14 April 2013

Yom Ha Zikaron: Jerusalem

foreground:  Jerusalem sandbox.  background:  King David Hotel
Landing in Tel Aviv on Sunday late afternoon, we boarded the buses quickly for the climb to Jerusalem and the beginning of Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and others who died in service to the Jewish state.

I am with 200 New Yorkers as part of the UJA Federation Rosenwald Mission--and am very honored to be here.

It's a somber, muted day, heavy with memory and song and reflection on the sacrifices we make in order to be free.

Haaretz carried a couple of interesting stories about the ways in which the language of Israeli national bereavement has shifted from the national to the personal in the past generation, something writers have been talking about for some time.  And it was an interesting complement to a general feeling that I've had coming to Israel so often in the past few years--that the center of the country is coalescing around the idea of digging in, building the core identity of the state, and waiting for another moment to make peace.  The danger of this approach, says one side of the debate, is that avoiding making peace at all costs will cause more trouble down the road.  Hence, others gathered in Tel Aviv last night--Israelis and Palestinians--to mourn the dead on both sides and to insist on peace.  It's an uphill battle to keep that flame alive.  On the other hand, with so much turmoil all around the region, it makes for a very destabilizing environment in which to settle borders.

Hence, economic issues, equal rights, religious pluralism, Haredi army service--and many more issues--rise to the top while the waiting game between Israelis, Palestinians and the rest of the region settles down.

I see the wisdom in strengthening the core, a view I'm sometimes surprised by.  But it's an evolution which is not itself settled so I watch and listen, even to my own troubled soul.

As our bus wound into Jerusalem, flags were being handed out and sold; music on the radio shifted; and at dinner at the hotel, Sallai Meridor spoke in low, personally anguished tones about family, friends and neighbors lost in past wars and terror attacks.  Back in my room, I watched memorial concerts on television, mournful songs, family testimonies, a nation stilled and united.

It's cliche to say so but nevertheless, I couldn't help myself from feeling that commercialized shame one feels (does one feel that or is it just me?) of being an American on Memorial Day when the big excitement might be a sale at Macy's.  But with a volunteer professional army, how many Americans--despite more than a decade of war---are really any longer intimately connected to the valor and value of sacrifice and national service.  What do we really know?

Of course, one could argue that not sending our children off to fight wars en masse is a good thing (leaving aside the deeply problematic schism between those who put their lives on the line to defend American democratic values and others who do not.)  But the question of volunteer versus mandatory army service really ought to make us face the idea of service in general and its value as the great unifier in a democratic country.

Here's where I land--given all the great flaws and economic divisions that remain a reality both in the United States and Israel:  mandatory service is better than no service at all.

When I arrive here each visit--however distanced I may be from the day-to-day realities of Israelis and Palestinians--I am immediately overcome with powerful grip of a collective narrative, a personal identity rooted in a national idea.  Unquestionably, it's what drew me to Israel as young man, feeling rather alienated from an increasingly individualistic America in the 1980s.

I calculated on the plane Saturday night that this is my sixteenth trip to Israel.  The pull is as strong now as it was in 1985; the country, old and new, never stands in one place.

But on a day of memorial and remembrance to honor those whose blood truly makes this possible is as humbling an expression of citizenship as one can imagine.  Americans, lost in our pursuits of the self, would do well to listen.

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