My Word: Only in Israel

It is the social support and solidarity that help keep Israel in a consistently high spot (11th place) in the UN’s World Happiness Index.

  A Tel Aviv street scene this week, ahead of Independence Day 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A Tel Aviv street scene this week, ahead of Independence Day 2018
This is the “most Israeli time of year,” a radio broadcaster noted this week. It’s a period unique to the Jewish state and perhaps what defines it as such. It starts with the Passover holiday, marking the Exodus from Egypt millennia ago, continues with Holocaust Remembrance Day, then to the quintessentially back-toback Remembrance Day and Independence Day, followed by Shavuot, a celebration among other things of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.
The statement made me think about what is “the most Israeli” thing about Israel, especially ahead of the 70th anniversary celebrations.
The traditional torch-lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem marking the switch from Remembrance Day to Independence Day – in a country where it is not rare to personally know a fallen soldier or victim of terrorism – is a particularly Israeli phenomenon.
The political fighting over this year’s ceremony – whether the prime minister should be allowed to speak at the event; if inviting Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, as a graduate of the Foreign Ministry’s MASHAV aid and education program, was a worthy decision; why no representative of the Diaspora will light a torch – has seriously marred an event that should surely unite the country.
Sadly, the bickering itself has been very Israeli, leading to a feeling that everything has been left to the last minute, dependent on political deals.
In an informal survey I once carried out, the most frequently cited (and annoying) Hebrew catchphrases were Al tidag, Yihiyeh beseder and Smoch alai – “Don’t worry,” “It’ll be okay” and “Trust me.”
The revival of Hebrew, on the other hand, should be considered among the most impressive cultural accomplishments anywhere.
FEW THINGS can be more Israeli than the way the country comes to a standstill for the memorial sirens on Holocaust and Remembrance days.
This is a moment of unity in pain – when buses and private vehicles pull over and stop; shoppers stand still in supermarket aisles; even beachgoers stand to attention on the hot sand.
There is a contrast between the wail of the siren and the uncanny silence of people in the usually noisy land.
An even more remarkable silence falls on the country on Yom Kippur when, by custom, even the most secular Jewish drivers don’t drive, all public transport is halted, planes do not fly in Israel’s airspace and stores and businesses close for the day.
Among the only-in-Israel sounds is the genre of Israeli music played on solemn memorial days and in time of war or tragedy. Certain songs by Yehuda Poliker, Chava Alberstein and the late Arik Einstein are so identified with these events that hearing them triggers its own emotional response.
Feeling sad just from hearing Einstein’s “When Angels Cry” on the radio is part of the Israeli experience.
Being Israeli means being proud to be called a Zionist. Left and Right differ on their interpretation of history and their desired political direction for the future, but have the same pride in the country whose creation and survival still seem miraculous, particularly after the way they were tested in the War of Independence in 1948 and in the Six Day War in 1967.
The yin and yang relationship between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is the essence of Israel – the ancient and the modern; the mountains and the shores; the religious and the secular.
The daring rescue operation at Entebbe in 1976 was resoundingly Israeli – IDF soldiers risking their lives to travel thousands of kilometers to free Israeli and Jewish hostages being held by terrorists.
The attack that knocked out Iraq’s nuclear reactor on Shavuot in June 1981 was also very Israeli. One of the pilots in that raid came to symbolize the country’s emotional roller-coaster: Ilan Ramon was later the country’s first astronaut and the only man to make the traditional Friday night blessing over wine in space. The pride as the country witnessed this can only be matched by the pain when the Columbia exploded on reentry in 2003. The later loss of his pilot son in an air-force accident compounded the pain. The way his widow, Rona Ramon, has overcome the double tragedy and set up the Ramon Foundation helping foster educational excellence is noteworthy yet typical.
So many people have handled bereavement by finding a positive way to contribute to others.
It is a helping hand that most characterizes Israel. People jostle and shout, but in an emergency – when metaphorically push comes to shove – they set aside differences and offer assistance. The same nosiness and lack of respect for personal boundaries can be a well-disguised blessing.
It is the social support and solidarity that help keep Israel in a consistently high spot (11th place) in the UN’s World Happiness Index.
Israelis like to think “out of the box,” not coincidentally the Hebrew name of the recently published operation that knocked out Syria’s planned nuclear reactor in 2007. Ein davar kazeh, ein davar kazeh (“There’s no such thing as no such thing”) is another Hebrew catchphrase that captures the national spirit.
AHEAD OF Independence Day in 2012, culture maven Eldad Ziv helped draw up a list of Israeli icons. These included the popiscle seller on the beach; the Hai (Life) pendant; felafel; mangal (the Israeli barbecue, an Independence Day institution); the kova tembel hat associated with kibbutz members and pioneers; and matkot, Israeli beach paddle, which, as Ziv noted, has no rules, no purpose, and no winners or losers – just partnership and fun.
At 70, Israelis have a lot to be proud of. Everything from hi-tech, medical, defense and agricultural innovations to television series have turned into incredible exports. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman has made the Israeli look and accent hot.
Members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement can call for the movie’s ban, but they would find it hard to survive in today’s world without the use of any product developed with Israeli input, be it technological or medical.
On Shavuot we celebrate receiving the Law, with far more than the Ten Commandments that provide an enduring universal base of social justice and law.
Unlike broadcaster Kobi Meidan, who last week posted on Facebook that he is “ashamed to be Israeli,” I shamelessly hang out my blueand- white flag as soon as Holocaust Remembrance Day ends and keep it flying through Jerusalem Day, marking the reunification of Israel’s capital.
Is the way Israel is handling the mass “March of Return” on the Gaza border ideal? No. But try to imagine how a different state would react to thousands of protesters marching on the border with the declared intent of breaching it. If the world had woken up earlier to the dangers posed by Islamists acting to wipe out borders, it wouldn’t be in the situation it is today in Syria and elsewhere. And the world realized only after a dangerous delay that Islamist terrorism is not just an Israeli problem.
The IDF is extraordinarily Israeli, composed of soldiers who are serving so close to home that they regularly come back for weekends, carrying their dirty laundry. The soldiers are committed to protecting their families and friends; Israelis refer to soldiers as “the children of all of us.”
Each worries about protecting the other.
Once again this time of year, I remember what writer-fighter Haim Gouri, who died in January at the age of 94, told me in 1992, when The Jerusalem Post was celebrating its 60th anniversary: Never forget, Israel was not born because of the Holocaust but in spite of it.
What would make Israel a better place? More tolerance and inclusion; patience; a willingness to meet and work together instead of increasing polarization; and a major effort to close the socioeconomic gaps. All citizens, of all religions and religious streams, should realize that this is the one country we have, and it isn’t all – or at all – bad.
Perhaps the most Israeli thing of all is the compunction to combine celebration with soul-searching.