Center Field: Remembering only Israel’s fallen soldiers, terror victims is natural, not xenophobic

Mourning just the Israeli losses – which includes Arabs, Druse, Christians, Filipinos and Beduin – is not an act of ethnocentrist arrogance but of group healing and gratitude.

Mount Herzl military cemetery (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mount Herzl military cemetery
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
This Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day, was particularly tough. The realization that Palestinians last year murdered 116 people, including 67 soldiers in Gaza, reverberated throughout Israel, hitting like the summer heat waves that shock us anew even as we expect them. My family and I attended a moving hour-long memorial that teen leaders of the Ezra youth movement organized. The weather was chilly.
Yet 1,600 people – mostly under 18 – sat quietly, without squirming, stilled by a sacred sense of gratitude for the sacrifices made by over 23,320 soldiers and victims of terrorism.
That night, in Tel Aviv, over 2,000 people attended the Combatants for Peace memorial, uniting bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families. On a day that many try to make as nonpartisan as possible, that service proved controversial. While lobbying the defense minister to deny entry permits to Palestinians invited to participate, the Samaria Settler Council proposed a law banning such “provocations in partnership with enemies of the state.”
This ridiculous, undemocratic proposal would disrespect the mourning process of those families wishing to mourn with Palestinians.
I approach all of Israel’s bereaved families with humility. They have earned the right to attend whatever memorial they wish with whomever they wish.
A Palestinian-Israel memorial is aspirational not “provocative,” hopeful not insulting. It’s impressive that those victimized by terrorism or war can reach across the great divide separating our peoples and hug others who share their anguish.
A Palestinian co-founder of Combatants for Peace, Bassam Aramin, grieves for Abir, his 10-year-old daughter, shot by an Israeli soldier in 2007. He explains to skeptical Palestinians who share the Samarians’s contempt for the ceremony: “This is my courage. I look to the future, not the past, toward a peaceful solution for both sides.”
If more Palestinians echoed such sentiments, peace would be possible. I fight the idiotic Palestinian boycott too passionately to start endorsing any idiotic Jewish ones. Both sides need more bridge-builders, not barn-burners.
Yet this debate in Israel has sharpened my objections to parallel American-Jewish ceremonies. The same humility that defers to bereaved Israelis in Israel should keep American Jews from hurting other grieving Israelis with joint ceremonies on foreign soil.
Coming from a culture that celebrates Memorial Day with sales and sailing, in a community mostly two generations removed from military service, few American Jews appreciate just how sensitive Yom Hazikaron is for Israelis. Like it or not, joint Palestinian-Jewish memorials offend many stricken Israelis.
American Jews can host joint rituals or meetings on other days. But given the sensitivities, and considering that mainstream Palestinian institutions continuously call for killing Israelis and celebrate murderers as “martyrs” – perhaps on this one day, American Jews can parallel mainstream Israel opinion by remembering just Israeli soldiers and victims of Palestinian terrorism.
Mourning just the Israeli losses – which includes Arabs, Druse, Christians, Filipinos and Beduin – is not an act of ethnocentrist arrogance but of group healing and gratitude.
I know of no American Memorial Day ceremonies mourning fallen Iraqis or Vietnamese, even as innocent bystanders, let alone the Germans or Japanese or Brits from the Revolutionary War who killed the very people being memorialized. Spilling wine for Egyptian blood during the Passover Seder is a rare collective ceremony that honors the other side’s suffering. Although I respect the rabbis’ sensitivity in that religious ritual celebrating our freedom, I still expect Israel’s or America’s national day or mourning to concentrate on those who died protecting their particular nation.
A national memorial day honors the sacrifices certain community members made for everyone else in the community. The ritual is tribal. But focusing inward is not necessarily an act of hostility outward; always looking outside strains the neck muscles.
It is a mark of communal immaturity – and displaced guilt – to insist on always honoring the other. I know I am going to get in trouble with this, but many far-left American Jewish joint mourning rituals feel dishonest, masking the true intention, which is to condemn Israel and exorcise American Jewish guilt regarding the Palestinians. On Yom Hazikaron, such passive-aggressive partisanship is particularly offensive.
Most American Jews remember the Israeli fallen on Israeli Remembrance Day respectfully, appropriately, apolitically. Joint memorials, are, however, increasingly popular among young liberal rabbis and university students.
These intellectuals believe they are more representative of American Jewish opinion than they are. But they indicate where the future leadership is heading.
This clash pits American Jewish elites’ universalism against mainstream Israelis’ particularism.
More and more American Jewish Ivy Leaguers reject patriotism by caricaturing it as tribalism and militarism. Yet as Abraham Lincoln himself rhapsodized: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Yom Hazikaron moves us from memory and sacrifice – the mystic chords – to inspiration and virtue, our better angels. The approach is particularly Israeli, Zionist, Jewish, but traditionally American too. In The Road to Character, David Brooks laments that in today’s world of “The Big Me,” Americans are “less interested in selflessness, generosity, self-sacrifice” – precisely the values celebrated on memorial days.
Patriotism is not, as Samuel Johnson said, the last refuge of the scoundrel. Patriotism is the first home of the toddler, nurturing with values and experiences that become mystic memories for what can become the defining relationship of a lifetime. Patriotism, when fused with liberal democracy, taps our collective power for good, not ill, to build, not destroy, to be expansive, not provincial.
Beyond all these lovely values, Israelis understand that patriotism also saves lives when the enemy attacks, and fighting for survival is the only option.
The author, a professor of history at McGill University, is teaching this semester at Hebrew University’s Rothberg School. His eleventh book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published this October by Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martin’s Press.
Follow on Twitter @GilTroy