Neil Janes
Rabbi, Executive Director, Educator, Academic, Writer

For Israel, mourning and celebration are intertwined

Emotional Acrobatics is what actor and writer Niv Petel calls the juggling act of remembrance and celebration that takes place in Israel, in his video reflection on his latest play ‘Knock, Knock’. A play about the knock on the door which for a parent can only mean one thing. Emotional acrobatics reminded me of the synagogue tour to Israel a few weeks ago, as we sat and ate lunch in the 188th Armored Brigade’s home and listened to our guide. He said, “We remember those who died, but here in this memorial and recreation area we also meet and celebrate together because we must live life as they would expect us. That’s life in Israel, it’s why Yom Hazikaron leads straight into Yom Haatzmaut – we turn from grief to living life.”

Our guide was a young man, recently retired from 188th Brigade, who took us through the history of the brigade including the incredible courage at Tel Saki in the Yom Kippur war and how this history forged the identity of the unit today. His personal account of his service, including in the Gaza strip with his head out of the tank, was one of responsibility, fear and bravery. And his account was one full of difficult choices, how to engage with an enemy intent on your destruction without harming innocent people. “What decision would you make?” He asked us. The question of defence is complex and, as he admitted, mistakes may be made. However, men and women are making choices in unenviable situations – choices that we would never wish to make.

The previous day we had been to the memorial for 73 young soldiers who had died in a devastating helicopter crash in 1997. A different guide, who was the overall commanding officer of those men, gave us an insight into the responsibility of leading young men and women, of national strategic issues, and the burden of loss carried by individuals and families across Israel.

In Israel, Yom Hazikaron is now a day to carry the burden of loss as a nation and to remember both fallen soldiers and victims of terror. There is no-one in Israel, or in the Jewish world, who is not scarred somehow with loss. However we understand the forces that are causing the perpetuation of conflict in which innocent lives are being lost, it is my view that we must bow our heads, on this most solemn of days before entering the celebrations of Yom Haatzmaut, in respect to the lives stolen away.

Our guides reminded us that the responsibility of leadership and of making difficult choices is crucially linked to the dream of sovereignty of the Jewish people. It is the responsibility of power, which for all the tragedies, flaws, and ethics, is what it means to be a Zionist. Because alongside the darkness is the light of celebration of independence and freedom. That freedom is something that Jews for millenia, even without taking a lachrymose view of Jewish history, were variously denied. And in the 20th century it was our people who suffered most grievously when they imagined they were most accepted, in the Shoah.

There is good reason why the State of Israel chose to observe the 27th Nissan as the date for Yom HaShoah, observed this week. It was chosen because it marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943. Notice the difference between the Jewish calendar and the international calendar. The 27th January, Holocaust Memorial Day, is marked in the international calendar because it is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In our calendar we remember the Holocaust not as a day on which we were the object of another’s power to liberate, but the subject of our own potential for power. I think this difference still plays out today.

Whilst antisemites fantasise about Jewish global power and influence, the wider political discourse often lapses into a desire to stop the State of Israel (i.e. Jews) from making its own choices as an independent democratic nation. These are two sides of the same coin – Jews and power which must be controlled lest it be used for nefarious purposes. For me given the stark choice, sovereignty is always preferable to powerlessness and suspicion – including the challenges that this brings and the deep fundamental ethical decisions that are yet to be made.

In our still young sovereign state, we discover that through our independence and remembrance, mourning and celebration become intertwined with our people’s story in a new way. This Emotional Acrobatics can sometimes be overwhelming but must be embraced nonetheless as a full expression of freedom and responsibility.

  • Niv Petel’s play ‘Knock, Knock’ will be performed at West London Synagogue on Tuesday 17 April at 7pm to mark Yom Hazikaron – tickets available from
About the Author
Rabbi Neil Janes is part of the rabbinic team of West London Synagogue of British Jews and Executive Director of the Lyons Learning Project. He was ordained by the Leo Baeck College in 2006 and as part of his studies he learnt at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. From 2006-2010 he was the rabbi of Finchley Progressive Synagogue and from 2011-2015 he was one of the rabbis of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St Johns Wood. Rabbi Janes is researching for a PhD studying rabbinic literature and its representations of identity and culture. Neil is a lecturer at the Leo Baeck College teaching Talmud and Midrash and is also adjunct faculty of Hebrew College. In addition to his MA in Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Neil also has a BA in Psychology and Education from Cardiff University.
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