July 4th, American Independence Day, remains a powerful day for me even after living in Israel for almost thirty years. It commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence (which wasn’t actually signed on July 4, but that’s another story..) and the founding of a great country, unique among nations. I grew up in the US a believer in the American dream and the American democratic system and nothing has changed over all these years. But like many others who have made Aliyah from the United States, I came to Israel because I needed something else, to take part in the building of the Jewish State.
And like many others (I recommend reading MK Michael Oren’s book Ally for an articulate explanation of the dual sentiment of being a Zionist and love for America), I have never given up those feelings though I have raised my family and made my life in Israel. The duality of feelings for both countries has always been there. Especially on that July 4th, 40 years ago when the US was celebrating its 200th birthday, the bicentennial. I was a 13-year-old camper then, in the midst of 4th of July celebrations when the news broke of Israel’s daring rescue operation at Entebbe, being commemorated today by the visit of the Prime Minister and a large delegation in Uganda. The wave of pride that swept over us, that the IDF was able to accomplish such a heroic feat, was incredible. I was too young to remember the Six Day War and that same feeling my parents and their friends described to me, but I certainly remember July 4, 1976. In essence, the Bicentennial celebrations were overshadowed by the heroism of Israel’s soldiers who had proven once again that they were the defense shield of the Jewish people, wherever they may be in danger.
As I have blogged here in the past, I am a Civil War buff and these first days of July also mark the anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, the turning point in that war. And while that war, and the Gettysburg battle in particular, have always attracted my attention, it was its similarity to the battle on the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War which really captured my imagination. I had the privilege of publishing a book that showed that comparison and allowed me to meet some of the greatest IDF heroes this country has ever known. I was thrilled and appreciative that the Times of Israel military correspondent, Judah Ari Gross, wrote an article about the similarity of the battles and my book, last Yom Kippur eve.
Tying these feelings together was the experience I had a couple of weeks ago on a trip with my wife to Prague. The Jewish Quarter in Prague is now a major tourist attraction, one worth seeing. But its streets and buildings overflow with a rich Jewish history, none more so than in the Old-New Synagogue, the Alte-Noy Shul, where I enjoyed the experience of praying on Shabbat. In those walls of the oldest still functioning medieval synagogue in Europe (built in 1270), one can’t help but feel the presence of those who used to sit in the same seats. Between those very walls in 1389 was a pogrom in which close to 1,000 defenseless Jews were slaughtered. And within those same walls, the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Lowe, led the Jewish community for many years in the late 16th century achieving notoriety well beyond the Ghetto. According to legend, the Maharal created a Golem, a clay being into whose mouth he breathed life in order to defend the defenseless Jews in the Prague Ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms. The stories of the Golem, who according to tradition is still up in the attic of the Alte-Noy Shul, only started coming out in the 1800’s, long after the death of the Maharal. In Prague today they sell little Golems and they even have a (non-Kosher) Golem Restaurant. Its likely more fiction that fact. But it filled a need, a need to provide defenseless Jews with a protector.
And that’s the common thread throughout this quick trip back into history, whether it be at Entebbe, in the Golan Heights or back in Prague in medieval Europe, to say nothing of the darkest days of the Shoah. For what the Golem may have been in fiction, is what the IDF is in reality. The Israel Defense Forces is that protector of the Jewish State, made of the brave heroic men and women who have protected the country in all of its wars, and continue to protect us from the unending threats we face today as well as rescue Jews wherever they may be, even thousands of miles away in Entebbe.
On this American Independence Day, while I can still sincerely celebrate the wonders of America and its rich democratic tradition, I can rejoice even more in celebrating the heroism of the IDF at Entebbe 40 years ago, on the Golan Heights in 1973 and on every other day before and since in protecting the Jewish people and the Jewish State. To quote Prime Minister Netanyahu at the ceremony today at Entebbe commemorating 40 years since the operation, “the Entebbe rescue proved Jews were powerless no more.” Indeed, we are not.