Israel at 63: tears, patriotism and tension
Beneath the apparent unity during a week of remembrance there lie deep divisions in Israeli society.
The atmosphere during Israel’s week and a half of remembrance is perhaps best summed up by the cliché of the ’emotional rollercoaster’. Starting with Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and continuing with Yom Hazikaron (Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day) before ending with Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), the country moves from an atmosphere of sombreness and grief to unabashed flag-waving and partying within 10 days.
On the commemorative days, the TV schedules are clogged with documentaries and live-transmitted ceremonies. Three times sirens sound out across the nation, which comes to a standstill for minutes of silence. Pedestrians stop in their stride, public transport comes to a halt and drivers get out of their cars even in the middle of highways, standing to attention to honour Holocaust victims as well as those who have fallen in Israel’s wars and in terror attacks since the state’s founding 63 years ago.
An Israeli soldier
stands to attention
Perhaps European political leaders, who tend to shun unashamed displays of patriotism while at the same time desperately conjuring up ideas and ceremonies around which to cohere their splintered nations, look at Israel in envy. Here, in the run-up to Memorial Day, the Israeli blue-and-white flag spontaneously becomes omnipresent, as it is clipped on to car windows, hung on balconies and draped across facades. On the eve of this year’s Memorial Day, thousands voluntarily made their way to Rabbin Square in central Tel Aviv (re-named from Kings of Israel Square after the former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabbin was assassinated there in 1995). Here, a line-up of some of the country’s most famous performers (including an Israeli Idol winner) was interspersed with pre-recorded testimonials by families of fallen soldiers that had many reaching for their handkerchiefs.
The next day, on Independence Day, there was a complete mood swing at the square, with fireworks marking the start of a 24-hour party session. Music pumped out from bars and makeshift street sound systems until dawn. The next day, thousands gathered on beaches and at harbours around the country to watch the annual aerial and naval displays of the Israel Defense Forces before going off for barbeques in parks and on rooftops. On Wednesday, the country went back to work, accompanied by the discomfort of hangovers and sweltering heat.
But amid the tear-jerking, flag-waving and partying there also emerged snapshots of the country’s internal tensions and of Israelis’ attitude to the outside world.
Inevitably, these special days are highly politicised events. For instance, on Yom Hashoah, Israeli president Shimon Peres took the opportunity to assert the necessity of Israel’s existence. ‘The Holocaust determined once and for all that there is no replacement for a home of our own’, he said. ‘Nothing can take the place of the Israel Defense Forces.’ Yet in insisting that the prospect of a Jewish genocide persists, in the form of Iran’s military threats and Holocaust denial, Peres contradicted himself – is Israel a safe haven or a bloody trap for the Jews?
Several Israeli commentators asserted the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust and rightly critiqued the way its memory is used and abused in relativist political debates today, particularly in relation to anti-Zionists’ tendency to liken Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians to Nazism. But at the same time, the Israeli state brazenly politicised the Holocaust by introducing new biometric identity cards that will be adorned with six stars of David and have serial numbers beginning at 6,000,000, the number of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The head of the new ID-card project said this gives the Holocaust victims a sort of honorary citizenship. In one stroke, Israel has sent a message that it will not compromise on the Jewish character of the state while at the same time taking the liberty to incorporate the six million dead into the national identity of a state which they did not live to see or consent to.
Later, on Independence Day, the annual torch-lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem was interrupted by the brother of Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier held captive in Gaza since 2006. Yoel Shalit and his girlfriend burst in to the plaza, waving placards reading ‘My father is a bereaved brother, I don’t want to be one too.’ Gilad Shalit has become a cause célèbre in Israel, with a steady stream of visitors at the Shalit family’s tent outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. The Shalits and their supporters are demanding that the government negotiate a prisoner swap with Hamas to keep true to the IDF’s motto of ‘no man left behind’.
Another more long-standing and widespread source of internal tension and bitterness in Israel came to the fore when ultra-Orthodox communities once again chose to defy the Israeli state by keeping their schools open on Independence Day, a national holiday. Some Haredi Jews believe that Israel was established in violation of Jewish law. They avoid both the draft and taxes yet accept government subsidies, including for their schools. Secular Israelis widely regard them as parasitical scroungers. So, unsurprisingly, many from within Israel’s education system were enraged by the decision to keep schools open, saying that ‘Even the Arab sector’s education system understands the meaning of the holiday, it is inconceivable that the Independence Day holiday is not respected’. Yet with draft-dodging numbers in Tel Aviv today matching those in some orthodox communities, and with some secular lefties refusing to observe the two minutes of silence during Memorial Day, the accusations of parasitism also often ring hollow.
Israelis observe two minutes silence on Memorial Day
Meanwhile, on Tuesday evening, some 15,000 Arab Israelis took part in a ‘Nakba Day’ rally to mark the Day of Catastrophe, as Palestinians refer to Israel’s declaration of independence. The event was attended by Arab members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Israel is now bracing itself for further demonstrations within and outside of Gaza and the West Bank on 15 May, the date of the declaration of independence.
The collective spirit on display during Israel’s remembrance week feels like an anomaly compared to the West, where few events beyond the world of sports seem to inspire large-scale displays of national pride. Yet at the same time one doesn’t even need to scratch the surface to see the fractious and often insecure state of contemporary Israel. It is noticeable how assertions of sovereignty are tied to an insistence on the country’s vulnerability (as in Peres’ speech), and in the rather obvious tensions between various communities. But, more importantly, although Independence Day may still be a good excuse for a shindig and to express a measure of pride in one’s national identity, some of the keenest party-goers are also among the least keen to participate in advancing the Zionist project.
Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.
All photos taken by Nathalie Rothschild.
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