Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha-azmaut – an Australian memoir

April 25, 2012 by Peter Wertheim
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Israel has long been my preferred destination for overseas travel, and not merely because of the large number of my family members who live in different parts of the country.  I just enjoy being there…writes Peter Wertheim.

Peter Wertheim

Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann, famously said that Israel was the one place in the world where a Jew could take off his coat, put up his feet and really feel at home.  I am Australian born and bred and yet whenever I am in Israel I feel a little bit the same way.

It is April 2008 and my wife and I travel to Israel to participate in its 60th anniversary celebrations, arriving just in time to attend the official opening of “The Park of the Australian Soldier” in Beersheva, not far from the site of the famous charge by the Australian Light Horse on 31 October 1917.  Funded by Australian businessman and philanthropist, Richard Pratt, the Park is a memorial to all Australian troops who fought in the Middle East in the Great War.  It also features a purpose-built playground for disabled children.

The Park opening is an impressive affair graced by the heads of State of Israel and Australia and other dignitaries from both countries.  A life-size bronze statue of a bayonet-wielding Australian light horseman riding his mount at full gallop is unveiled by its creator, Australian sculptor Peter Corlette.  A contingent of Australian troops provides the guard of honour, all spit and polish.  I am proud of them, and proud of every part of my multi-faceted heritage.

Of the three theatres in which Australians fought in World War I – Gallipoli, France and the Middle East – Australians know the least about the Middle East.  Yet it is the Middle East campaign that has had the most enduring consequences in world history.  It brought to an end 400 years of Ottoman rule in the Holy Land and paved the way for the rebirth of the Jewish commonwealth after an interval of more than 1,800 years.

Few Australians today are aware of this, but it was well understood by the diggers who fought in the Palestine campaign in 1917-18.  They were feted as liberators by the Jewish population already living there. As one Australian soldier wrote on meeting the Jewish inhabitants of the country:

“We must have seemed queer fighting men to them, for they stared at us as if they had expected to see supermen, not rough-clad Australians.  I don’t think they could realize that we actually were the men who had driven back their taskmaster of centuries.  They seem also to be on the verge of something they cannot believe, cannot understand: they tremble when they whisper Jerusalem. It appears there is some prophecy, centuries old, that one day Jerusalem will fall and will be taken from the Turk or whatever infidel holds it”.

The Australian connection was renewed in World War II when ANZAC troops serving in North Africa spent their time on leave in Palestine, and were highly popular with the locals.  A memorable black and white photograph from the early 1940’s shows Australians holding a foot race at a surf carnival on the beach at Tel Aviv in front of a large cheering throng.  The Australian flag flutters cheekily alongside the then illegal Israeli flag.    To this day, Israelis retain a genuine affection for Australians.

A few days after the ceremony in Beersheva, it is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and the nation’s mood shifts dramatically.  I had previously watched television coverage of how the day is observed in Israel but it cannot compare with actually being there.  At 10:00am precisely, sirens sound across the country and all movement ceases.

I stand stock still with hundreds of other pedestrians – with shoppers, office workers and passers by – in Kikar Zion (Zion Square) on the corner of Jaffa Road and Ben Yehuda Street, one of the busiest spots in Jerusalem.  All vehicular traffic comes to an abrupt halt.  Drivers and passengers emerge from cars and buses and stand silently to attention on the roadway.  Heads are bowed.  A young man swaying gently back and forth brings his hands together under his chin while his lips move silently in prayer.

For two golden minutes, the ringing of mobile phones and the daily buzzing of life in Israel stop completely.  The mournful wail of the sirens obliterates all other sounds, and the air is heavy with solemnity.  I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

The sirens fall silent and, just as abruptly, movement resumes and life goes on.  I chance upon some fellow Australians, a Christian couple from rural New South Wales, who are touring the country. Awe-struck by what they have just witnessed, they cannot stop talking about it.

Although this observance is a specifically Israeli way of commemorating Yom Hashoah, the underlying sentiments are familiar to me.  Each year at this time Jewish communities throughout the diaspora hold a variety of events in remembrance of those who perished in the Nazi genocide.  This is a part of history that is the common heritage of the Jewish people, and indeed all people, everywhere.

But Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day) is something uniquely Israeli.  Falling one week after Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron is the day on which Israelis remember their war dead.  For Jewish communities in the diaspora the day passes unobserved or with only perfunctory acknowledgement.  Even though most diaspora Jews strongly identify with Israel and feel that they have a personal stake in its welfare and future, this feeling is only occasionally given ceremonial expression.

The deep emotional connection felt by Israelis with their war dead is little understood and seldom shared by diaspora Jews.  For Israelis, the fallen soldiers who are remembered on Yom Hazikaron are lost sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters.   It is a deeply personal commemoration in a way that it could never be for Jews living outside Israel.  And, whether the dead were casualties in Israel’s war of independence in 1948 or in more recent conflicts, the sense of loss among Israelis is still red raw.

