The following article about Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, was written in 2014 by American-born novelist, journalist and playwright Naomi Ragen, who settled in Israel in 1971.
In the book of Genesis, G-d tells Abraham: “And through you will all the nations of the earth be blessed.”
I’ve often wondered about that blessing that we Jews are supposed to bring the world, and how it will come about. If it were up to me, right now, I don’t think I’d be very eager to fulfill such a role. After six months of having the world heap the vilest slander on my people and my country; after going through Holocaust Memorial Day, and now the Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers, I don’t think, if it was up to me, that heaping blessings on the world, particularly my Semitic neighbors, would be high on my list of “must do’s.”
However, since I know the Jewish People’s particular fate isn’t something you get to vote on, I recognize that I, and my fellow Jews will have very little say about this blessing thing either. And so, willy-nilly, we are going to bring blessing to the world. And I’ve finally figured out how.
It was last night, watching the official memorial service for Israel’s fallen soldiers at the Western Wall. And in that holy place, Israel’s top general, its chief of staff, got up to speak.
What do you think he spoke about, the general and army man? If he were any other nationality or religion, and this were any country but Israel, we wouldn’t have to ask: The glory of our fallen heroes. Their bravery on the battlefield, their sacrifice. The greatness of our victories.
But not Israel’s Chief of Staff, Shaul Mofaz. He spoke about remembering the birth of a child. The first picture taken in kindergarten. The first baby tooth that falls. The bar mitzvah pictures. The graduation from high school. The mother’s kiss on the cheek of the new recruit. He spoke about the incalculable loss that each human being who dies in war is to his family, his parents, his grandparents, his brothers, sisters, girlfriend, wife, children. About the preciousness of life, and the horror of death.
Long before I became an Israeli and a resident of Jerusalem, I lived in America where I experienced numerous memorial days. There were the red, white and blue flags. But mostly, there were sales. I don’t think I ever saw the face of a single fallen American soldier on any television show let alone a day’s worth of shows devoted exclusively to soldiers killed in action, or in traffic accidents, or in terrorist attacks.
Memorial Day in Israel is like nothing else, I dare say, anywhere in the world. The country simply shuts down all distractions. Restaurants, bars, discos close down. Radio and television channels spend the day showing old pictures and new videos of soldiers who died five months, or 30 years ago. And the programs all emphasize the same thing: The man’s childhood, his home, his parents, his wife or girlfriend. The silly pictures from his high school parties. The smiling face of the little boy dressed up for Purim. The words of the friends, who never stop mourning, who never forget. And for one day, every single person in Israel who identifies with the Jewish state, and the lives of the people who live there, feel these men and women are part of their own past, their own family. We weep because we’ve lost them, weep as we would for the death of a beloved family member, who left this earth too young, too full of life. Weep for the loving family and friends he left behind.
I am always surprised that I have any tears left on Memorial Day here in Israel, following as it does so closely on the heels of Holocaust Remembrance Day. And that my tears flow looser, hotter and with more despair, and my heart aches in the way it does. I figured out why, though, through the years, thereby learning the true secret of the State of Israel. Come closer, bend your ear, sssssh. Here it is: The State of Israel has no army.
No, my friend. No army at all. All it has is my husband and son, and your brother, and his son, and their sister’s boy or girl and the neighbor’s kid, and the electrician’s daughter, and the survivor’s grandson – the tall handsome one, who looks like the great-uncle who died in Auschwitz. They all live in the next room, or the next house, or at the very most, an hour’s bus ride away from the central bus station.
There is not a man, woman or child in Israel who has more than one or two degrees of separation between themselves and every, single, solitary, precious boy or girl in uniform who falls defending our lives from real bombs, real bullets, real slaughter.
The Jewish people have a blessing to bring to the world, especially to our Semitic cousins. If only they would stop shouting and crying and threatening long enough to listen, how different their lives would be! And we would give it to them freely, generously, this, our hard-earned knowledge, the knowledge of the Jews. And it is simply this: that death has no glory. And that a life can never be replaced. There is no honor, no joy, no holiness in bombs and guns and knives and mortars in wounded flesh, and blood soaked streets. In dead children, and broken-hearted mothers. And that peace is a value to be cherished above glorious victories.
If only the BBC, and CNN, and SKY news would stop interviewing the mothers and uncles of suicide bombers, who speak of holy martyrdom, and sacred deaths, and holy wars; if only their confused reporters would simply sit and listen to Israel’s keening on its Memorial Day, and broadcast that to the world instead, what blessing they would bring mankind. What a lesson. And I could cross one more thing off my “to do” list.
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