Remembrance Day, which took place this week, is truly a singular event in the life of our country. There is nothing like it. This year, too, despite the unique circumstances caused by the coronavirus - both the legitimate limitations it created and the hysteria manufactured by the top echelons of government that forced a drastic change of life on us - the special vibration this day inspires moves the innermost being of every single Israeli.
As the evening lingers, the solemn silence of this quiet day spreads. The sirens can be heard across the land from one end to the other. It does not change the gravitas of the unique silence of Remembrance Day.
From that moment on, during the long evening hours and the upcoming day, we all hear the songs. These are the songs that will accompany us throughout that day. They accompany us throughout our lives. They are without comparison. In no other country were they able to create such songs about the most moving moments for generations of soldiers, survivors, new immigrants and native-born Israelis as our songs do.
When the song “My young brother, Yehuda” by Ehud Manor plays and moves the heart; when Shlomo Gronich sings about his brother Yaron, in “Piano and Trumpet,” hoping that he still plays instruments up in heaven, it seems as if the world has stopped turning. The body freezes, the eyes become moist and the pain knows no bound. This happens to those who knew these boys and those who knew others like them; the boys who will never be older than 20 years old.
I hoped that the officials who push themselves to the front of the stage on a regular basis wouldn’t try to do the same during these special days. They pretend as if the grief, sorrow and pain we share is firstly theirs. Once we could hide ourselves behind the stillness of the day and the songs which expressed pain and longing. With the massive changes that engulf us, this little pristine land kept pure and sacred, becomes a target, and an unnecessary target, for revolting exploitation.
It is said about this day that for a moment it cuts us off from everything that happened before it. The citizens of this country gather, each with the longing that will not fade, each with their own pain placed next the collective grief. For the most part, this is the quietest day of the year.
Inside all the storms that accompany us at all times, Remembrance Day is still able to stabilize the feeling of solidarity that used to be the foundation of Israeli power and strength. It is able to invoke in us longing, not only for those we visit where they lay in the earth (and this year, the visits to cemeteries were virtual) but for something more. It invokes something more: a type of Israeliness that we once did not need to define since it was self-evident but which now we cannot articulate, for it is slipping out of our hands. It looks as if it is breaking away from us, and we from it.
THERE USED to be an ongoing debate within the public how Remembrance Day and Independence Day were joined: the silence, stillness and pain, coupled with the joyful cries, cheers, bands playing and fireworks that come after it. That debate ran its course. We all know now that this proximity of dates, of these two times, is the special Israeliness. That was once the bedrock of the solidarity which used to be the distinguishing mark of our resilience, that helped us overcome the pain and cost needed to sustain this country, and which is the foundation of our national existence as a people.
This year wasn’t very different from the previous 72 years in this country’s sovereign existence. The coronavirus changed the outside activities which mark Remembrance Day but did not vanquish the special place the day has in the collective mind of Israeli society.
We were all in the cemeteries and spent time alone in our thoughts, remembering, feeling and memorializing; everyone according to the individual level of pain and longing. In our homes or in the street, we wear a mask that covers our face, but doesn’t hide the deep emotion that floods our souls.
Yet even after we express the inner feelings of Remembrance Day, we cannot ignore the need to think about the next day, and the days to follow. They are not as they once were. We lost the ability to maintain the sense of unity the day inspires and, in a few hours, we return to our daily routine. We cannot ignore this.
This routine represents a very different dimension. It is in opposition to Remembrance Day, a routine of ever-increasing inner tension, of expanding gaps that tear the country and those who live in it, one from the other, and create a reality in which there is no unity, no fellowship and no mutual respect.
It is impossible to postpone dealing with this experience to another day that will be removed from Remembrance Day and perhaps disconnected from it.
We are approaching a moment in which Remembrance Day and Independence Day will no longer be a part of our lives, and will no longer express something deep in our collective being that once strengthened and still carries the inspiration to balance our lives.
The culture of the public discourse in Israel does not encourage togetherness, and does not reflect a spontaneous identification with the values, memories and emotions that used to be a mark for how we live.
