National Remembrance in Israel: Identity, Tradition, Emotion and Politics

Story and photo by Marie Schulte-Bockum, marie.schultebockum@gmail.com

Chirping birds were circling above, the Spring sun was warming my back, and Orthodox men’s singing voices of great yearning filled the air. As I looked at the Western Wall for the first time in my life, I felt weak at the knees and had an overwhelming urge to cry: there it was, the last part of the Second Temple standing proud and tall, brick upon brick, climbing into Jerusalem’s sky. I stood there in the women’s prayer section, my feet firmly rooted to the holy ground, surrounded by Orthodox Jews holding their prayer books and fervently bobbing their heads back and forth.

There are many Jerusalems: no one experiences it the same way. When you stand in Jerusalem’s Old City, close your eyes and let your senses rush to your head, you can smell and taste history and religion all around.

Between January and June 2016, I lived in Israel first for a co-op at a counter-terrorism think tank, and then for a Summer I Dialogue of Civilizations exploring the multiple narratives surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You may presume that six months on this tiny, contested territory would have made me an expert in Arab-Israeli relations, however, you would be gravely mistaken. At the end of my time in the Holy Land, I felt more confused than ever before. Exposed to Palestinians and Israelis of all religious convictions, political shades, backgrounds and ideologies, my heartstrings were pulled in every direction.

My journey began at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on January 10, 2016. I am German, American and Christian, and this was my first time in the Holy Land. I interned at the “International Institute for Counter-Terrorism” on the leafy campus of Israel’s only private university in the affluent beachside town of Herzliya. All my colleagues were Jewish – hailing from Israel, the US, Canada, Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, Russia, and Belgium. Each morning, the 347 bus I rode from Rabin Square to my office passed a graffiti portrait of Theodor Herzl on the Menachem Begin motorway.

The influence of four months of continuous exposure to mostly Jewish, Zionist, and/or Israeli narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict culminated in three events over the course of two weeks: Holocaust Memorial Day (May 3), Remembrance Day (May 11) and Independence Day (May 12). The Israeli nation mourns and celebrates these three days in a manner more intense than Germany’s Reunification Day, France’s Bastille Day, and America’s Independence Day.

Let me walk you through my own experiences on Israeli soil of these three important Jewish Israeli holidays…

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day); Tel Aviv, 10:00am on Thursday, May 5, 2016

A young woman with dark curls, jeans and a red polo top brought her baby stroller to an abrupt halt. An old couple sitting on a bench holding hands stood up. A Labrador puppy obediently sat down. I was watching Rabin Square freeze in mid-action through the window of the commuter bus. It happened suddenly and unnaturally; as if I had pressed pause on a television screen.

But a siren paused the action, not a remote. At 10:00AM on a sunny Thursday morning, Kikar Rabin in Tel Aviv – the square where you can feel the pulse and blood pressure of the Israeli nation – lost all its life. Hauntingly loud, the siren cut through Tel Aviv like a sharp knife through a birthday cake. As the other passengers and I stood up in the bus, eight million Israelis stood with us.

Why? The eight million citizens of Israel proper, of whom approximately six million are Jewish, stood up to commemorate the six million Jews that fell victim to Nazi Germany’s death machine of ethnic cleansing.

 

Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day); Jerusalem, 11:00am on Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The bittersweet smell of Turkish coffee and the rich, spicy, tomato-filled scent of Shakshuka lingered in the air while our entire dialogue group stood up at breakfast and faced away from our long group table. We leaned across the balcony overlooking the Old City’s Wall built by the Ottomans. And when the siren fell over this holy city with a history stretching back more than 5,000 years, we experienced the purest silence. Looking down on one of Jerusalem’s busiest roads, we saw an Israeli couple park their car mid-traffic and stand sorrowfully next to the open car doors. We saw large buses park one after the other. Yet, we also saw motorcycles speeding past all this with their motors blasting, taxis racing up the hill, and a young man walking along the sidewalk. Did they not hear this loud silence? Did they not care?

In the millennia-long history of Jerusalem, the 68 years of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state are nothing more than the blink of an eye in a larger scheme of time, rule, ownership and religion. As such, while Holocaust Memorial Day is an important Jewish holiday – mourned worldwide across the diaspora – Remembrance Day is an important Israeli holiday. On Remembrance Day, Israeli Jews mourn the lost souls of 25,000 Israeli soldiers who gave their lives in Israel’s Wars since 1947. They also mourn those among their nation who’ve been killed in terrorist acts.

 

Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day); Jerusalem, 11:50pm on Wednesday, May 2016

How does a nation-state only sixty-nine years old build loyalty and identity among a people who immigrated from Romania, Iraq, France, Poland, Morocco, Russia – who practice Judaism in distinctly different ways, speak different tongues, and look dissimilar to each other? How does a nation survive whose sons and daughters must serve in its Defense Forces, where many perish on the frontlines in Gaza and the West Bank, or worse still, fall victim to terrorist attacks in their own hometowns?

Hobsbawn, an influential political theorist, writes in his controversially named book, “Invented Traditions,” that communities institutionalize customs with “a process of formalization and ritualization, characterized by reference to the past, if only by imposing repetition.” When the sun sets on Yom HaZikaron, a memorial day for fallen soldiers and terrorism victims, the saddest day of the Israeli calendar is replaced suddenly, spectacularly with the nation’s happiest day: Yom Ha’atzmaut, otherwise known as Israel’s Independence Day. The official switch between these two ceremonies occurs on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, named in honor of the most influential Zionist, Theodor Herzl. It is the site of the national cemetery. At sundown the Israeli flag is raised from half-mast (due to Memorial Day) to the top of the pole where it flies high and proud for all to admire – the blue and white, star of David-bearing symbol of the Jewish nation-state.

And now some final thoughts… 

Israel can give Holocaust Memorial Day, Remembrance Day and Independence Day three different names. Israel can pencil these down in the Jewish calendar on three different dates. But the Jewish state of Israel and her children cannot separate emotion from politics, politics from identity, or identity from emotion. Emotion can blossom into identity; identity can self-destruct through politics; politics can give a microphone to deeply felt and meticulously concealed personal emotions. The three concepts are fluid and ever-evolving…and they are here to stay.