All nations honour their war dead.  Too often they do so in military ceremonies of severe grandeur, impressive in their splendour, yet emotionally distant and remote from the personal lives of most of those who watch them.  Israel does things differently.  There are no marching bands, parades, uniforms or military displays and very few speeches.

Yom Hazikaron is a public holiday but the commemoration begins at sunset the day before.  Shops and businesses close early.  In Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square large crowds gather from early in the evening to gain a seat or vantage point from which to watch the formal proceedings that commence at 8:00pm with the sounding, once again, of the sirens.

What follows is an open-air evening event of music, video, poetry and story-telling.   Ordinary Israelis appear on stage or screen to recount their experiences and feelings as soldiers, both in words and music, explaining in often harrowing detail how they survived the hell-fire of battle, or were horribly disabled, or agonisingly lost loved ones and comrades.   The stories are utterly heart-rending, leaving performers and members of the audience dissolved in tears.

There is no sign of hatred to mar the dignity of the occasion and no finger-pointing at Israel’s foes. There is just unalloyed grief.  To an outsider, the mood may seem unremittingly depressing, if not demoralising.  For Israelis, however, the public outpouring of emotion is cathartic and healing, and there are many who are in need of healing.  This is the moment when the nation and each of its citizen-soldiers reach out and embrace one another.

Morning brings more revelations.  Despite the holiday, roads and highways are choked with traffic from the early hours as tens of thousands of Israelis flock to the numerous military cemeteries that dot the country to visit the graves of fallen family members and friends.

My wife and I join my cousin and her children on a trip to Ashkelon to visit its war cemetery at which my cousin’s step-brother Jacob is buried.  He was a 21 year old sergeant in the Golani commando unit when he died in combat in one of the fiercest battles of the 1973 war.  On the trip to the cemetery I learn that he fell on the third day of the war in the first Israeli attempt to recapture Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights, territory that Israel had previously captured from Syria in the 1967 war.

I am told that Jacob and 7 badly wounded comrades had been pinned down by enemy fire when Jacob charged the enemy post and single-handedly broke the Syrian assault, allowing his wounded comrades to retreat.  Jacob was shot in the head but his retreating comrades did not take his body back with them.  When Israeli forces re-captured Mount Hermon on the second attempt, they could not find his body.  It was not retrieved until after the war, some 300 metres away from where he fell.  Jacob was posthumously decorated for his courage.

Deeper into our conversation as we continue on our way to Ashkelon, I hear that for many years after the war Jacob’s father, frantic with grief, was convinced that his son had initially survived his head-wound but was abandoned by the comrades he had saved.  The truth, I am told, only emerged at a special commemoration 30 years later when a comrade who had been wounded and had fallen beside Jacob’s body came forward and confirmed that Jacob had died instantly.  The survivor had checked Jacob’s pulse and heard him breathe his last breath.

The sadness of the young soldier’s death is compounded by the tacit understanding that at some future time Syria will follow Egypt and Jordan in concluding a permanent peace settlement with Israel.  It is certain that the handing over to the Syrians of the territory on which Jacob fought and died would be a part of any such deal.  We continue our journey in silence.

A week before our visit, Ashkelon had sustained a flurry of rocket attacks from Gaza.  One rocket had landed in a shopping mall, another in a kindergarten.  By the merest fluke no-one was killed.  But when we arrive there the threat of rocket fire has been shrugged off.  The military cemetery is jam-packed with cars and people, as it is every year on this day.

By regulation, the graves are all identical except for the inscriptions on the stone markers. There is no special recognition of rank or honours, just the name and age at death of the fallen soldier.  Almost all of them were in their late teens or early twenties. I wander among the stark, simple monuments but then stop dead in my tracks, shocked by the sight and sounds of parents weeping over the graves of their children.

We find Jacob’s grave and gather round it.  The clusters of people at each grave become merged in a single crowd.  There is standing room only. We are soon joined by Jacob’s surviving comrades, now grey-haired with middle age.  They have turned up to pay their respects every year since the 30 year commemoration, despite the unresolved tensions with the soldier’s father, who died some years ago.

Also present at the grave-site is a young soldier in uniform, no more than 19 years old.  He introduces himself to Jacob’s family and comrades.  He has come to pay his respects because he now serves in the same commando unit.   At the suggestion of his unit commander he has also come to meet his predecessors and to hear their stories first hand.  He is instantly embraced and welcomed into the fold.

I watch the young soldier carefully as he listens to the story of how Jacob died.  Jacob’s comrades do not hold back in confessing their sense of responsibility for their lost mate.  Their heads tell them they are blameless but a trace of survivor guilt persists in their hearts.  I sense that the mind of the young soldier listening to them is alive with thoughts about how he would act in similar circumstances. He is almost visibly challenging himself.

