Tonight and tomorrow Israel commemorates Yom Hazikaron (whose full name is “Day of Remembrance for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism”).  The country is set to pay tribute to the 23,169 casualties of war and terrorism who have fallen since 1860.  One of the most famous poems written in the Hebrew language, which will be read in memorial services across our country is Natan Alterman’s “The Silver Platter.”  This poem’s title is based on a quote by Israel’s first President, Chaim Weitzman:

A State is not handed to a people on a Silver platter.

This opening quote sets the tone for this iconic poem of remembrance.  The classic Zionist idea that the juxtaposition of Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) implies that without the sacrifice of the heroic generation of ’48, and the succeeding wars, we would not have a Jewish State.  Alterman seems to imply that this is not the “passive” generation of Bialik’s Kishniev, the “City of the Slaughter,” who fled like scampering mice,” but rather the youth of the “silver platter” generation are the “new Jews.”

What is fascinating is that the poem, published in the Hebrew newspaper “Davar” in December 1947, three weeks after the November 29 Partition vote, long before the ultimate end of a war that would result in 6000 casualties (military and civilian, 1% of the population) as a type of “op-ed” before the establishment of Israel, was that it was not about the fallen in Israel’s wars.  Rather, it was a prediction of the deaths that would occur in future upcoming wars for the freedom of the State of Israel.  In other words, it is not a “post 1948” text, it is a prophetic text. The human cost in fighting for our State will be very high.  The poem does not glorifying the dead, but mourns the sacrifice that will be made.

So the land grows still.

Red fades in the sky                                                                                                                               Over smoking borders.

Heartsick but breathing, the people greet

The miracle that has no parallel.

The “miracle” referred to here is not in the traditional religious sense of the word, but rather the fact that the “New Jews” did not sit passively and wait for a God-provided supernatural miracle. Rather, they took their destiny into their own hands…they did not mumble “next year in Jerusalem” as Jews had done for generations without tangible results.  They “miraculously” returned to Jerusalem/Zion/Israel by physically doing something.  Reviving our land, our national language and Jewish self-defence and honour.  Religious Zionism refers to this stage as Reishit Semichat Geulateinu (“the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.”)

Beneath the moon, they stand and wait,
Facing the dawn in awe and joy;
Then slowly towards the waiting throng
Two step forth – a girl and a boy.

The socialist bent of the “Palmach generation” is emphasised here with the dual heroes a “girl and boy.” No longer is the white-haired, long-bearded Rabbi the “hero.”

Clad for work and for war, heavy shod and still,
Up the winding path they make their way,
Their clothes unchanged, still soiled with the grime
Of the battle-filled night and the toilsome day.

The “work and war” imagery stresses the dual nature of Israeli society. It is not a militaristic society, rather one that emphasises “Jewish labour” in building up the land.

Weary past telling, strangers to sleep,
But wearing their youth like dew in their hair,
Dumb they approach. – Are they living or dead?
Who knows, as they stand unmoving there.

Here we have a metaphysical “living-dead” persona.  Almost supernatural and ambivalent.

Tear-stained, wondering, the people ask,
“Who are you?” – softly reply the two,
“We are the silver platter, on which
The Jewish State is handed you!”

In shadow they fall when their tale is told –

The rest let Israel’s story unfold.

The power of this poem is that it is addressing the reader across the generation gap.  The questions and challenges posed in the poem are just as relevant in 2014 as they were in 1947.  The young metaphorical boy and girl fall into the shadows as their “job has been done.” It is now up to us, the reader, and the next generation to make sure that the “rest of Israel’s story unfold.”  It as almost as if the 1948 generation is saying: “Do not let our sacrifices be in vain.  You must live for us, you must live our dream!”

Current IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, whilst placing a flag on the gravestone of a fallen soldier at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem this week remarked:

The gravestones of the fallen look similar, and the earth that covers them is the same earth, the soil of Israel that they loved, but each and every one of the soldiers buried here is a unique part of Israeli society.  They united for one common goal, safeguarding the security of the State of Israel.

Band of Miluimniks

“Band of Brothers.”  (Photo, (c) Tuvia Book, 2014)