IDF soldiers honor their fallen comrades. (Nati Shohat/Flash90) (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Yom Hazikaron

Unlike in much of the US, Memorial Day in Israel is an enveloping, shared experience that includes a jarring two-minute siren nationwide in which nearly the entire country literally stops in its tracks to commemorate the human cost of sustaining a third Jewish commonwealth.

By Dave Bender

This week the State of Israel will celebrate 72 years of its existence. Almost 9.1 million Israelis at home and several hundred thousand abroad will mark the date worldwide.

Just over half a million Israelis returned home in February and March, according to Kol Israel radio correspondent, Danny Zaken.

Some 30 percent of the 80,000 Israelis who spent a significant period abroad returned in April, according to his report appearing on the al-Monitor website.

One of them is Sivan Rahav-Meir, a popular Israeli inspirational speaker, author and columnist, and regular television and radio commentator.

Just before Passover she (along with her husband and producer, Yedidiya, and their five children) abruptly cut short a planned year-long speaking tour to the States, due to the coronavirus, which brought about the canceling of scores of speaking venues, not to mention conflicting local, state, and federal quarantine policies and the sometimes chaotic and quixotic behavior of the public in response to the spreading pandemic.

They’d seen and reported enough to understand that, despite their rented perch in the relatively well-to-do “Five Towns” area of Long Island, they – as a family and as Israelis – were simply better off back home. Israel responded in kind and made great efforts to expedite the process of getting their nationals back on home soil before international flights were totally curtailed.

More and More Expats Returning to Israel

Despite a pending booking at an expensive hotel for the festive Passover Seder meal, they quickly made their choice and flew back to their homeland on a nearly empty El Al flight.

Upon arrival (and, in part, due to their home having been rented out for the interim), she and her family were instructed to spend two weeks, including the Passover Seder, in enforced isolation in cramped, meager surroundings.

“I’m getting more and more stories about Israeli expats returning to Israel,” she wrote in a recent Facebook post, quoting Mirit Anaf, who also recently returned, just in time for commemorative events here.

“I came to America about a decade ago,” Anaf wrote. “I worked the mall kiosk carts, slowly accumulated wealth, became addicted to the American Dream, got a Green Card. Like everyone else, I told myself I was coming back [to Israel] soon – but didn’t really mean it.”

“Corona made me change my mind,” she continued. “It wasn’t just the feeling that Israel was coping better with the virus, but also the feeling of disconnect from the American society surrounding me,’ Anaf wrote.

Monday evening begins Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for fallen IDF soldiers and victims of terror. According to the Defense Ministry, 23,816 Israelis have died as casualties of war and terrorism between 1860 and today.

“Since last Memorial Day, 42 people have been added to the list of fallen soldiers as well as another 33 disabled people who died as a result of their disability and were recognized during the year as Israeli casualties,” the ministry said.

The anguished day is intentionally placed back-to-back with festive, even raucous Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) events, beginning Tuesday evening, in order to inculcate the abiding connection between the two poles of our national existence.

Unlike in much of the US (besides, primarily, military families, bases, and public ceremonies), Memorial Day here in Israel is an enveloping, shared experience, including a jarring two-minute siren nationwide in which nearly the entire country literally stops in their tracks to commemorate the human cost of sustaining a third Jewish commonwealth.

Radio, television, online social media, and hundreds of cities, towns, villages, kibbutzim and moshav farms will again gather – whether virtually or physically – to share personal, sometimes bitterly poignant and profound, stories and recollections of life and death, deep joy and aching loss, gratitude and grief, in the exquisitely unbearable 48-hour-long moment of our collective psyche and communal existence.

So, no, it’s not a BBQ and “shop-’till-you-drop” experience like its Stateside counterpart; stand on any street corner in any city and any given Israeli around you has either personally experienced or has a loved one or friend bearing the physical wounds, emotional trauma, and psychological scars of war and terrorism.

Unlike the popular meme that suggests everyone in the world is removed from each other by an average of six people, after living here four decades I can safely say that, among over nine million Israelis – any of us here are really only about two people apart from each other – and that’s on a slow day, as I’m sure many others can also attest.

Perhaps that’s the disconnect Anaf and the Rahav-Meirs were alluding to: the indescribably palpable shared sense of “we’re-in-this-together” both as a nation-state and – for the country’s Jewish populace – as “a People That Dwells Alone.”

This year, many of those nearly ineffable moments will have to be shared as best possible around the virtual kumsitz – the national campfire, due to Covid-19 restrictions, including a controversial ban on visiting military and civilian cemeteries due to possible infection transmission.

In the once-was America that I grew up in, the national campfire metaphor referred to the three national television networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – buttoned-up nightly newscasts. Here, the metaphor – despite our own televised glitz – is far more collective, informal, and up-close-and-personal – and really does often include campfires.

Where’s My Real Home?

In the worldwide era of life-under-lockdown, Anaf, and the Rahav-Meirs found themselves struggling with identical dilemmas: “When all the parties were canceled and all the shops closed, I was left alone with a poignant question: Where’s my real home?” Anaf wrote.

“It was a moment’s decision, on Passover eve, and my good friend Hadas packed everything up quickly, and we ran to the airport” for a last-minute flight home,” she said.

That is Israel’s raison d’etre, as I once wrote in a comment during a heated online debate: “The Land of Israel is our home, where we stand out ground and stop running, both as individual Jews and as a people. Here and now is where we choose not to live in fear.”

For Anaf, the hasty return to Israel – spiritually and metaphorically considered an ascent (“Aliyah”) – after a decade abroad was a revelation:

“I have tears in my eyes when I write about my ‘Aliyah’; Ministry of Health and Home Front Command personnel were humane and sensitive, and we were taken to the Olive Tree Hotel ([in Jerusalem]. When the corona test came out positive, they took me to a medical center for corona patients like myself – even without national health insurance kicking in yet, or even proper documentation.

“‘I received devoted treatment. Even one like me, one that ‘betrayed’ [her homeland for foreign shores], is welcomed back here with such concern,” she gratefully noted.

“‘In [last] week’s Torah portion, Tzara’at, we read about ‘guarding one’s tongue’ – slander. We all know how to gripe about the country, how hard it is here, to list all the disadvantages. Since returning, however, my attitude, at least, has completely changed. I marvel at how much love, professionalism, kindness and caring, and how much holiness abounds.

“‘Oh, and unlike all my previous visits, this time – I bought a one-way ticket.’ she concluded.

Non native-born Israelis, like myself and other western olim (immigrants), can appreciate her heartfelt words, having also consciously chosen to join and try to find our own hard-won perch at the local tribal “kumsitz” instead of a coozie and lawn chair at the “national campfire.”

On a related note, the following YouTube and broadcast ad, one of a similarly-themed series aired in 2011 by the Absorption Ministry, was intended to remind Israelis living abroad that – while they may remain connected to their homeland – their spouse and offspring would likely not comprehend crucial aspects of that identity,. The ad called to help them return, before assimilation dulled and extinguished that spark within them.

The ad, well-intentioned as it was, came in for severe critique by, paradoxically, many American Jews, who felt insulted by the messaging – which was pitched towards straightforward Israeli “shoot-from-the-hip” tribal sensibilities, and not an American “melting pot” attitude towards immigrants to what was, once, pre-1948, called the Goldene Medina – Yiddish for the” Golden Land.”

Dave Bender is a dad to grown-up triplets, a self-described “recovering reporter,” a veteran observer of the Israeli scene and a professional photographer and videographer. US-born and raised, he moved to Israel four decades ago and served in the IDF.

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