Perspectives on Israeli Independence: Celebrate, Commemorate or Mourn?

Our generation of Jews is torn on the subject of Israel. While intense discomfort grows in some corners, beaming pride grows in others. As our way of observing Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, which begins tonight and continues tomorrow, we asked four Jewish college students with very different takes on Israeli independence, the Palestinian observance of Nakba Day and the nature of Israeli democracy to share their thoughts on how we should observe Israeli Independence Day this year: To celebrate it, commemorate it — or mourn it?

‘One Does Not Die From Contradiction’

By Roi Bachmutsky

I recently overheard a poignant anecdote that took place on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). A young Jewish Israeli woman had just left her car in Jaffa when a siren sounded throughout the city, as it does every year, signifying the beginning of a nationwide moment of silence. A young Palestinian mother dressed in a niqab stopped along with her. The two stood in silence while the second woman’s two young children continued playing nearby. Realizing that something was unusual, they turned to their mother and asked her what she was doing. “Be quiet,” she replied under her breath, “And show respect for their nakba (catastrophe).”

Think of how the mother in the story must feel eight days later, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, which is commemorated in her community as Nakba Day. How will she bear the sights and sounds of countless masses who will not reciprocate her regard for their nakba and instead celebrate on the day her people suffered at the hands of ours? Will she struggle to explain to her children why their country retracts funding from any activity “commemorating Israeli Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the state as a day of mourning”?

This story compels me to answer the question for myself: Will I celebrate or mourn Israeli Independence Day?

On the one hand, I am a Jew, so a significant part of me rejoices on the day that commemorates the realization of Jewish sovereignty for the first time in millennia. On the other hand, both the Jewish tradition and our own historical oppression demands that we refuse to rejoice at the downfall of others – even when some of us consider them enemies – so I cannot celebrate joyously on a day that marks the beginning of our people’s ethnic cleansing of our neighbors, an injustice that remains largely unrecognized by the wider Jewish public to this day.

So what am I to do? The only answer I am left with is to acknowledge both parts of my Jewish-Israeli identity, to embody a sort of double consciousness endemic in Israeli society. There is a wise Yiddish saying: “One does not die from contradiction.”

I propose we recognize Yom Ha’atzmaut this year by reciprocating the same courageous human decency the young Palestinian mother taught her children. Let us include the Nakba in our Jewish communal discussion. Whether you are attending an event at your local Jewish Federation or organizing a communal mangal (Israeli slang for barbeque) at your home, I implore you to have the courage to discuss both the light and dark sides of Israeli history.

As you eat the traditional hummus and falafel, speak of both brave military victories and of abominable military massacres. Speak of finally creating a refuge for the ever-forsaken Jewish people, while ethnically cleansing it of most of the 700,000 soon-to-be Palestinian refugees. Speak of the freedom Jews in Israel have today at the expense of the freedom of those living under our occupation. Speak free of comfortable consensus, because Yom Ha’atzmaut should fill you with an uncomfortable emulsion of pride and indignation.

Finally, as you do so, open two bottles of wine for those around you. Extending the Passover ritual of removing drops of wine from our cups – symbolizing God’s tears for harming another of his peoples – drink one bottle and openly break the other. This is the contradiction Yom Ha’atzmaut demands of the Jewish people.

Roi Bachmutsky is a student at the University of California, Berkeley.

Chareidi Flag Burning – The Shape of Democracy

By Gabriel T. Erbs

For Yom Ha’atzmaut one year, my Jewish day school teacher dressed us in fake Israeli Defense Forces fatigues – complete with army helmets – and made us dance around the stage waving parade grounds-sized Israeli flags.

That was the most remarkable Yom Ha’atzmaut of my life – until I studied at an anti-Zionist Chareidi (Ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Since many of Israel’s holidays are celebrated on her balconies – sukkahs on Sukkot, chanukiahs on Chanukah, etc. – Yom Ha’atzmaut saw the flapping of unfurling flags on terrace handrails across the city.