Today’s discourse is based on insult, looking away, being apart, nurturing racism toward those in Israel whose skin color, origin, ethnicity or national sympathies do not fit the norms, patterns and habits of groups that have the power to dictate the public agenda.
Today there are some in Israel who are naturally rooted in our society. Yet there are others - for example, immigrants from Ethiopia - who are part of us, love the country and feel deeply connected to it.
Yet do we feel they are really a part of us? Or because of the black color of their skin, do we treat them differently? Do we not add a dab of contempt, prejudice and avoidance to how we define their status?
Then there are the immigrants from the former Soviet Union; those whom nobody doubts are Jews, and others who may not fit the stricter definitions of who is a Jew among the religious and ulta-Orthodox groups here. Is there anyone who gives the country more than they do? Is there anyone who fights for the security and existence of the state more than them?
DO WE NOT sin by having a biased mind, by distancing ourselves from some of them, even from those who marched at the front of combat units into death on the battlefield? Their graves were pushed aside because of evil intolerance and a bias which cannot be forgiven.
What about those who are not rooted here, yet live here as immigrants and seek refuge, fleeing a genocide somewhere in Asia or Africa or simply looking for a job? Can we show them compassion, respect and dignity as we once wished others would show us throughout our history as a people?
We became a society in which hate and intolerance dictate the style of our public discourse, especially to the non-Jewish citizens who are a part of us. Today there is no difficulty or unease to say Arabs in Israel are traitors who wish to see the country destroyed. Once only radical nationalistic fringe groups associated with Rabbi Meir Kahane spoke in that manner. Slowly, the tolerance for such views has spread among larger groups, including mainstream political parties.
Today the person who voices such views is none other than the prime minister and those who are next to him - brutal, jeering reckless people who will soon receive high-ranking government positions. Next to them will be those who became reporters, spokespeople, public relations operatives, who speak for a political bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu.
For them, Arab Israelis are traitors, and those who speak for them in the Knesset support terrorism and represent terrorist groups. It is not a coincidence that Itamar Ben-Gvir became a frequent guest on Balfour Street, and that his partners, both formal and informal ones, are strong supporters of the subversive right-wing bloc that threatens to destroy any decency left in the ruling apparatus of the country.
It is clear that in such an atmosphere, the chance that the State of Israel will be willing to march into creating the conditions to enable peace negotiations with the Palestinians are almost nil. The Israeli government is now looking for a pretext to annex lands, to push out the Palestinian people to a margin that does not offer an independent existence or a shot at self-determination.
One may ask, what is the connection between all of this and the special day during which we weep for our fallen and swear to continue their legacy?
The attempt to erect such an artificial barrier between this issue and the other is futile.
I believe that those who fought, all of them, fought believing that they were defending a tolerant, cultural, enlightened country that honors all its citizens; a country that listens to the hearts of those who live in it and maintains the basics of democratic life and upholds the rule of law - which are the only real basis for our existence.
Israel of today is not that country anymore. It’s not heading toward a change; it already has changed. It is different, not a democracy as it once was and must be. It is not open and enlightened. It is not tolerant of the other, to those who are different. It is not fair to all citizens and to those who rely on its good or depend on its aspiration for peace - once upon a time our life mission.
In a not too distant future, Remembrance Day and the following Independence Day will become part of a past that is no longer our reality. We are not far from that time.
This Remembrance Day and Independence Day - despite the coronavirus and the face masks and the sorrow and grief over those who perished in this plague - I felt an additional fear for the people we are becoming. I think many others shared that fear with me.
It is not true that “So Has Ended a Day of Battle and Its Evening” as the poem by Nathan Alterman so eloquently expressed. We are still in the middle of this battle, a battle over the State of Israel, over what it could be and should be. It is not a battle with our enemies, and enemies we have, fierce, bitter, cruel and dangerous ones. Yet this battle is going to be inside of us, in our midst, between us all.
This battle had already begun. There is no escaping it. It is a battle for the soul, essence, character and values of our dear and beloved country which so many fought to protect and empower to be a source of hope, happiness and a better future.
I used these past few days to pray that this battle - for the soul of our nation - will be decided not in acrimony, but in unity and reconciliation.