Honoring and Remembering Those Who Died in Defense of Israel
By Elliot N. Dorff – April, 2020
I am 76 years old, so I was only five years old when the State of Israel was founded in 1948. Not surprisingly, I have no memories of that event. Later in my childhood and teenage years, during the 1950s, I knew that my parents were involved in Zionist activities; my mother was at one time president of her Hadassah chapter, and my father chaired the local effort in Milwaukee to raise money for Israel Bonds and for Hebrew University. I also knew that both my parents and my rabbi were listening to the news constantly during the Suez Canal campaign in the fall of 1956, in which Israel, Britain, and France together tried to take over control of the Suez Canal from Egypt, which had nationalized it, only to be forced to withdraw by the United States and the Soviet Union.
It was not until the early days of June, 1967, though, when all of us American Jews faced the prospect of Israel being annihilated by the joint forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The Six Day War, because of it speed and its complete overturn of those frightening possibilities, led to an immense sense of pride among American and Israeli Jews alike. One cartoon in the New Yorker magazine at the time depicted a Hasid coming out of a phone booth pulling apart his shirt to reveal the seal of Superman underneath, and that is how all of us felt – relieved, immensely proud, in control of our international Jewish destiny, and hopeful for a peaceful future. Alas, that was very short-lived because on Yom Kippur, 1973, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria again invaded Israel, and this time Israel survived only with difficulty and ultimately with American intervention.
My generation, then, has seen Israel as not quite the utter miracle that my parents’ generation did, but certainly as a source of Jewish identity and pride. My children’s generation and now the one that follows it take Israel’s existence for granted, as if its existence is just a fact of life that could not be otherwise. American Jews of all generations differ considerably among themselves about the morality and wisdom of some of the policies that the State of Israel has adopted, especially vis-à-vis the Palestinians. For that matter, Israelis themselves are deeply split about that issue and many others; hence they had to hold three elections this past year, and only because of the need to come together in the face of the COVID-19 virus did they avoid the need for a fourth election to form a government. In light of the lack of a Jewish self-governing state between 70 C.E. and 1948, however, and in light of the many times that the State of Israel has had to fight for its very existence since its founding, it is utterly ironic that Jews today, regardless of their political leanings, take the existence of Israel for granted. Jews and others certainly can and will argue about its policies, but we do need to appreciate that its existence has never been guaranteed, that, indeed, it continues to be threatened by enemies who would seek to wipe it off the map.
It is therefore both important and fitting, then, that Diaspora Jews and all others who appreciate the many good things that the State of Israel has created for the Jewish community and the world at large to join with Israelis on this Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day, to take note of, and express appreciation for, the many people who have died to enable the State of Israel to exist in the first place and to make its continued existence possible. The State of Israel is a human enterprise, and, as such, it cannot fairly be expected to be perfect, however anyone defines that. Whatever wishes one might have for it to change in particular ways, though, and whatever actions one might be taking to prompt it to change, we owe it to those who died to establish the State and those who died to enable it to continue to exist to pause today, to acknowledge their ultimate sacrifice, to appreciate the very existence of the State of Israel and what it has meant for Jewish identity and for cultural, scientific, and technological enrichment, and to work to fulfill the dreams embedded in its Declaration of Independence, that it will “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
May those who died for the sake of the founding and continued existence of the State of Israel be remembered and appreciated by all of us.