Friday, April 27, 2012

Memory and Independence: From Death to Life

Just a week after the siren sounded throughout Israel to mark Holocaust Memorial day, it sounded again twice on Tuesday April 25 at 8 PM and the following morning at 11 AM to commemorate Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day.  During these two moments of silence and throughout the day, Israelis remembered the 22,293 men and women who died defending the land of Israel since 1860, when the first Jewish settlers began to build new neighborhoods outside of the old city of Jerusalem.  In the past year alone, 126 members of the security forces were killed.

In his message to the bereaved families of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who lost his brother Yonatan in 1976 in the Entebbe rescue operation in Uganda – said the following words:

“After Remembrance Day, the State of Israel will celebrate its 64th birthday. The unbreakable bond between Remembrance Day and Independence Day underscores the fact that our dear ones who fell in Israel's wars did not fall in vain. Thanks to them, the State arose. Thanks to them, the State of Israel will continue to develop and prosper, and thanks to them the members of the younger generation will also be able to live their lives in security and tranquility.”

On the afternoon of Memorial Day my friend Shosha invited me to come to the national cemetery on Mount Herzl and join the tributes to her brother, the late Yehudah Greenfield, who was killed in action in the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

In a recollected and sad, yet peaceful atmosphere, families and friends gather around the graves of the fallen, reciting psalms and singing songs.  Warm handshakes or hugs are exchanged, along with words of encouragement and light conversation.  Some stand or sit in silence, quietly weeping in front of the tomb of their loved ones.

I walk around in silence, reading the inscriptions in Hebrew on the tombstones, all marked with the emblem of the IDF.  20 years old, killed in Gaza.  23 years old, killed in Lebanon.  19 years old, killed in a bombing attack in Jerusalem.  21 years old, killed while performing her duty.

Just a few steps away, a fresh heap of earth covered with flowers marks the grave of the most recent victim, Lieutenant Hila Betzaleli, who was killed a week earlier when a lighting structure collapsed onto the stage at Mount Herzl during a rehearsal for the Independence Day opening ceremony.

At sunset, mourning turns into dancing as Memorial Day turns into the eve of Yom HaAtsma’ut – Israeli Independence Day and the nation’s 64th birthday.  In Jerusalem, the city comes alive with evening concerts, celebrations, parties, and a mix of traditional Jewish and modern dancing at Safra Square.

For me, such a personal experience of Memorial Day drove home the words of the Prime Minister:  spending the day with a bereaved friend and her family at the Mount Herzl cemetery certainly gives a very different meaning to the celebrations of Independence Day.  In the wake of the extermination of six million Jews in Europe, followed by countless wars and two intifadas, the price paid for the birth and survival of the State of Israel in these past 64 years has indeed been a heavy one, marked with much blood and tears and thanks to the sacrifice of many young men and women.

I cannot help but think at the deep interconnection between the mystery of Israel and mystery of Christ.  Death and resurrection.  Sacrifice for the sake of new life.  Thank you to the brave young men and women who gave their lives for their nation.  You have given your people a reason to be proud, and a reason to cherish Israel’s independence with special gratefulness. May their memory be blessed. And happy birthday Israel!