The cost of freedom on Israel's 69th birthday

There was a time not too long ago when we knew what it meant to be helpless.

Mount Herzl military cemetery (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mount Herzl military cemetery
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
As our nation pauses once again in this roller coaster spring of remembrance and celebration, we observe a second national ritual of solemn commemoration and mourning, honoring the memories of the fallen who died so that the nation may live.
So soon after we celebrate the festival of our people’s liberation from slavery two millennia ago, we mourn the slaughter of a third of the Jewish nation in the Holocaust, followed by honoring the thousands of our youth who since the birth of the Jewish state have died – and who continue to be sacrificed – defending a formerly powerless people in its nascent homeland.
In his famous poem “The Silver Platter,” Natan Alterman wrote at the dawn of our independence: “And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky slowly dimming over smoking frontiers, As the nation arises, Torn at heart but breathing, To receive its miracle, the only miracle... the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”
Death in battle is not served on a silver platter. The cost of freedom is high, and the citizens of Israel have been paying it officially for 69 years of statehood. We acknowledge it in a uniquely Israeli way: by integrally linking the celebration of the ongoing miracle of our national independence with a preceding day of remembrance honoring those whose sacrifice made it possible.
At a time when the president of the United States is expected to visit near to when we mark the 50th anniversary of the reunification of our capital, attention is naturally focusing on the shared values of our two democracies. Both nations have memorial days, but the US celebration after nearly 250 years of independence has become more a weekend of celebrating the advent of summer.
Bereaved Americans also visit cemeteries on US Memorial Day, but nationally it is a rather nonchalant observance, known more popularly for the running of the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR motor races, the Memorial Tournament golf event and even the final of the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship.
Americans have been paying for their freedom over and over for more than two centuries, time enough for many citizens to take their freedom for granted. Israel as it is about to celebrate only the first seven decades of its independence still cannot take its existence for granted.
As the nation prepares to welcome the American president next month, we would do well to recall the words of two of his predecessors regarding the cost of the democratic freedoms we share.
Abraham Lincoln spoke of the purpose of remembering such sacrifice after the Battle of Gettysburg, when the Civil War threatened to destroy the Union.
He called on the country to commit itself to honoring the slain by acknowledging the meaning of their deaths: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
This line has meaning for all Israelis who know that we will always have to pay the cost of our freedom.
There was a time not too long ago when we knew what it meant to be helpless as the world watched as millions of Jews were being murdered. Our memorial day is about the true meaning of Zionism: Jewish self-determination and national liberation. After only seven decades of independence so far, Israelis have come to understand and to mark the integral link between destruction and rebirth, sorrow and gladness.
This is the meaning of our emancipation: that we are able to express our freedom through the miracle of the sovereign state of Israel, now home to nearly half the world’s Jewish population. The Jewish people persevered and created a modern state in its ancient homeland after the first hundred years of Zionism, despite the Holocaust and in defiance of succeeding attempts to destroy it.
We honor the memories of those who died protecting it, which are the blessings we share every day of our national existence.