fueled by social media – is tearing us apart. The good old days were not all good; today is not all bad.
With nearly 44 years’ experience in Israel, I have been through several polarizing events – including the First Lebanon War, the Oslo Accords, and the disengagement from Gaza. I’m happy to report that I’m still standing and so is the country. There needs to be a halt to the rhetoric and provocations next week (and in the future), not only out of respect for the dead, but for the sake of the living – all those who truly care about Israel.