But not in my yeshiva’s neighborhood of Ma’alot Dafna. One or two small flags hung unceremoniously among the hundreds of windows on my block in the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

That’s because many Chareidi Jews in Jerusalem – but not all – see Israeli Independence Day as a time for mourning. They perceive the State of Israel as a secular perversion of Jewish nationhood; May 14, 1948, is only an important date insofar as it was the day before Shabbos.

One of my rabbis went so far as to tell me that on this day that we should all say a Mourner’s Kaddish for all the secular Israeli souls dead to the secular Jewish world. To clearly illustrate the ideological divide, while he’s saying a prayer of mourning, religious Zionists are saying Hallel, a series of joyful psalms otherwise reserved for religious festivals.

Instead of the traditional mangal (Israeli slang for barbeque) and beers, my yeshiva held class as usual. Actually, not as usual, but on purpose.

Beyond the yeshiva’s wrought iron gates there were Israeli Air Force jet flyovers, IDF parades, the Israel Prizes were awarded – but inside it was like any other day of the week.

Not all Chareidim “celebrate” Israel Independence Day in this manner. Some are less subtle.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut, members of the famously anti-Zionist Satmar sect post pashkevilim (broadside posters of religious news) asking all of the “community” to fast on this day of great sadness for the sin of the Jewish people.

Walking down Mea She’arim Street, in the heart of Jerusalem’s most Chareidi neighborhood, you can see the “Zionism isn’t Judaism” signs every day of the year. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, as Israeli flags burn on top of overturned dumpsters, I would rather walk down that street in a short skirt and heels than wrapped in an Israeli flag.

And I hope they never stop.

No, the irony of these people chanting for the downfall of the state whose welfare system feeds and clothes their families while their men study all day is not lost on me.

But that’s democracy, folks.

Gabriel T. Erbs is a student at Portland State University and the features editor of New Voices

No Celebration Without a Complete Understanding of Our History

By Danielle Moscovitch

Tonight, American Jews around the country will begin to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Israel’s independence.  Before we cut the cake, let’s take a moment and ask ourselves: What exactly are we celebrating?

On May 14, 1948 Jewish leaders signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence and officially established the State of Israel. Finally, the Zionist dream for Jewish self-determination was actualized and Jews around the world could seek refuge from persecution in the land of Zion. Sounds good, right?

However, contrary to what I learned in Hebrew School, Israel’s independence did not emerge in a vacuum. The holiday that we Jews revere as Yom Ha’atzmaut, Palestinians remember as the Nakba, an Arabic word that means “catastrophe.” And rightfully so.

While David Ben-Gurion proudly inked his pen on Rothschild Boulevard, hundreds of Palestinian villages were strategically looted and destroyed, families massacred, women raped.  Over 710,000 Palestinians fled to the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, driven by force and by fear of meeting the same fate as villages like Deir Yassin, where Jewish extremists murdered 107 residents –most of them women and children – in the town square.

Sixty-five years later, five to seven million Palestinians still live as displaced refugees, many in impoverished camps or under Israeli occupation with minimal rights and scarce resources. The Israeli government continues to actively prevent these Palestinians and their descendents from returning to their homes. In short, the creation of the Jewish homeland was contingent upon the systematic, violent expulsion of the Palestinian people.

Yeah, I was shocked too.

Why have Jewish leaders and educators refrained from teaching this devastating reality for decades? And, more importantly, why do we – engaged, progressive college students – celebrate it without hesitation?

This year, at Tufts University where I am a senior, I was invited on Facebook to “Israel’s Birthday Bash!” to enjoy music, tie-dye, barbecue and other birthday-themed festivities.  I will not be attending.

Here’s why: When we celebrate Israeli independence, we concurrently celebrate Israel’s forced displacement of the Palestinian people. When we attend an “Israel Birthday Bash!” we negate and neglect the realities of the Nakba. By thoughtlessly accepting the one-sided, incomplete narrative that is strategically presented to us, we fail to question the power, motives and implications behind a celebration that erases an entire people’s history.

They don’t write any of that on the birthday cake.

