Today I stood at the Yom HaZikaron ceremony in Rabin Square. This is Israel’s Memorial Day but it is not a day of beer and b-b-q as in the U.S., rather it is a day to remember those who fell while protecting our safety. In this small country, everyone has lost somebody, and everybody feels that pain.

I’ve written about why I made aliya, I’ve written about learning language, and I’ve even written about making Israeli friends. Yet I have never felt more Israeli than I did tonight. This was no PR event. I saw no English translations, no international press, no groups of tourists. Instead, we were just thousands Israelis standing side by side, sometimes crying, hugging, or singing softly.

We heard personal stories, like the father who awoke in the morning to see the text message his son had sent from the front lines: l’hitraot (goodbye). We heard the story of a young boy who cried when he first understood that his parents would die someday, explaining, “I already miss you.” Little did anyone know that this sensitive boy would die first, and his parents would miss him for a lifetime.

When I lived in the U.S. I understood Israel through news stories and personal accounts. Now, as part of my work and my life, I have developed an even deeper understanding: I have visited Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and met with the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) legal counsel’s office. I have seen the rigorous examination and approval process that every military operation must pass no matter how urgent the circumstances. I’ve visited military bases, where I’ve met with commanding officers and front-line troops, and I’ve witnessed just how deeply every soldier feels the responsibility to act properly, and the pain they feel when they must make difficult or impossible choices.  I’ve seen an almost unimaginable respect for human life and dignity, even when upholding moral principals requires putting Israeli soliders and civilians in danger.

From time to time I’ve heard international protesters, politicians and reporters criticize our country: sometimes justified, oftentimes not; I’ve disagreed with my government at times, as every good Israeli does; I’ve even come to the “shocking” conclusion that Israelis are human beings and that sometimes we make mistakes. Yet for all that, I’ve never come to doubt the integrity of our country, or of our troops. Israel, and Israelis, try very hard to do the right thing, even when the right thing is hard to do, and that’s more than you can say for most.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of fellow Israelis tonight, I have never been more proud to say to anyone who asks, anywhere in the world, that this is my country, this is my army, these are my people, and I am an Israeli.

On this Yom HaZikaron,

Shalom from Israel.