Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Yom Hazicharon & 60 Years

In Israel Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism. has a special meaning. In Israel nearly everyone has someone or knows someone or knows a family who has lost someone in battle, or through a terrorist attack.

Unlike some other countries, who treat Memorial Day as a chance for a picnic, in Israel radio and TV stations are devoted solely to Memorial Day. The usual reality shows and MTV and movies are replaced by still frames announcing the return to normal broadcasts once the 24-hour memorial to the fallen has ended.

The public stations, Israel Broadcasting Authority (channel 1), and Israel’s Second Television Authority (Channels 10 & 22) show documentaries about families who have lost sons in battle, interviews with fighters who have survived. but lost their comrades.

No Hustler, or Playboy or VOD; no AXN, or Classic Movies, or Comedies. Just memorials to the fallen. The only other time Israel applies these restrictions is on Holocaust Memorial Day. Restaurants and places of entertainment are also all closed.

At 8:00 PM, just around sunset, sirens blast across the country. Traffic stops, druvers exit their cars and join pedestrians standing at attention, heads down, out of respect. When the sirens stop wailing the TV starts playing the depressing stories of loss, injury, death, disaster, mayhem.

What other country is as besieged as Israel? Sixty-years down the road and not much has changed. The BBC advertised a special report on Israel’s sixtieth birthday. “In 1948 Israel declared independence, and five Arab countries attacked,” said the BBC reporter plugging his program. “In the course of that war hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced.” Then came the ad to watch the program at a certain time.

Even celebrating sixty years of independence Israel has the albatross of the Palestinians tossed around her neck, as if the Palestinians weren’t part of the armies fighting against the new Israeli state. And would not mourn if Israel ceased to exist as long as they didn’t go down with her.

Memorial Day is filled with ceremonies and speeches. Memorial day in the evening, since in the Jewish calendar a day goes from sundown to sundown. After the siren sounds to mark the start of the memorial ceremonies, the President speaks at the Western Wall to an assembly of notables, the remains of the Second Temple golden in the background. This year it was Shimon Peres, one of the architects of Israel’s present incarnation, both in political and military structures..

During the day, the beleaguered Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, spoke at Mt. Herzl’s military cemetery. This time the criminal charges the media claim are about to be lodged against him date back to his time as Jerusalem Mayor. Rumor has it he used a foreign businessman to launder payoffs and kickbacks.

Even on the solemn memorial day the specter of political scandal haunts the ceremonies.

Around Olmert lay the graves of Israeli men and women who fell defending the Jewish State. Israel has officially fought five wars, but in practice other actions also qualify, like the War of Attrition in 1970, and the First Lebanon War in 1981, the Gulf War in 1991 and the two was in Lebanon II. This leaves out the Intifada I and II. Wars without end. Lives sacrificed to keep a Jewish homeland.

Just beyond Mt. Herzl is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. A memorial to six-million victims of the Nazi horrors. A military cemetery and a museum honoring the righteous who died at the hands of murderous criminals within a stones-throw of each other. How fitting, said one observer.

PM Olmert said there was a moral difference between the Israelis and the Arabs. Israeli mothers won’t send their little children out to become suicide bombers, he said at the ceremony. But pundits claim that is only a matter of degree. Mothers send their sons to the army. The cemetery around Olmert proved not all of them came home. The real quest, said one analyst, would be that neither Israeli nor Arab mothers sent their sons to battle, suicide or not.

One of the bereaved fathers, interviewed for a Channel 22 documentary, claimed he wanted peace with the Arabs. That Israel had to withdraw from occupied territory to make peace. This was his son’s wish. His son had died in battle, in a firefight in Gaza. The father wanted to carry on his son’s beliefs. And the father was religious, with a knit skullcap on his head, sitting beside another of his sons, this one in an army uniform.

All kinds of people on both sides of the battlefront. Some seeking war. Some Peace.

