Israel Independence Day is commemorated on the Hebrew calendar on the 5th day of Iyar; this year it begins at sunset on Monday, May 9.
Walking from our house to watch the fireworks on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl on the night of Israel Independence Day, I remind my children: “If not for the State of Israel, you would not be here.” Not everyone in Israel, however, feels the same. Many ultra-orthodox, for example, reject the Zionist State, founded in May of 1948, as secular and illegitimate, and they certainly reject the ‘national religious’ claims that the state heralds the beginning of messianic redemption. Some of the more extreme ultra-orthodox, on the previous day, Israel’s Memorial Day, before the sunset transformation of national mourning into celebration, publicly ignore the moment of silence, the two-minute siren that brings the rest of the country to a stand-still. Television crews are always on hand, guaranteeing that the spectacle of extremism will be on the evening news. Indeed, Israel is a country of extremes. Memorial and Independence Days, established as consecutive days by the Knesset at the state’s founding – dubbed by some the ‘New Israeli High Holidays’ – themselves move from the extremes of despair to jubilation.
Before the fireworks at night, I take my older children to the military cemetery, also on Mount Herzl, to join in the memorial services for the nation’s dead, over twenty-thousand. Last year, already by early morning, there were bottles of water piled in huge boxes at the entrances, distributed freely by high school students. More young people in oversized blue jackets dispensed bundles of flowers to the thousands pouring into the cemetery. My fifteen year old daughter took a bunch. We would find, I told her, an unvisited grave upon which to place the flowers. We looked, but did not find one.
On Independence Day, the families who visit the cemetery the day before gather for a family barbeque. In each of the tiers of the cemetery, families were also gathered. Among them, the religious border policeman in his late sixties in full uniform who had brought collapsible chairs for himself and his wife, as well as new generations of mourners, his children and grandchildren. It looked like they had been there for decades. In the middle of the family circle – the scene was repeated again and again on all the terraced levels of graves – instead of a grill, a gravestone, the family stoking not coals, but what seemed like an ancient grief. There were those whose loss was fresh – the young mother with a toddler and infant crying over a grave – but the overall impression was of a nation that has been grieving for a long time.
The Bible enjoins the Jewish people to remember their origins: ”Remember you were a slave in Egypt,” a memory that allows for transforming the trauma of slavery into a higher form of consciousness. Addressed, trauma can lead to the acknowledging of vulnerability, and encourage receptiveness to others: you were once a slave and a stranger. But trauma can also have a different effect: a nurtured, even cherished suffering can become a license for arrogance. Mourning, as the psychologist Adam Phillips writes, can make fundamentalists of us all. The resultant stories of what the Bible calls ‘my strength and my power’ are asserted with a daunting certainty, justifying conquest. I refer not to politics or geopolitics, but the constitution of the Israeli soul.
To be sure, the ultra-orthodox rejection of Israel is not the answer, nor the corresponding secular position, the ‘post-Zionism,’ that leaves little room for the pragmatic reality of a modern Jewish State and society. But what if, I wondered leaving the cemetery, the proximity of these commemorative days, and the fluctuation of extreme emotions associated with them, leads not just to triumph, but an arrogant and self-justifying triumphalism? What if, in the pursuit of nationalism, there is the loss of the awareness of the stranger that has defined the Jewish people for generations? What if, overtaken by the kind of nationalist exuberance experienced on Independence Day and a politics that at times turns messianic, there is the failure to transform trauma, allowing all of those generations of suffering, and the pain felt at Mount Herzl, to be squandered?
William Kolbrener is author of Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love