Israel's "national high holidays"
Thoughts and sounds for Holocaust Memorial Day, Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, and Independence Day
As I’ve noted before, my friend, the lyrical and profoundly insightful writer, Yossi Klein Halevi, has said and written on numerous occasions that you really can’t understand Israel if you don’t know its soundtrack. And he is of course completely right. That’s why music and poetry appear in these columns so often—from its earliest days, Zionism has turned to melody and verse to say what prose sometimes cannot. Music and poetry have universal power, but in Israel’s case, they are also the most potent tool for conveying the uniquely particular sentiments that have long accompanied the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.
Today, in these waning hours of Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers) and on the eve of Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day), this column is an attempt to bring together the sentiments of what some people call the “national high holidays—Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma’ut, through some music, and for Independence Day, some thoughts on what it is we’re celebrating.
We begin with Yom HaZikaron, taking place right now in Israel.
A few months ago, we posted a column (with a followup that included a second performance by Jewish and Arab children) about the song “The Children of the Winter of ‘73.” Today, we open with yet another performance of that song, produced by the IDF, once again with the original Education Corps chorus reunited, but now with the addition of men and women who were children when their fathers were killed in 1973, often with photos of them and their fathers. (There are no subtitles in this version, but the translation is in this column, and in any event, the music and the images speak for themselves.)
The price of statehood has been enormous (I invite you to listen to our conversation with Maytal Itkis from earlier this week, on the price her own family has paid). What, then, we have every right to ask, is the price actually for? What did we set out to create? What have we created? What are we celebrating?
Most revolutionary movements fail, and the notion that 200 delegates gathered in Basel at the First Zionist Congress in 1897 (the year after Herzl published The Jewish State) might change the world sounded absurd to many people. Yet in almost every way imaginable, Zionism has beaten the odds. That is part of what we are celebrating.
Following the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Herzl wrote in his diary, “At Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter.”
He was right that he would have been greeted by universal disbelief. After all, it was only a minority of Jews who supported Herzl’s seemingly outlandish ideas. Zionism was by no means the sole Jewish vision of how to survive in a rapidly changing world. There were assimilationists, socialists, territorialists (who sought a Jewish home elsewhere), Bundists, and more. Especially at the outset, Zionism was a minority movement even among Jews. The chances of its success seemed close to zero.
Most Jews thus gazed at Herzl and his movement with a combination of ridicule and scorn. There were those who believed he was exaggerating the danger to Jews in Europe. Others said they would seek refuge in America, not in Zion. Still others would oppose nationalism altogether, believing that a post-national Europe would transcend the Jew-hatred to which Pinsker, Herzl, Jabotinsky and many others were pointing.
Yet while Herzl was right that he would be ridiculed, he was also astonishingly prescient about Zionism’s timeline. Continuing where he’d left off saying he’d be ridiculed if he said he’d created a state, Herzl wrote, “Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will admit it.” He wrote that in 1897. Fifty years after 1897 was 1947; and that was the year that the United National General Assembly voted in favor of Resolution 181, creating a Jewish state, a place that, as Balfour had said, “would be a national home for the Jewish people.”
We’re celebrating the accomplishment of bold thinkers with world-changing ideas.
Zionism, this movement of bewildering contradictions, has brought the Jewish people home—and that, too, we are celebrating.
Zionism was but a small minority movement among Jews in its early days, but those days are gone. In just a few years, most of the world’s Jews will live in Israel; that has not been the case since the period of the First Temple, the time of the biblical prophet Jeremiah, some 2600 years ago. For millennia, it had seemed that the Babylonian Exile had irrevocably transformed the Jewish people into a Diaspora people, with only a small minority of Jews living in their ancestral homeland. By Israel’s 100th anniversary in 2048, demographers predict, two-thirds of the world’s Jews will live in the Jewish State. The Jews of the rest of the world will constitute a third. A people dispersed is another reality that Zionism has turned on its head.
And, of course, Zionism has also been wildly successful in creating the “new Jew” it was so desperate to fashion. Today’s Israelis are nothing like the Jews of Europe whom Zionist thinkers bemoaned. Leo Pinsker mourned the loss of a Jewish language but Eliezer Ben-Yehuda acted, devoting his life to reviving ancient Hebrew and transforming it into a modern language. Today, millions of Israelis speak the language of the Bible; they take it so for granted that they do not realize that an Israeli bookstore, with hundreds of linear feet of shelves of books written in Hebrew is actually miraculous.
Max Nordau, Herzl’s contemporary, lamented the fact that “we have been engaged in the mortification of our own flesh. Or rather, to put it more precisely—others did the killing of our flesh for us.” Zionism brought an end to that, as well.
Tragically, bringing an end to Jewish victimhood has come with great costs, in life, limb, capital and moral complexity. The Jews’ acquisition of power was never going to be simple (in Herzl’s utopian novel, Altneuland, there was no Jewish military force and conflict played no role in his imagination).
Still, though, power has done what it was meant to do—Jews are no longer victims on call.
And then, there was perhaps the most important goal—the end of Jewish heartbreak. There, too, Zionism has succeeded so wildly that it is hard to remember the status quo ante that it sought to change.