Sunday, May 8, 2011

Remember Always

Just one week after commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day with a 2-minute siren for which almost all of Israel came to a complete stand-still (see this blog), tonight we had yet another siren and moment of silence as Israel ushered in Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism. Officially to date, 22,867 soldiers have lost their lives defending the state of Israel and 2,443 civilians have been murdered in terrorist attacks.

For all that the Holocaust is regarded as the even larger tragedy than Israel's wars and terror attacks (and rightly so – even the numbers of Israel's fallen soldiers and terror victims pales next to the millions of victims murdered in the Holocaust), nevertheless, for me at least, the Memorial Day which we began observing tonight is more "real", and touchable.

Israel is a country with extremely challenging cultural differences, tough-exterior Sabras (native-born Israelis) with little or no regard for personal space, a permanently shaky economy, endlessly horrendous bureaucracy, non-stop international and media vilification, and a constant state of heightened security, tension and war.

And for all that, just over 23 years ago I made a decision to build my life in this crazy country, and I haven't regretted even a single day of that decision.

But the decision has come with a price.

Most Israelis, especially if they have been here for at least a few years, have attended at least one funeral of somebody close to them – family members, friends, colleagues, army buddies, who have been killed either in a military battle or a terror attack. And we have friends and colleagues who have been to their share of these funerals as well.

And because of this price that we pay, we feel more connected to the mourning, and the emotions, and even the promise to Never Forget. We are less removed from it than we are from the Holocaust, whose murders and horrors finally ended 66 years ago.

I was very fortunate to have had an essentially boring time in the Israeli army. Of course, I absolutely hated my one year of military service, and to a lesser degree my 15 or so years as an active reservist, but while my military time did have some "interesting" times (as per the famous Chinese curse), with the exception of one very minor injury suffered by a buddy in my reserve unit about 15 years ago, I have also don't have any of the army stories of how my platoon barely escaped with our lives. Yet, while I was blessed with a basically uneventful military career, just knowing that I was in situations which could have been much worse helps me truly appreciate what those who have fallen in defense of Israel did go through.

I have been even luckier that in my 23 years of living in Israel I have only had two funerals to attend as a result of terror attacks.

The first was in September 1995 when Danny Frei was murdered in his home by a terrorist who came in during the night when the family was sleeping.

The second was Gila Sarah Kessler, a young woman serving her national service (in lieu of army service, an option exercised by many religiously observant girls). She was standing at a crowded bus stop on the outskirts of Jerusalem in June 2002 when a suicide/homicide bomber killed her and three others. An hour earlier she and I had been joking with each other in the office where I was working at the time and she was fulfilling her national service.

Yet, I know that having "only" two friends murdered by terrorists in 23 years of living here is relatively few. Too many folks have known far more, and I have friends who have lost people much closer to them than what I lost – friends who have buried their husbands, their wives and their children.

And for all that I recognize and am grateful for how relatively sorrow-free my life has been, barely a day goes by when I don't wonder "what if…?" There have been countless attacks – both in the so-called "occupied territories" as well as in Israel proper, both reported and known about, as well as kept under wraps. The attackers have not bothered to filter out their targets – age, gender, political leanings – are irrelevant. Whoever's there is good enough for them. And so every day, when I put my kids into bed, give them their kisses and lock our doors, I am thankful to have had yet another day without knowing tragedy and sorrow.

Hence my deeper connection to Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism than to Holocaust Memorial Day. The Holocaust was so massive that we cannot even begin to comprehend it in its entirety, nor can we really relate to it on a personal level. The Holocaust ended in 1945 – the death camps and the SS cannot reach me here and now.

But those who have fallen in defense of Israel and those who have been murdered solely for the fact that they were Israelis living in their homeland – that's part of my day-to-day reality for living in Israel.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, the phrase which we use most when commemorating the day is "Never Forget". It's almost as though as we get further and further removed from the reality of the Holocaust we have to instill within ourselves a negative command – Don't forget the Holocaust in order to never allow it to happen again.

But with Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism, it's different. Rather than imposing upon ourselves what not to do, we are far more connected to what we can do – can and must do.

And that is to remember.

We remember those who have given their lives so that we may live free – as Israelis and as Jews, in the Jewish homeland. While we remember them, we also remember those who are grieving the memories of their loved ones on this day above all others.

We remember that nothing should be taken for granted. Every day that we have here, and every day that we wake up, are able to go to work, to school, to the mall, is a gift. Every day that we are able to see our friends, hug our spouses and tuck our children safely into bed is another day that we have succeeded in living our lives in our home.

We remember the price Israel has been forced to pay for this existence and this freedom, and the price that we will continue to pay until we are finally able to find a peaceful coexistence with those around us who, so far, have been determined to hate and to destroy.

