Flag flashbacks

Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) are once again upon us, accompanied by the annual display of Israeli flags on cars, porches and buildings for the country, which in turn bring flashbacks for me. While the setting of these flashbacks is not a happy one, the memories themselves are actually quite positive.

February 1991. It was during the First Gulf War (not called that yet, subsequent history determined the name). I was in the final stage of basic training in the IDF. Scuds were being lobbed from Iraq almost daily, and people diligently kept gas masks handy at all times, ready to run to the closest sealed room on a moment’s notice. Somehow, we found a way to calmly get through this very strange period.

Some residents of the Tel Aviv area had “moved south for the winter,” i.e. gone to Eilat and other locations far from where most missiles were falling, but most people stayed put, going to work, sending their kids to school, even dining out, always with gas masks at the ready waiting for the next siren to send them to a shelter or sealed room.

In late February, several missiles hit a residential area in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, and my unit was sent to the area to help people move their remaining belongings into huge containers on the street for safe-keeping until their apartments could be repaired.

People had been in these buildings, particularly in many “sealed rooms” whose walls or ceilings had fallen in during the attack, yet miraculously, nobody was injured in this particular neighborhood. While Israel was absorbing daily unprovoked missile attacks, this entire block of buildings with people in it was devastated, and nobody was physically hurt. Even some of the atheists in my unit attributed this to some sort of “higher power.”

Equally amazing was seeing many of these same apartments flying Israeli flags from what was left of their balconies. It was as though the residents of this working class neighborhood were sending a clear message to Saddam Hussein that he threw them his worst but failed to break them. They accepted that for political reasons, Israel’s hands were tied and we were not in a position to retaliate militarily to the Iraqi attacks, and yet they found the inner reserves to give Saddam the virtual finger. I wondered if this indefinable unbreakable spirit might be connected to the same “higher power” that enabled people to walk out of these apartments after the missiles had fallen. The same source of our physical survival had provided us with a spiritual survival as well.

Fast forward to today. Tonight sirens will sound throughout Israel marking the start of Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism. As soon as Memorial Day ends, Israel’s Independence Day begins.

For many, transitioning from the heavy mourning feel of Yom HaZikaron to the joy and celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut is too difficult. Going from honoring and remembering those killed in defense of our country or murdered for the “crime” of living here into the unbridled celebration of having the state for which they made the ultimate sacrifice is too taxing for some bereaved families

I see this as the most powerful, emotionally moving week of the year. Most Israelis, especially those here for at least a few years, have attended at least one funeral of somebody close to them – family members, friends, colleagues, army buddies, killed either in a military battle or a terror attack. And we have friends and colleagues who have been to more than their share of these funerals as well. I consider myself relatively lucky that in 24 years of living in Israel, I have “only” lost two friends to terror attacks, and none in military operations.

But when friends of mine who have lost siblings, parents, children, best friends, and more tell me that they cannot celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut with a joyful heart, I understand them.

Perhaps Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut are back-to-back specifically because we shouldn’t celebrate with such complete abandon. Maybe we are meant to have our joy tinged with a reminder of the tragedies we have experienced, and our joy should in fact be less than otherwise it would.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Jewish tradition teaches that after the parting of the Red Sea, when Moses and the Children of Israel were safely across and the Egyptians had drowned, the angels wanted to sing, but God forbade it. While His children were dying, even as punishment from God Himself, celebration was not appropriate.

The same should be said for Israel’s independence.

This year, like every year, we rejoice in what we have, but it is not a bottomless pit of joy. Just as we remember the Holocaust so that it can never repeat, we cannot forget that to have Israel we have been forced by neighbors and by circumstances to kill those who are also God’s children, and we have suffered far too many deaths of our own..

This year, like every year, we continue to survive despite a plethora of existential threats, from both within and without. I am grateful for how relatively sorrow-free my life in Israel has been, yet barely a day goes by when I don’t wonder “what if…?” We continue to suffer attacks on both sides of the Green Line, many reported, many more kept under wraps. The attackers do not filter their targets – age, gender, political leanings – are irrelevant. Every night, when I put my kids into bed, give them their kisses and lock our doors, I am thankful to have made it through yet another day without knowing tragedy and sorrow.

Likewise, I will observe Yom Hazikaron tonight and tomorrow with a mixture of sorrow, reverence and gratitude appropriate for the day, and I will celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut with joy and a prayer for the time that we can all celebrate it without limits. And live in peace.

This year, with threats from abroad seeming more imminent than ever before, Israel enjoyed a winter with one of the best rainfalls ever recorded. Our water level is not out of the danger zone yet, but it is in a better situation than we have had in many years.

Conversely, the winter of the First Gulf War was one of Israel’s driest. But the week my unit spent near Tel Aviv was the same week of the year’s only significant rainfall. Whether this too was a sign from a “higher power” or a case of Divine Murphy’s Law with my unit sleeping in leaky tents at a nearby army base, I cannot even guess, but given the backdrop of that week, I know what I’m inclined to think.

About the Author
Asher Zeiger grew up (well, sort of) in North Carolina and moved to Israel in 1988. He lives in Modi'in with his wife and two daughters, and works as freelance writer, editor and translator. In his spare time, he tries hard at not taking himself or life too seriously (successfully) and at unwrapping himself from around his daughters' little fingers (not so successfully).