Last week was one of the most emotionally challenging weeks I have had in Israel. We had Yom Ha’Shoa (the Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom Ha’Zikharon (the Remembrance Day for the fallen Israeli soldiers) and just a day later we were celebrating the Yom Ha’Atzamut (the Israeli Independence Day).
On Yom Ha’Shoa we went to Yad Vashem and one could physically feel the atmosphere in the air. On our way up to Jerusalem everyone was engrossed in their thoughts and even the weather seemed to reflect the nation’s mood. It was nine o’clock in the morning and it the sky was black. I personally both wanted to immerse myself in this day and escape from it as quickly as I could. At 10 a.m. I heard the first siren. I didn’t know what to feel so I tried, unsuccessfully, not to feel at all. We didn’t do the regular tour at the museum; rather we were taken through stories of people, rather than events, their moral and emotional triumph, rather than death. I was very grateful for that and being on that day in Israel, the economical, political, legal and religious hybrid of the horrific past, the bright and miraculous present and a hopeful, albeit marked with the fear of wars and conflicts, future.
The following week, on the day before Yom Ha’Zikaron, we were taken on a tour around the Jerusalem’s pre-6 Day War (1967) border between Israel and Jordan. That was the place which suddenly on the day of the Declaration of Independence in 1948 became a not so well-defined border between the two countries. The lack of definite clarity was attributed to wax crayon, instead of a regular pen or a pencil, which was used to mark the border line. The line was not only considerably ‘fatter’, but also smudged slightly; thus creating the situation where every piece of the land covered with the wax on that map became a subject of further questioning. With the British mandate ending and the partition put into force, Israelis took control of their lives and their future, and despite the threat of Arab armies waiting for the proclamation of the independence as an excuse to attack, Israelis did just that; ignoring the British they sacrificed themselves, their sons and daughters in the fight for freedom and autonomy. Against all the odds and all the bets, with Western countries not believing what they were seeing, and certainly some countries secretly disappointed that the State of Israel managed to see the light of another day, Israel won the war and became an independent state, which was to be recognised internationally; the long-uninhabited land, became the homeland for many Jews, who were still recovering from the horrors of the Holocaust, but plunging into another war; this time, however, hoping for a better future.
As a result of the War of Independence we had our land, but without access to the old city of Jerusalem. It was so close, but yet so far. The very narrow border between the State of Israel and Jordan became an international spectacle of individuals suddenly being gripped by the conflict unfolding right in their backyard. There was an international political distress when the Jordanians complained that Israeli soldiers insulted them by showing their tongues; there was an international crisis when a nun’s false teeth fell between two countries; the petition had to be drafted and permission obtained for one Israeli soldier, one Jordanian soldier and one UN soldier carrying white flags, to walk down that street and retrieve her teeth. As if this wasn’t enough, the border run through someone’s garden literally cutting off their way to access latrines. With bullets shooting every time they needed to relieve themselves, a committee was summoned and following eighteen hours of intense deliberation another army unit was called to protect the labourers, who were commanded to build another set of latrines. They did just that, while having their right hand on the direct red line to the chief of national security department; should the need arise to involve in yet another conflict.
Just thinking about this blew my mind. Fair enough, we always think of a political or an armed conflict as something terrible happening mostly to people who didn’t really deserve it, but actually learning how everyday life was affected by that decision, with former neighbours, now political enemies, possibly tossing over items, which they needed to borrow or, presumably, return, presented us with a different understanding. The Jews were happy with having their piece of land where finally they could be their own people, without the fear of extermination and without the fear of hopelessness. In 1948 Israelis joyously danced on the streets and soon the 2000-year old ghetto Jew was replaced by an Israeli Jew; a new breed that was not only free, but also capable to protect themselves knowing that this is the right that no third party has any right to revoke or question.
Nineteen years later we were attacked again in, what we call, the 6 Days War. Sustaining fewer casualties, we took over more land creating the necessary buffer zone that would enable us to react sooner to any potential attack and we gained access to the old city of Jerusalem – the Western Wall was open and again accessible for Jews to pray. This time however Israelis were condemned for taking over the land and what we hear these days about the unreasonable demand by the States and other western countries requesting Israel to return to our pre-1967 borders is, in my opinion, largely attributed to the fact that the West prefers to consider that we were ‘given’ the land in 1948 while we weren’t ‘expected’ to see another day. This is why no one helped us. In 1967 we defended ourselves from the standpoint of an autonomous state facing the aggression of another state and, this time, we didn’t ask for permission to exist, as we did in 1948. We won and we improved our strategic position to the point where today, we know that if we were to return those lands we would sustain considerably more casualties and we would make our borders defenceless especially in the face of the threat of the nuclear Iran. It appears to me that the western states are more willing to accept the pittance that they give us as long as they see us at the receiving end, but they do not want a strong Israeli state in the Middle East. We, however, do need a strong state and an average Israeli couldn’t care less what the West thinks. Whatever economical dealings occur in the Middle East as well as the struggle for oil dominance somehow seems to be tied to the existence of Israel in that region and clearly it is more convenient to fuel the conflict, not assist in resolving it.
Unfortunately, by now, both the Israeli and the Arab side are often driven by either fear or hate. Which one came first – it is really hard to determine right now. Fear fuels hate, hate fuels fear; the two became inseparable and it puts us in a position where we cannot sit at the same table, negotiating with open intentions, without double-dealing on one end (as in case of Yassir Arafat issuing checks sponsoring more terrorist activities against Israelis while performing peace talks and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize) and us holding on to a gun, ready to fire whenever we sense a threat. No, it doesn’t sound nice, but there is nothing nice about this conflict and our worst enemy is international ignorance and dismissal of the complexity of this issue. Sadly, the conflict has been present here since the foundation of the State. Everyone knows that something is brewing here, but what and how; the international public is too bored to know and certainly too tired to research anything more that what they are being fed with by the biased mass media.
We started the week with Yom Ha’Shoa; we remembered that we were defenceless people, at the mercy of others, who did not have our best interests in mind. On the contrary, the Jews in Europe have been subjected to pogroms for centuries with no state-given right to defend themselves. Yom Ha’Zikaron reminds us that though our soldiers rest on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, with over 23000 Israelis giving their lives to date, we died, yes, but this time knowing that we had that right to fight for our families. That death was different; these soldiers and civilians didn’t die bent in half, burned to death while being made to dig their own graves, while fighting for food or hidden in sewers. These people died while holding on to their weapons, while advancing in the field knowing that they left their loved ones at home and they are the only buffer between life and death.
Being on Mount Herzl last week was, I think, one of the most moving experiences for me. Hearing the siren and hearing the speech of Benjamin Netanyahu added to it for sure, but I think the most shaking moment was when I saw the memorial for Jews that gave their lives while fighting during the Second World War under the Polish banner. “For yours and our freedom” it read. It appears that people can unite and they don’t consider someone else’s blood to be less red than theirs, while facing a common enemy. While we face death, it doesn’t matter who is who, we fight to live. But somehow, the same breed of people can turn around and call someone an animal, consider them inferior and unworthy of having a meaningful life. We should learn from history. We are one. As I said, ignorance is our worst enemy.
The day that followed was Yom Ha’Atzmaut. I struggled to participate. The whole week was very challenging and suddenly to leave that behind and be happy was a little too much for me. The timing, however, couldn’t be better to shift from grief to understanding that no one died in vain; those that fell did so to protect us. I give all my love and respect for those young people who stick out their heads every time we are under threat so one day, please G-d, we won’t have to fight anymore and we will live in peace.
This is to all those that fell fighting terror and protecting their loved ones. May their memory be a blessing.