Most of all, we remember the 22,867 soldiers and 2,443 civilians to whom this day is dedicated. And we remember to live our lives to the fullest – for ourselves and for them, so that their sacrifice will never be in vain.

May their memories always be a blessing.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Never Forget Our Past, But Look Ahead To Our Future

The scene was almost surreal; it was as though I was looking at a painting. Cars and busses were all at a standstill, with people standing outside of them completely immobile. Along the sidewalks pedestrians were also as still as statues.

And in the air – almost complete silence. Almost.

Only the high pitched wailing of the siren which continued for a full a full two minutes was heard. Nothing else. No sounds. No movement.

Like looking at a painting.

But of course, it wasn't a painting, and it wasn't even surreal. It was very real. It was the view from in front of our building this morning at 10:00 when the siren sounded commemorating Yom HaSho'ah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

What I saw, was similar, albeit on a smaller scale, to what was seen all across Israel at the very moment. In Tel Aviv on the busy city streets and the malls and coffee shops, in Jerusalem along the outdoor pedestrian malls and in the Machane Yehuda shuk. And everywhere else in the country – in Haifa, Be'er Sheva, Tiberias, Metulla in the far north and in the southern tip of the country in Eilat. On kibbutzim, moshavim, settlements large and small, towns and villages and on the roads in between – the entire country came to a complete halt for two full minutes.

Every year when we observe this silence in honor and in memory of the 6 million Jews and 5 million others slaughtered by the Nazis, what strikes me the most is not the two minutes of silence, but rather that immediately when the siren ends, life goes "back to normal".

People get back in their cars and busses, they sit back down to their coffee at the sidewalk cafes, they take out their cell phones and make that call, go back into the store to buy whatever it was they were buying, and life goes on.

Jews in general and Israel in particular are often accused of dwelling on the Holocaust. Apparently it is the boogeyman on our shoulder guiding our every abuse of the Palestinians, our constant cry for sympathy from the world and our excuse for every one of our personal and national neuroses.

Yet for all of our alleged obsession, the "highlight" of our annual Holocaust observance is two minutes of respectful silence and then back to the daily grind.

Of course, there are many other things we do here all day to commemorate Yom HaSho'ah, and these are all very powerful and very meaningful.

Very moving ceremonies are held in the evening when we begin the commemoration of Yom HaSho'ah as well as in the morning immediately after the national siren. In schools across the country ceremonies are held commemorating the day, and in addition to the regular lessons, time is set aside for lessons and discussions about the Holocaust.

The radio stations all play somber, day-appropriate music, and the TV channels – including the cable and satellite stations – either stop broadcasting for the day or devote all programming to Holocaust-related material. I was extremely impressed, even moved to tears when my daughter came home from school today, and as she usually does, turned on the television for a little bit of relax before homework. She turned on the Disney Channel, and the programming was child-oriented Holocaust educational shows. Even better, the two shows that I watched with her were both extremely well made – sensitive, age appropriate, but without pussy-footing around the seriousness of the topic.

But life does indeed go on. And while we must never forget those who perished in the Holocaust, and we must always be on guard to prevent anything like it ever happening again, the fact that we observe the two minutes of silence and then return to whatever we were doing highlights for me the fact that we do have a proper perspective of the Holocaust and it's place in history.

We have just entered what for me is the most powerful and emotionally moving week-long period of the year.

Beginning today with Yom HaSho'ah, a week from today we will observe Yom HaZikaron - Israel's Memorial Day Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism. Immediately when Memorial Day ends, Israel's Independence Day begins.

For many people this is a difficult transition, to go from the heaviness and mourning atmosphere of Yom HaZikaron straight into the joy and celebration of Yom HaAtzma'ut - Independence Day,

But I don't agree.

Only by first remembering the price which we have paid to have the State of Israel can we truly appreciate what it means to have it. By paying proper tribute to those who have died in order that we can live here the celebration of independence means more than fireworks, barbecues and concerts (although those are also wonderful aspects of the holiday).

In some ways it even means that our joy in the celebration is less than it would otherwise be. And even that's OK too. Jewish tradition teaches us that when God parted of the Red Sea, the angels in heaven wanted to sing, but God wouldn't allow them. He said that when His children (i.e. the Egyptians) were dying, celebration was not appropriate. Even with the Egyptians receiving the punishment that they deserved, it does not negate the point that God was in a position that He had to kill His children and that was a cause for mourning, not celebration.

The same holds true for celebrating Israel's independence. We are happy, and we do celebrate what we have – but it is not a bottomless pit of joy. As we do not let ourselves forget the Holocaust in order to keep it from ever repeating itself, we also do not forget that in order to have our State we have been forced by neighbors and by circumstances to kill other of God's children, and to have many of our own killed as well. And we continue to pray for the day when that killing might come to an end, and that we can all celebrate without limits. And live in peace.