The formalities of the occasion are kept to a minimum. I am the only person in the entire multitude who wears a suit and tie, a dead giveaway of my antipodean origin and habits. The recitation of Psalms is followed by a short speech by a government Minister, the saying of Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) and the singing of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope).  An honour guard of young male and female soldiers aim their rifles skyward and fire into the air in salute to the fallen.  The entire proceeding takes 30 minutes.

Afterwards, the whole family joins Jacob’s mother at her home for lunch.   I smile inwardly as I take my seat at the table. Each of the fallen soldier’s comrades who attended the cemetery has joined us.  Our hostess fusses over them as if they were her own sons.

Other people may question the necessity and justice of Israel’s wars.  Yet most Israelis take it for granted that their Arab neighbours are, and always have been, determined that some day the revived Jewish presence in the Land of Israel over the last 130 years will be brought to a violent and bloody end.

Some observers are exasperated by the bleak view Israelis have of their neighbours’ intentions towards them.  But like it or not, that is the way most Israelis feel, and there are innumerable, well-remembered incidents in their country’s eventful history, and in contemporary world affairs, that nourish that feeling.  Just as there is hardly a Jew living of European background who did not lose family members during the Shoah, so in contemporary Israel there is hardly a Jewish citizen who has not lost a family member or close friend in one of Israel’s wars.

Yom Hazikaron ends at sunset, the instant at which Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) begins, and with a startling suddenness the sombreness of the day gives way to unrestrained celebration.  The day of Yom Ha’atzmaut is filled with parties, barbecues, family picnics, outings to the beach and the occasional military display.  With unashamed patriotism Israelis fly their national flag from houses, apartments, offices and cars.

My wife and I head for a beach several kilometres to the north of Tel Aviv. As is the case the world over, the beach can be a great social leveller.  As we stroll along the sea-shore, we see Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens mingling unselfconsciously in the balmy sun-shine while their children frolic in the water.  For the briefest of moments, social inequalities and national conflict seem to vanish and I persuade myself that I have just been vouchsafed a vision of paradise.

At the end of the day, we attend an Independence Day party.  The host and most of the guests are senior academics, some of whom have been severe, public critics of the defence and diplomatic policies of successive Israeli governments.  Yet the Israeli flag flies proudly from the host’s home, and the mood is not merely convivial but joyous.  The evening is enlivened by passionate debates, punctuated by the distinctively ironic brand of Israeli humour.  The party continues well into the early hours.

For one hundred generations of Jews, the longing to be restored to political independence and freedom in the historic homeland of the Jewish people was an unrealizable dream.  For today’s generation it is a fact of life, but it is not taken for granted.  Deep down, most Israelis know they are privileged.

They also know that their Palestinian neighbours see things very differently. Yet despite the decades of conflict and bloodshed, the vast majority of both Israelis and Palestinians are way ahead of their political leaders in their attitudes to peace-making.  A poll conducted in early April 2009 found that 78% of Israelis and 74% of Palestinians still see a two-State solution as the only outcome that would be just and sustainable. This in itself is a giant leap forward from the attitudes that prevailed 60, 40 and even 20 years ago.

The broad contours of a peace deal have painstakingly emerged over the last 15 years or so.  The devil, as always, is in the detail.  No Israeli would be prepared to sign off on any treaty unless there are credible guarantees that it will mean the end of the conflict.  And at this time, those Palestinians who are willing to give that guarantee have no power to deliver on any such commitment.  Palestinians who oppose a two-State solution may be a minority, but they are a significant enough minority to be able to link up with external allies and torpedo any peace arrangement.

Divided politically and geographically, the Palestinians presently have leaders who are either rejectionist and popular or moderate and unpopular.  They will need time to build their economy and generate leaders of integrity who are strong and popular enough to lead through moderation.  Over the last three years there have been signs that this is starting to happen in the West Bank, but not in Gaza, as recent events have tragically demonstrated.

A final peace settlement, therefore, is still a long way off.  The consumer culture of the Western world has accustomed many of us to demand and receive instant gratification for our needs and wants.  But instant gratification is not going to be what we get in the Middle East.

Meantime both peoples try to get on with the business of daily living.  For Israelis, the eight days of national commemoration are a progression from infinite sadness to unbounded joy, a heavily-trodden path in Jewish history.  For them, the unbroken chain of Hebrew language, culture and faith simply continues, and will continue, as it has for millennia.

Peter Wertheim is the executive director of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry 


One Response to “Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha-azmaut – an Australian memoir”
  1. Ori says:

    A superbly crafted piece of prose. Engaging, realistic and profoundly moving.
    Ori Golan

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