So how do we acknowledge Israel’s anniversary without systematically denying Palestinian historical memory? First, we must accept that celebration is not the appropriate medium. Instead, we must come together to remember the tragedy associated with Yom Ha’atzmaut, to stand in solidarity with Palestinians whose stories have so far been ignored.

Next, we must make an active commitment to critical inquiry. This Monday, let’s sit down with our friends and seek out a complete history, one that incorporates the Palestinian experience and thoroughly encapsulates the implications of Israel’s independence. Let’s work together to educate rather than propagate, to investigate rather than instigate. Let’s create productive, open spaces for reflection on multidimensional narratives, testimonials and perspectives.

Until we comprehensively examine Israel’s past, American Jews cannot hope to constructively engage in Israel’s present. Tomorrow, instead of tie-dyeing, let’s explore how Jews and Palestinians can enter into honest discussions about our shared, collective memories. Let’s come together not to celebrate, but to begin collaboratively organizing for a just, sustainable future.

Danielle Moscovitch is a student at Tufts University and a member of the Tufts chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Celebrate Democratic Values Ingrained in Judaism

By Asher Mayerson

Two years ago, on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Day of Remembrance, my high school classmates and I gathered for a ceremony in a military cemetery in Tzfat, a small city at the foothills of the Golan Heights. Hearing the stories of family and friends who lost their lives in Israel’s many battles gave me a renewed appreciation for the sacrifices that many have had to make to protect the Jewish state.

That experience gave me new insights into Yom Ha’atzmaut, which falls the day after Yom Hazikaron. Israeli independence could not have been achieved without considerable loss, and Israel continues to lose its brave soldiers to the continuing fight for Jewish national self-determination. Whenever I visit my family and friends in Israel, I’m reminded of how almost all Israelis know someone who has lost their life fighting for Israel – almost inconceivable as an American Jew.

But I recognize that Israel’s fight during the War of Independence was not just for the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination; it was also a fight for democracy. The liberal values that are ingrained in ancient Jewish texts helped define modern-day Zionism. Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, wrote about his vision for a Jewish and democratic state in his famous novel “Altneuland.” And, almost half a century later, Israel’s Declaration of Independence incorporated the same liberal Zionist idea.

Yet today, many call into question the democratic character of the State of Israel. Growing up in Jewish day school, I always heard that Israel was the only “true democracy” in the Middle East. But can a state be truly democratic when it places millions of Palestinians under martial law?

Usually, I support a two-state solution. Indeed, as in the recent Israeli film, “The Gatekeepers,” most of Israel’s military establishment argues that a two-state solution is the only way to ensure Israel’s long-term security. Maybe, with a two-state solution, my little cousins in Israel will not have to put their lives at risk serving in the army one day.

But sometimes, I forget about the liberal democratic values upon which Israel was founded. This past month, at the J Street U Student Leadership Summit, I heard perhaps the most compelling reason for a two-state solution: Put simply, in the Occupied Territories, an Israeli has the right to vote, but a Palestinian does not. It’s troubling to me that this basic fact is often forgotten by much of the American Jewish community – including those who advocate the “two states for two peoples” paradigm.

As we celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, there is certainly a place to celebrate events of 1948, the improbable realization of the Zionist dream. But we must also think about the challenges that Israel faces today. In 1948, Jews fulfilled the Zionist idea laid out by Herzl – a Jewish democratic state in our historical homeland. Now, we find ourselves embroiled in a new fight to uphold Israel’s democratic character – and to help another nation secure its own right to self-determination.

This conflict poses severe threats to Israeli security and democracy, two core commitments made by Israel’s founders. Instead of viewing this conflict as intractable, let’s take responsibility for ending it. Indeed, if the Jewish community pushes for peace once and for all, perhaps it can become a reality. As Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Asher Mayerson is a student at Dartmouth College.  He is the vice president of religion at Dartmouth Hillel and co-chair of Dartmouth’s chapter of J Street U.

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  1. Celebrations and Commemorations: Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut | Red Line Green Line One Two Three - April 17, 2013

    […] state, our independence day will additionally be the celebration of another’s displacement. This piece puts it more poignantly than I ever could, perfectly capturing my feeling of “an […]

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