When Shimon Peres said that he never expected the Palestinians in Gaza to use the Gaza strip as a launching pad for Qassam rockets and motors against Israel, the public gasped. Peres, the penultimate striver for Peace, admitting that the Peace he sought backfired on him. Nearly admitting that the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza `strip had been a mistake. True, observers said, the troops were safer out of Gaza, but the civilians of the Negev, and even Ashkelon, and if one believed Hamas’ threats, soon Ashdod and Tel Aviv, would soon be within rocket range.

One analyst said that sometimes like it or not one has to fight and fight back. Or get picked on like the weakling in the schoolyard. Another said it is no fun getting picked on. The first rejoined, fighting isn’t fun either, and best to be avoided. But sometimes the only option is to run. Israel was founded so the Jewish people wouldn’t have to run any more.

Another analyst said that one can’t fault PM Olmert for his performance during the War in Lebanon II. He wanted to save the lives of the young men who were going to be forced to fight Hezbbollah. He thought he could win the war with the air force, but he was wrong. The heroes around him in the cemetery were proof that soldiers had to get their feet in the mud and their bellies on the ground if a war was going to be successful. One pundit said that Olmert knew some of the men laying in the ground around him were there because he ordered them into battle. The pundit said it was a tough call. A tougher position.

And for what, the pundit asked? Hezbollah is still in Lebanon, threatening another war. Hamas is still in Gaza threatening bigger more powerful missiles. What would it take to rock Israel on her heels? And then how friendly would the Arab states be who today claim friendship? Once Israel is perceived to be weak, there would be a feeding frenzy. All bets would be off. All treaties up for renegotiation, or cancellation.

The pundit added that Memorial Day isn’t only for the fallen, but a reminder to the living that the threats aren’t going away. That even when Israel wins a war the defeated states aren’t ready to shake hands and be friends. They’re only ready to shake hands and wait to see what happens next.

One analyst said that the memorial is also to the victims of terror. The truly innocent who were guilty of only being in the wrong place at the wrong time; walking past a bicycle on the way to shop in Machane Yehuda when the C-4 packed in the bicycle’s frame explodes; riding a bus to work when a suicide bomber pushes a button and his explosive belt takes him to hell and the rest of the passengers to the cemetery of the hospital.

A political observer asked, ‘Who is the enemy that Israel fights today?’ Is this another question asked on Memorial Day? How to fight this enemy? How to figure out the way to prevent the next attack, and the one after that, and the one after that. How to find a formula that will bring peace without taking chances that backfire into yet more deaths?

A new immigrant from Britain was extremely proud of his son last night. His son was in the military parade at the Western Wall marking the beginning of Memorial Day. Immigrants from a peaceful country come to Israel and watch their sons carrying guns, ready to use them. One bystander asked, ‘Weren’t the kids safer growing up in Britain? Why come to Israel at all?’

Another analyst said, ‘That’s the question asked, and answered.’ He added that when the siren goes off at 8:00 on May 7, 2008, Israel’s Independence Day celebrations begin. Sixty years of struggle against insurmountable odds. Sixty years of nearly miraculous success and survival. Beset by terrorism and armed enemies Israel has managed to show what happens when the Jewish people are allowed to flourish.

In fact, Israel is a leader in high-tech start-ups, Israel has a GNP greater than many old-line European countries: Israel is a country with the ‘big idea.’ In academic terms, Israel publishes more academic papers than anyone else, ten times more (about 6,000) than number two on the list, Britain at about 600.

Israel’s accomplishments cold fill a book. After only sixty years Israel has established itself as a world leader in a number of specialty fields, like drip irrigation, disk-on-key technology, and now Shai Agassi has raised $200 million for an electric car, using special new electricity gas stations, and even recruiting Renault and Nissan to join the experiment.

Who knows what the world would look like if Israel lasts another sixty years. That’s if Israel’s neighbors don’t join the maniacs who want to destroy progress and modern society, using Israel’s 7.5 million citizens as their first gambit. A few nuclear bombs and the dream evaporates; the combined intelligence of the future Einsteins and Freuds and
Marxes, and Agnons and Bellows, and Ozs get vaporized.

Israel may last, live a long and healthy land productive life and continue contributing to the good of society whenever possible. Or not.